Torah and Jewish Leadership

Torah has a deep relationship with Jewish leadership, yet both of these terms resist precise definition.[I] In this brief essay, I will use the term Torahto designate what James Kugel defines as “the very essence of Judaism.”[ii] As for the term Jewish leadership, I will follow Erica Brown, who writes:

The definition that may best suit the Jewish community is a “lead” as a small vein that carries blood to a larger vein. Those actively engaged in Jewish life—volunteers and professionals—are all carrying the lifeblood of a Jewish community together—individual, small voices contributing to the larger collective voice of caring and compassion.[iii]

The Mishnah’s description of the chain of transmission demonstrates that Torah constitutes a significant amount of that lifeblood that Jewish leaders carry, for it was Moses, the paradigmatic Jewish leader, who first received Torah and first passed it down from one human being to another (m. Avot 1:1).

Yet tradition teaches that even before Moses received Torah from God, he learned some from Rabbi Akiva:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: “When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, engaged in affixing crowns to the letters. Moses then asked, ‘Master of the Universe, who is forcing your hand [that You have to add crowns to the letters?]’ God replied: ‘There will be a man, after many generations, whose name is Akiva ben Yosef, and he will expound multitudes of laws on the basis of each stroke of these crowns.’ Moses asked to be permitted to see that man, and God instructed him to move back. Moses sat down behind eight rows [of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples in the Bet Hamidrash and listened to their discussions].”

Because of his inferior learning, Moses sat in the back row. Because Moses could not understand the disciples’ arguments, Moses “felt as though his strength had been sapped. …[W]hen they came to a certain topic, the students asked Rabbi Akiva [in reference to a law that was being discussed]: ‘From where do we know this?’” Yet, Moses did not know the answer. Akiva did and proclaimed: “‘Halakhah l’Moshe miSinai [This is an oral law handed down to Moses at Sinai].’ At that moment Moses was comforted” not only because Akiva attributed the teaching to him but also, and more importantly, because he learned Torah.[iv] God did not bequeath to Moses the specific law mentioned in the midrash. Rabbi Akiva himself derived it for, as God earlier informed Moses, “There will be a man, after many generations, whose name is Akiva ben Yosef, and he will expound multitudes of laws on the basis of each stroke of these crowns” (emphasis mine). Moses, who alone received Torah directly from God, did not possess the entirety of Torah. Instead, he learned from Rabbi Akiva, a spiritual disciple who looked up to Moses as his master. As “Rabbi Chanina taught, ‘I have learned much from my masters, from my colleagues more than from my masters, and from my students the most’” (b. Ta’anit 7a).

On the one hand, Moses went up to receive Torah, and God on High gave Torah to Moses below; the Israelites stood at the footof the mountain to receive Torah, and Moses, still on the mountain, gave Torah to the people below. On the other hand, Moses sat down to learn Torah in Akiva’s בית מדרש, and Akiva stood tall to teach Torah to those, among them Moses, who settled in the dust of his feet to drink in his words with thirst (m. Avot 1:4). Yes, “Moses received Torah from Sinai” (m. Avot 1:1), but Torah “is not in heaven” (Deut 30:12; see also b. Bava Metzia 59b).

Thus we see two aspects of leadership emerge, embodied in the Hebrew word “leader” itself, for נשיא, as noted by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov (1748–1800), contains the letters for both ישand אין.[v] The יש, “there is,” corresponds to the root of נשיא, נשא, meaning, “to lift, raise (high)” and “lift up…exalt.” [vi] Literally designating “one lifted up,” the title נשיאimplies a top-down approach to leadership and exercises power over others. By contrast, the אין, “there is not,” corresponds with the אנוש—birthed by rearranging the letters in נשיאand capitalizing on the frequent interchange between יand ו.[vii] Whereas the נשיא, the uplifted one, leads from on high in top-down leadership like God, the leader whose eyes are נשוא, “upturned” and looking toward others, descends from the mountaintop to dwell among אנוש, “humankind,” to share power with people in communal leadership and learn Torah from them.[viii]

