On Being a Moral Leader in Uncertain Times
As I write this, I'm flying back to La Guardia. I'm returning from several days at the Rabbinic Moral Leadership Gathering, a gathering of 140 Reform rabbis from across the country sponsored by the Religious Action Center, the social justice and advocacy arm of the Reform movement.
The conference was, in part, a response to the reality of being a religious leader in this unique – and uniquely difficult – time. It was an opportunity for us to explore with rabbinic colleagues how to lead our congregations – and allow our congregations to lead us – through a period of unprecedented economic, political, and global instability. It was an opportunity to hear what our colleagues are doing, to share concerns, and to think about how to be a source of solace and inspiration in a rapidly changing world.
Out of all the things we learned, among the most powerful was this: Religious communities like synagogues are far more effective at organizing for social and political change than almost any other organizations. The reason is deceptively simple: relationships. When we care about each other, and know the topography of each other's lives, loves, and troubles, we are far more likely to be able to speak and act around our differences and disagreements. When we assume that we share values, history and a vision of a redeemed world, we come into difficult conversations (especially in politically diverse communities) with a baseline commitment to not give up on each other.
I know that we don't all see eye to eye on some of the most pressing issues of the moment: immigration, taxes, politics. And the truth is, Judaism – especially Reform Judaism – has always been multivocal, a tradition committed to and enamored of intense debate. But it has also always been a tradition committed to prophetic voices and values; of one mind about engagement in the world, the importance of justice and equity, and protecting the most vulnerable. Anyone who tells you that tikkun olam – the healing of the world – is not central to what it means to be Jewish, that it's an affectation of progressive Judaism, an overlay of our political agenda on holy texts, has not read the prophets. We have never been a people exclusively concerned with ourselves.
I came away from the Rabbinic Moral Leadership Gathering recommitted to this prophetic vision and recommitted to working as a community to make our world better, more equitable, and safer. I returned with a message for my congregants: The work of a redeemed world doesn't happen without you. Each of you. As their rabbi, I may serve as a guide for our congregation’s social justice commitments, but the truth is, this is not my vision – it is all of ours. I can preach every week about the work Jewish values, history, and text demand of us. I can help organize. But it requires all of us to take initiative and lead the charge.
As we head into the first month of the secular new year, I’ll be inviting my congregation to think with me about what we might do to continue this holy work. And in the meantime, I want to ask you to think: what can you do in your own lives? What volunteerism, activism and philanthropy might you commit to in this secular new year? What work might we do as a community? I'm listening, and ready to follow where you lead.