Hove Methodist Church
Good evening everyone. It is a great pleasure to be here and to have an opportunity to reflect on the question: what does it mean to be a leader of a faith community?
My first thought when I thought about the theme of this evening’s gathering was to be a little light-hearted: I’m gratified that the organisers asked me to talk about what it means to be a leader of a faith community, after all, from a Jewish perspective, a congregational rabbi is first and foremost, an employee of her or his synagogue. I am answerable to the governing body of the congregation, an elected Council, drawn from the members, which is responsible for running the affairs of the synagogue, including, gathering membership subscriptions each year, and paying my salary. As an employee, albeit the most senior employee, I am bound to report my activities to the Council and participate in an annual review process conducted by the chair of Council and the president of the congregation.
And even if I wasn’t an employee, first and foremost, a rabbi is the servant of the congregation, responsible for carrying out the duties set out in the Rabbi’s job description, which centre principally around three key areas: conducting the liturgy associated with Shabbat, festival and life cycle services and ceremonies, engaging in the education of both adults and children, and pastoral care. To give you a flavour of what this means, during the past week, my activities included: conducting services for the festival of Shavuot, ‘Weeks, as well as for Shabbat; leading adult study sessions following the Shavuot evening service, and during the Shabbat morning service; officiating at the blessing and welcoming into the congregation of a baby; meeting with a 12-year-old, who is starting on the road towards becoming Bat Mitzvah in January, when she is 13; teaching the weekly Thursday morning Access to Hebrew class for adults; counselling two different members experiencing challenging family problems; meeting with a couple to plan a blessing to mark their 25th wedding anniversary; seeing someone who is in the process of becoming Jewish to discuss her essays; making visits to the oldest member of the congregation, as she takes her last journey, at the Jewish care home in Brighton; visiting with some other elderly members of the congregation, who are also resident in the home, and conducting the prayers and blessings there, prior to the meal on the eve of the festival; participating in the monthly synagogue Council meeting; and sitting down with the chair of the synagogue discuss our reports for the Annual General Meeting, which is due to take place on June 28th.
So: some of the highlights of the past week. As you can see, the work of a rabbi is very varied. And then, there are the activities that go on behind the scenes, including, all the preparation, as well as all the e-mails and phone calls related to the key areas of my work, which encompass the planning of future activities. And, believe it or not, I am employed on a 60% contract!
I have told you about some of the tasks I undertake as ‘the Rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue’ – some of which you may recognise as the sort of thing that religious ministers get up to, and which may even qualify as ‘leading ‘ type activities. However, I am aware that this snapshot of one week in the working life of a rabbi doesn’t really provide an adequate response to the question, what does it mean to be a leader of a faith community?
So, let me try again. In my case, part of the answer to the question, may be found in the activities that I don’t do. What working on a 60% contract means in practice, apart from working overtime, is that 50% of the weekly Shabbat services are conducted by lay people. Being a leader of a faith community is also about being an enabler – enabling others to participate, to learn, to engage, and to lead.
Another part of the answer lies in the role that faith leaders play in representing their congregations in the wider community – like being here this evening, contributing to the discussion as ‘the Progressive Rabbi’. Of course, it’s a very important role. Exactly two weeks ago this evening, I was in Crawley addressing a network meeting of the Interfaith Network there on the subject of Holocaust Memorial Day – or, rather, the Jewish commemoration of what we prefer to call, the Sho’ah, the word used in the Hebrew Bible to denote ‘devastation’, or ‘catastrophe.’
Yet another part of the answer may be found, for me, at least in being a member of the rabbinic body of Liberal Judaism, the Rabbinic Conference, which is responsible for providing spiritual leadership to our movement, and for setting the guidelines concerning Liberal Jewish practice in all areas, including Jewish status, and liturgy. As it happens, I attended the monthly meeting of the Rabbinic Conference in London this morning. Responding to the question in this context, the Rabbinic Conference as a whole, really does provide leadership. For example: while working in partnership with the Council and Officers of Liberal Judaism, it was the Rabbinic Conference that gave the lead on the issue of same-sex partnerships – and then, following discussions and deliberations, produced a booklet of liturgy for same-sex ceremonies, which was published by Liberal Judaism to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act coming into force in December 2005. More recently, the Rabbinic Conference has got behind the campaign for Equal Marriage.
So, as we can see, there are several ways of responding to the question, what does it mean to be a leader of a faith community? As I approach what I feel is the heart of the matter, I want to say something about the model of leadership provided by the leaders of the Exodus, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, as we discover them in the Torah.
Miriam was the eldest of the three siblings. She displayed her leadership qualities at a very early age, when she assisted her mother in saving the new-born baby of the family, Moses, from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree (Exodus 2:3). Miriam then showed real initiative, when she arranged for her mother to be the baby’s wet nurse, when Pharaoh’s daughter discovered him in a basket in the reeds at the edge of the river Nile (Ex. 2:4-9). Much later on, when the slaves were finally liberated, Miriam led the women in dances with timbrels, through the parted waves of the Sea of the Reeds, and sang to the whole community (Ex. 15:20-21). But apart from these two key incidents, Miriam is completely side-lined in the Exodus story, and it is not until she takes the lead, Aaron alongside her, in speaking out against Moses (Numbers 12), that we get the sense of how difficult it was for her, as a woman, to be a leader in a patriarchal society – even if she was regarded, as the Torah tells us, as a n’vi’ah – a prophet (Ex. 15:20).