Without the איןor the יש, so-called leaders respectively become either ruthless totalitarians who “lord… [Torah] over the community” or individuals with no sense of Jewish self (b. Hagigah 5b).[ix] Leadership requires not only the ישand the איןbut also the seamless integration of and constant movement between the two. Eugene Borowitz refers to this concept as “[t]he Lurianic model of leadership,” incorporating Rabbi Isaac Luria’s (1534–1572) understanding of צמצום. In this paradigm, leaders

withhold…presence and power so that the followers may have some place in which to be. …The withdrawal is for the sake of later using one’s power properly. …Leadership in the Lurianic style…requires a continuing alternation of the application of our power. Now we hold back; now we act.[x]

Just as God performs צמצום in order to create, so, too, leaders make themselves and their Torah as אין to create space for others to become ישthat they may bring Torah to the Jewish community and the world. As they engage in this process, however, Jewish leaders never entirely disappear; rather, they quiet their יש—their presence, power, and knowledge of Torah—but remain available for consultation and to give guidance when needed.

Through my Jewish Foundation Fellowship placement at Cedar Village this academic year, I continued to learn what it means to operate within the Lurianic paradigm of leadership.Through יש, I taught Torah to Cedar Village residents about the book of Esther and the counting of the עומר; through אין, I learned Torah from my colleagues and the people, especially the Jewish hospice patients, whom I served, for everyone has Torah to learn and to teach. As Elisha ben Abuya says in m. Avot 4:20

“Regarding one who learns as a child, to what is he compared? To ink written on new parchment. And regarding one who learns as an elder, to what is compared? To ink written on scraped parchment.” Rabbi Yosei bar Y’huda of K’far HaBavli says, “Regarding one who learns from the young, to what is he compared? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from its press. And regarding one who learns from elders, to what is he compared? To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine.” Rabbi says, “Do not look at the jug but at what is in it, for there are new jugs full of old [wine] and old that do not even have new [wine] in them.”

Everyone, young and old, has Torah to share with the world—even the dying and the dead, for there is Torah that people embody and carry within themselves, the type of Torah that need not be spoken but that shines forth simply by how human beings carry themselves, simply by their particular way of being and having been in the world.

David Bloom is a rising fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR and served as the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Cedar Village this past academic year.

[i]See James Kugel, “Torah,” in 20thCentury Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Arthur A. Cohn and Paul Mendes-Flohr (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 995 and Jonathan Sacks, “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership,” Jerusalem Post,June 14, 2012, Citations to Kugel’s article refer to the Jewish Publication Society edition. The Charles Scribner’s Sons edition was titled Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought.

[ii]Kugel, “Torah,” 995.

[iii]Erica Brown, Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities(Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2008), 31.

[iv]The translation is based on that given by Mosheh Lichtenstein, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People; Leadership and Crisis from the Exodus to the Plains of Moab (Jersey City: KTAV, 2008), 266 n. 12. I replaced “Moshe” and “Hashem” with “Moses” and “God,” respectively.

[v]Moshe Chaim Ephraim, Degel Machaneh Ephraim(Korets: Yaakov Yechiel, 1810), 70b.

[vi]William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament(Leiden: Brill, 2000), s.v. “נָשָׂא.”

[vii]Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 13, 60-61.Substituting a וfor the יin נשיאyields נשוא, the letters of which, if rearranged, spell אנוש.

[viii]Yoel Ganor and Orly Ganor, “There is or There isn’t,’” Ulpan-Or Newsletter, June 8, 2018, I first learned of Rabbi Ephraim’s commentary from this article, which also inspired much of the thought contained within this paragraph.

[ix]Translation from The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, ed. Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, trans. William G. Braude (New York: Schocken, 1992), 407, para. 47.

[x]Eugene B. Borowitz, “TZIMTZUM: A Mystic Model for Contemporary Leadership,” Religious Education69, no. 6 (November 1974): 696–97.

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