This JewFem blog focuses on feminist issues in Jewish life. It tackles Jewish education, synagogue life, Israel, Jewish community, bits of pop culture, and more. This blog is written by Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, writer, educator, and researcher, contributing writer at the Forward Sisterhood, author of the book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World”.
Recent events in the Likud party exposing layers of corruption and criminal activity have brought up a nagging question for me: Can a person be both a great leader and a great human being?
I used to think of this as the quintessential "Bill Clinton" question - named for the man who managed to do some marvelous things for his country while privately behaving like a pig – although clearly the issue predates Bill. A quick sampling of twentieth century leaders includes: John F. Kennedy the forgiven adulterer; Theodore Herzl, the STD-infected, womanizing alcoholic; Sigmund Freud, the delusional, controlling, sex-obsessed misogynist. It’s a typecast, the powerful guy who makes headlines but you wouldn't want to marry or work for him.
The Jewish community has made an industry of “leadership.” A quick search on the web for “Jewish leadership” will reveal dozens of programs, sites, chat groups and rings, all of which have at their core this abstract goal of “leadership.” And yet, this same community manages to produce virtually a scandal a week, from Naomi Blumenthal and the Shas group, to Baruch Lanner and a whole institution protecting him. It almost feels like there is a higher proportion of immorality among that population group called “leaders” than among the population at large. It’s as if leader implies a different set of rules of behavior, one for Something about the career path called “leadership” seems to attract a kind of competitive, ambitious, narcissistic and often abusive person.
I would wager that many of us have encountered this personality type at some point in our lives: the narcissistic, super-ambitious, control-freak workaholic for whom the purity of "my vision" overshadows all else. Perhaps it's the boss who claims to be working others hard for his own important cause – though others may experience that "vision" as a nightmare. "Working hard" for such a leader may mean putting aside one's interests, family, emotional needs, physical needs, sleep, independence, individual thinking, ideas, creativity, or sense of adulthood. This type of “visionary” leader creates an atmosphere of control, fear, reprimands and abuse. As someone who has worked in this type of environment more than once, I can testify to the physical and emotional drain that these "leaders" create.
In our society that often values careers and personal ambition over relationships, it is no surprise that such a model of leadership revolving around this self-absorbed, fountainhead-like notion of success is so prevalent as to be almost standard. In our social system, character is defined by the quality of the sound byte and the appearance before cameras and not by how an individual behaves towards others. Indeed, recent examples of the paucity of personal ethics among public figures in the Jewish and Israeli communities abound: Yitzchak Mordechai's attempted rape, Baruch Lanner's decades of abuse, Rabbi Neulander who had his wife killed, and on and on. And these are only some of the ones we know about. I can only imagine how many people are suffering under the authority of big fish in smaller seas, self-appointed “leaders” of organizations who mistreat those around them on a daily basis.
There is actually a whole world of academic literature backing up this notion of leadership. Writers such as John Gardner, R.S. Peters, and Isidore Twersky view the qualities of a good leader as existing within the person, independent of relationships with other people. Leaders, according to this thinking, belong to a separate class of species that earn them a certain reverence from the “masses,” often generalized by the distancing term “the people.” Nothing in this line of thinking suggests that leaders should act kindly or compassionately towards others, consider day-to-day lives of those around them, or be compromising and dialogical – in short, just like everyone else. For this elitist notion of leader, there is an inherent hierarchy in society – “leadership” and everyone else – with different standards of behavior expected of each, with almost all interpersonal behavior excusable for the advancement of the leader.
This model seems especially prevailing in the Jewish community. Explains one anonymous participant in a program for Jewish leadership, "I am expected to know everything in my fields, to be in charge of everyone in the organization, and to command respect wherever I go. But nobody in this program ever talks about whether or not I'm actually a nice person. It's not a value that anyone seems to care about." When a Jewish leader says, “I have a vision,” what he is often trying to say is, “Hey everyone, look at me.” The precedence of narcissistic ego ambitions over genuine social consciousness seems to be a dominant working paradigm.
Feminist criticism of leadership offers a different model. Educational philosopher Jane Roland Martin, for example, calls for adjusting our ideals of leadership to include values such as care, empathy, community and relationship – and a personal life in which the ideal is lived out on the day-to-day level. One cannot give a public talk on the value of family and then cheat on his wife; nor can he talk about the importance of "the people" and then underpay and verbally abuse his secretary. One cannot preach about "peace" if, in his own personal life, he uses verbal and emotional abuse to get his way. The personal is so very political. Caring about society means caring about people, which on the most basic level means treating others with respect and dignity. It seems to me that this notion is so very lacking in our discourse on leadership, and perhaps that explains its absence in practice.
In such difficult times as what Israel is currently experiencing, quality leadership has never been more vital. And yet, every day our politicians attack others with vitriol and abuse, language of hate that is generally reserved for the nastiest enemies. Each one is so unequivocal about his own notion of rightness and truth that this commitment becomes an excuse to lash out. Perhaps if our leaders were more committed to conducting humane discourse, to hearing one another and treating one another with respect and care, they may actually be able to sit down together and work out a real plan for changing the status quo. Unfortunately, each one seems most committed to his own private "vision" - which generally revolves around a vision of the spot where he wants his own rump to rest. If the situation is ever going to get better, I believe we need to rethink what we actually expect from our leaders.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a leading writer on issues of feminism, Judaism, Orthodoxy and education. Elana holds a doctorate in education and sociology from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and wrote her dissertation on the identity development of adolescent religious girls in schools. She then went on to do post-doctoral research, thanks to a grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, on the "other" side of the mechitza, i.e., on identities of Orthodox men.
The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World investigates a fascinating new sociological phenomenon: Orthodox Jewish men who connect themselves to egalitarian or quasi-egalitarian religious enterprises. Sztokman interrogates the ideologies and motivations of more than fifty such men in the United States, Israel, and Australia.
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