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Leadership in the Age of Bombast

September 2, 2016

In the first Community Limmud of the academic year, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, taught on the topic of “Leadership in the Age of Bombast: Jewish Reflections on Complexity and Nuance.

Though her audience was primarily rabbinical students, Rabbi Waxman raised questions that speak to the heart of Reconstructionist Judaism including: Are there limits to pluralism? What happens to the model of pluralism when certain perspectives go beyond the pale? How can leaders stand up for what is right while remaining humble and listening to the perspective of others?

It is also an eloquent statement about the power and vitality of progressive religion in an age when too many only recognize fundamentalism and secularism as driving forces.

We plan to post video of the engaging session. (It wasn’t a lectured: Rabbi Waxman paused for 20 minutes to allow participants the chance to discuss relevant texts in small groups.) In the meantime, here is a written version of her talk, along with a link to texts she brought to the discussion.

This presentation to the students and faculty of RRC is a form of a High Holiday sermon.  It’s my thoughts on what I would give as a sermon, but presented in a study session.  I brought an overview of the texts I would use to craft a sermon on Jewish sources for promoting complexity and nuance in the age of bombast.  I reviewed the arc of the sermon and introduced the texts.  Then participants broke into hevrutah to discuss one or two texts of their choice.  We came back together for participants to share their gleanings or questions from the text, and then I offered a conclusion.

Part I is about how it is necessary to imagine the future we want to inhabit, and that we can draw from Jewish and secular sources to do so.  I brought two sources that helped the Jewish community live into the concept of pluralism.  Rav Kook, a religious Jew, was sometimes partnering with secular Zionists in British Palestine at a moment when this was largely unimaginable to most religious Jews.  Mordecai Kaplan, through his intellectual work fleshing out the concepts of Judaism as a civilization and the significance of worldwide Jewish peoplehood, was working to “make religious diversity safe for Judaism.”  Both Rav Kook and Mordecai Kaplan were responding to circumstances at once familiar and unprecedented, in the factionalism of the Jewish community (familiar) and the challenges and opportunities of the modern era (unprecedented).  Kook drew on Jewish sources to make the case for a pluralism infused with messianism.  Kaplan drew on American political discourse, translating e pluribus unum into a call for unity within diversity.

Part of our work as Jewish leaders is to build on the foundation of pluralism that these leaders laid and bring to life the next iteration of pluralism.  Today pluralism is too often practiced as individuals shouting loudly within self-affirming camps.  We must move beyond cacophonous multivocality to create discourse that at least occasionally coheres into melody.  We can do this drawing on Jewish and other metaphors.

Part II is about doing such bold work from a stance of humility. I brought a short excerpt from a book on this topic by Brad Hirschfeld, an Amichai poem, and a meditation I have written.

Part III considers why lead and toward what end?  I understand my work to be about bolstering progressive Judaism and, even more, progressive religion so that it is muscular enough to respond to fundamentalist perspectives.  I believe that religion can be a source of meaning, connection, and community.  I believe we find our deepest humanity in relationship to each other and through relationship with the divine.  Yet too often the press only reports on conservative, even fundamentalist approaches to religion, and too many individuals shy away from religious life because of a sense of oppression or aversion.  We must make the case for why be Jewish, why be religious, in a manner that is persuasive, compelling, and pointing toward meaning-making. 

The texts in this section are two examples of what I call “muscular progressive Judaism,” one an excerpt from remarks I delivered recently at a conference and the other from an op-ed by Michael Strassfeld.  For the second text, I also provided the source material that Michael drew on.

Part IV is about how to do this work.  At this volatile, transitional time, I think it is very important to be cultivating new ways of being, organizing, thinking and leading.  This is really hard work.  For me, a growing edge is moving beyond dualistic thinking to a more holistic vision.  I brought a text by Bradley Shavit Artson that pushes me and helps in this direction. 

The text study and comments were really rich, and we captured it all on video.  I hope we’ll find a way to share the discussion. 

I concluded the session first by pointing to our opportunities.  What can we make in this age of invitation?  We Jews of North American live in an open society where we face no structural anti-Semitism and instead encounter a tremendous embrace.  What can we make of it?

And, as befitting an optimism that is intentional but not naïve, I also pointed to our challenges.  We live in a world where there is rising fundamentalism and extremism.  Can we make the case that non-fundamentalist religion matter?  Can we articulate a moral stance that moves beyond a consumer-inflected freedom to do or buy anything we want but also speaks compellingly about the freedoms from suffering, oppression, fear? 

Our work as religious leaders is to articulate what we stand for, to build up resources that bolster our moral ground of being out of which we act, and to demonstrate that religion can aid us in working toward redemption for all people.

Every time I work with a group of Reconstructionists, whether at RRC or out in the wider world, I know that we have the ethic, commitment and smarts to create a vital, non-orthodox approach to Judaism. We have the energy and passion to respond to this age of invitation when each of us can choose our identity(ies) and how to express them. I am so grateful for this extraordinary community.

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