And what about Aaron? His leadership began with being the spokesperson for his younger brother, in their negotiations with Pharaoh (Ex. 4:14-16). Later on, at Mount Sinai, Aaron did something quite remarkable – and highly questionable – when the people become restless and disturbed during Moses’ long absence on the mountain, communing with God. Sensing the danger of the moment, Aaron engaged the people in a diversionary activity of dubious integrity: telling them to give him their gold jewellery, he fashioned the gold into a molten calf, which they then proceeded to worship (Ex. 32:1-6). So: Aaron, the sculptor, the psychologist and the politician – and later: the High Priest (Ex. 28:1ff.), responsible for conducting the sacrificial rites of worship (Leviticus 1ff.). Are we to conclude that his success in averting a riot and keeping the rabble occupied while Moses wasn’t there, equipped Aaron for the position of supreme religious functionary?
And finally, what kind of leader was Moses? Brought up as a prince in the Egyptian court, he became a fugitive after impulsively killing a taskmaster, who was beating a slave (Ex. 2:11-15). Having taken flight to Midian, he then married Tzipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian (Ex. 2:16-22), and became a shepherd with his father-in-law’s flock (Ex. 3:1). That could have been the end of his personal story, but then one day, Moses turned aside from what he was doing to notice a lowly bush that was burning, and yet not consumed, and found himself in the presence of the Eternal (Ex. 3:2ff.). That encounter propelled Moses, despite his reluctance, his humility, and his bad stammer (Ex. 4:10), to return to Egypt, on a Divine mission to persuade Pharaoh to free the slaves. With Aaron at his side, Moses finally succeeded. But the Exodus was only the beginning… Did Moses display good leadership when he disappeared up the mountain for forty days and forty nights? Maybe he did: maybe he saw himself as part of a team, and knew he could rely on his co-leaders, his elder siblings, Miriam and Aaron, to take the lead in his absence.
What does it mean to be a leader of a faith community? If the examples of the first leaders of the Jewish people are anything to go by, it means dealing with challenging situations. It means being the only leader you can be, the person you are, and mustering your personal resources, however inadequate you may feel, to grapple with the tasks before you. It means finding the courage to take the lead in difficult circumstances. It means representing the community, where they are, and also being prepared, where necessary, to take the initiative and to lead the community into new terrain.
And there is something else. As I mentioned earlier, Miriam is referred to in the Torah as a n’vi’ah, a prophet. And the Torah concludes by stating that, ‘No prophet – navi – arose again in Israel, like Moses, whom the Eternal One knew, panim el-panim – face to face’ (Deuteronomy 34:10 ). But the people who later became known as the prophets of Israel – the n’vi’im – did more than speak the words of the Eternal to the people, they also admonished the people when they went astray, when they failed to behave ethically, and practiced corruption and injustice. At the end of the year, my book, entitled, Trouble-Making Judaism will be published (David Paul Press, London). I don’t have the space here to tell you very much about the book – I hope that you will buy it, when it comes out! Suffice it to say that in it I try to demonstrate via various themes and in different contexts, what it means to make trouble, to trouble the sacred texts, and to be, both, troubling and troubled. And it is the prophets who provide inspiration for my approach; in particular, the way that each prophet was, as King Ahab put it to Elijah, ‘a troubler of Israel’ (I Kings 18:17-19). What does it mean to be a leader of a faith community? In addition to being a servant, a minister, a teacher, a priest, a pastor, a counsellor, a representative, it also means being ‘a troubler’; an individual with vision, who is prepared to trouble the status quo, and a person of compassion and integrity, who acknowledges and addresses the troubles of others: the troubles of individuals, couples and families; the troubles of the congregation and the community, the troubles of the wider society, and of the world as a whole.
Am I suggesting that the leader of a faith community must be a paragon of virtue? No. As we see from the examples of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, and indeed, from the prophets, and later, the rabbis, the religious leaders of the Jewish people have been – and remain – complex, flawed human beings – as all human beings are and must be, since perfection belongs only to the Eternal One. Indeed, arguably, the best religious leaders have been – and are – reluctant leaders. What does it mean to be a leader of a faith community? It means being prepared to lead – even when you feel inadequate to the task.
Finally, I would like to conclude by sharing with you a very personal reflection on the underside of the responsibility of being a leader of the Jewish community. I apologise for completing my remarks in such a sombre way, but it is real. And in the end, above all what it means to be a leader of a faith community is to engage with reality, here and now, as well as with the complex legacy of the past, which we carry with us.
This is the poem I wrote in August 2008, entitled, The Post-Modern Rabbi (MANNA, No. 104, Summer 2009)
The post-modern Rabbi
Like her Christian counter-part is a
Servant of the community
Rallying the remnant and the wayfarers
From week to week
Conducting the cycle of sacred celebrations
From year to year
Sacralising the liminal moments of life
From birth to death
But that’s not all
Teacher – by definition
(Enhanced – and regularly updated –
By new technologies)
Curator of the Jewish heritage
Guardian of the collective memory
Keeper of the prophetic vision
Builder of bridges to
Span the wilderness
She’s also an
With nothing to sell but
Emptiness and longing
So she peddles
Wholesale by the kilo
Heavy vats of
Before it turns
She does a steady trade
(On the side) in
All the loss-leaders for
The post-modern Rabbi
Dedicated disciple of the
School of meaning-making
Post-1933 – and 1938
Absorbs the abyss
Like all survivors
Standing on one leg
‘The rest is commentary
Go and learn’
 Cissie Luper, Zichronah livrahah, may her memory be for blessing, who died a few hours later on 14th June at 11pm. She was 103 years old.