Judaism is first and foremost a leadership system. Many Jews don’t realize that.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah is an important rite, bestowing leadership qualities on young people and older ones who decide to do it later in life whether they are ready and fully cognizant or not. Beyond and beneath the ritual is a deep-rooted system for committing our time to the service of God, to put God’s mitzvah system into place in this world. Doing so involves being a leader, and the whole system of observance is predicated on the person, each person, leading with heart and mind, doing with trust and comprehending more clearly after the fact.
It is interesting that in the yearly calendar we have two months that commemorate and celebrate specific American leaders: January, Dr. Martin Luther King, and February, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and all presidents.
In these two months celebrating our greatest of individual leaders, King, Lincoln and Washington, it is timely to remind ourselves that Judaism serves in its most vital sense (if largely under-noticed and unutilized) as a leadership development system, teaching kids and adults to align with the mitzvah system and think for themselves acting with integrity, principled in that system.
The Sages said, “In a place where there are no “mensches”, strive to be a “mensch””. It would seem as if the world could benefit from Judaism’s contribution to leadership development when role models are so difficult to find.
Our teaching is to be “Ivri”, “Hebrew”, from the “other side”, bearing a different point of view and not hesitating to share it where warranted. Our great presidents stood out in their times: Washington moving the nation forward at its start and Lincoln holding it together, and now King the citizen leader who exposed the roots of the nation’s soul and its destiny calling us all to fulfill it.
That brings us back to the never ending mandate of the Jew, to stay alive and restore God’s governance into this realm, made manifest in the gentle and sensitive way all people treat all facets of life and respect differences as potential strengths.
Our family commemorated Martin Luther King Day by seeing the movie Selma. I found it ironic that a natural connection between Jews and Blacks was left out in that one of Dr. King’s main partners in pursuit of justice was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who stood next to Dr. King in the walk from Selma to Montgomery. Rabbi Heschel was a major spiritual influence and support to Dr. King. For some reason the film director edited Rabbi Heschel out, along with any other sense of connectivity between the Black struggle for civil rights and Jewish involvement, steeped in our own history of persecution, in support of that struggle. A moment that could have inspired awareness of Black and Jewish cooperation for a generation and more of Jews and Blacks that came after that time was lost. It is hard to believe that Dr. King would have approved of that disconnect since the future of a healthy America depends on diverse and shared developments of leadership and responsibility in addressing our nation’s and world’s ills.
As Jews we learn that whenever we gather, for prayer or study, for joyous celebration or subdued comfort, we will grow in strength and character when we keep this in mind: each moment we are together is another opportunity to add value to the lives of everyone with whom we interact, in the ways we give support, feel joy, provide comfort, pay attention, open our hearts and, in so doing, become more at home with Judaism as a way of consciousness in a country uniquely built on diversity.