Community Blog Finding Your Rabbinic Leadership Style

By Rabbi Daniel Judson
Rabbi Dan Judson

One of the most important lessons I learned when I was in rabbinical school was from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a wonderful and wonderfully sarcastic teacher of Hasidism. He taught rabbinical students that each of us, somewhere inside of us, had a rabbinic voice. And what one of our jobs was as aspiring rabbis was to find that voice within ourselves. He taught us that we should search out that submerged rabbinic voice within us and when we found it, we should slowly let it emerge, and then we should take that rabbinic voice, take strong hold of it, and we should chop it up and kill it so no one would ever hear it. [That story probably ended differently than you might have been expecting.]

What was the meaning? This is different than the oft-quoted advice to writers that they need to “kill their darlings” – meaning that writers need to get rid of plot lines or characters that they might love so much it gets in the way of a good story emerging. Killing your rabbinic voice means getting rid of the preconception that many people carry around in their minds of what a rabbi should sound like. Killing your rabbinic voice means at some level being honest with yourself and others about your doubts and your hang-ups and not trying to sound like you have wisdom and answers to all of life’s challenges. Killing your rabbinic voice means not succumbing to the egoism that seduces rabbis into thinking they are special.

I feel much the same about finding a “rabbinic leadership style.” You have to find your rabbinic leadership style and then kill it.

At Hebrew College, we have courses on leadership. We have to. Our students will go on to lead Hillels, congregations, schools, and Jewish organizations and so they will need to think about how to create organizational change, how to work with boards, how to develop lay leaders, how to implement a vision, etc. But learning skills is different than finding a rabbinic leadership style.

I think the finding of a leadership style begins with the paradoxical step of understanding that the role of Jewish leadership is really about what it means to serve and not lead. Rabbinic leadership comes fundamentally from a stance of humility and inquiry towards others. A rabbinic leadership style should not be the voice in your mind of what a leadership style should be. If you have some image in your mind about what rabbinic leadership should be, you should kill it. And when you begin with the question of how do I serve, your rabbinic leadership style will find you.

Rabbi Dan Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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