The World We Wish to Live In

 By Hannah Lee

In a rare visit to the cinema, I was subjected to trailer after trailer for films that all but one of which are about dystopian, apocalyptic battles.  Digital technology has made ever more realistic and accessible the horrors of world chaos, so we have live updates on military coups and grass-roots revolutions.   Far less compelling, it seems, is the actual governance of peoples.  As King George taunts his former subjects in the musical Hamilton, “It’s much harder to lead.”  We should learn about our country’s failures.

My daughter and I recently saw Allegiance on Broadway.  It is an emotionally evocative musical based on the experience of George Takei’s family (he was Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek television show).  They were among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during World War II.  Their homes and businesses were either confiscated or sold at a fraction of their value (such as $2,000 for land worth $20,000).  At war’s end, they were given a bus ticket and $25 in cash.  The government did not apologize for their unjust treatment and offered no assistance in their social re-integration.  I was teary-eyed from the very first song and we later heard the audience crying in surround sound.

Among the new shows on Broadway, three are about immigrants: Hamilton, Allegiance, and On Your Feet, about Gloria and Emilio Estefan.  The director of Hamilton has added an extra pause to accommodate the audience’s cheers when the Marquis de Lafayette says, “Immigrants— we get the job done.”

During World War II, Hollywood and United States government sought to calm public anxiety with upbeat fantasies and explicit propaganda.  In our time, Hollywood gives us dystopian horror stories, which do not seem to offer much hope.  In my reading of anthropology, we homo sapiens have prevailed over greater odds— the Ice Age, larger predators— without the technological tools and brain power available to us now.  Good leadership sets the tone and resolve in facing major societal issues, but lately our leaders are trailing the people in action.

My rabbi teaches that what you take pleasure in reveals your values.  I ask, what values are we demonstrating with our devotion to these stories?  A taste for world domination?  A penchant for violence?  I long for a shared sense of humanity, where we acknowledge the need to live together in harmony for the continuation of Planet Earth.  The threat of climate change will vastly exceed the threat of militant Islam.  Let’s focus on making this world the one we wish to live in.


Book Chat: Letters to President Clinton

By Hannah Lee

Anticipating a weekend in which we honor two great presidents— George Washington and Abraham Lincoln— I bring your attention to a book by Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of OU’s kosher certification program.  Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership portrays the unlikely path that Rabbi Genack took in becoming the spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton.

The two men met during Clinton’s first presidential campaign, when Rabbi Genack, in his dual role as congregational rabbi in Englewood, NJ, was asked to introduce then-governor Clinton at a local fundraising event.  In his remarks, Rabbi Genack referred to President George H. Bush’s difficulty with the “vision thing” (as documented in a Time magazine article by Robert Ajemian).  He quoted from the book of Proverbs (29:18): “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Governor Clinton appreciated the remarks and told Rabbi Genack that he intended to refer to the verse in his speech accepting the nomination.

Over the next few years, Rabbi Genack would be invited to joint prayer meetings, delegations to the Middle East, and state dinners.  For each event, the rabbi would prepare a brief essay with insights from the Bible that address national issues facing the president.  During the president’s second term, Clinton asked for a more formal and regular schedule of delivery of the essays.  The rabbi then reached out to his personal network of Biblical scholars, clergy, and prominent individuals to contribute their own thoughts on contemporary messages found in the Biblical canon.

Bill Clinton is himself well versed in Biblical text.  As one example, Rabbi Genack sent an essay about the biblical story of Judah and Tamar in which he mistakenly cited a passage as being from Genesis 28.  The president responded with a note that tactfully corrected the citation to Genesis 38.  Other notes on White House stationery reported appreciation for the wisdom imparted and the timeliness of their lessons.

Clinton and his staff were also sensitive to the observance of his rabbi and his fellow Jews.  The signing of the 1998 Wye Accord between the Israelis and Palestinians was on a Friday afternoon.  Clinton was heard on a televised broadcast urging the team to expedite the process because the sun was setting and it was almost Shabbat.  Even more remarkable was the occasion when Pope John Paul II was to meet the president at the White House and the staff noted that the date, October 4th, 1995, was to be Yom Kippur.  Rabbi Genack received a call from the White House inquiring if it would be offensive to the Jewish community if the meeting were held on their sacred day.  He reassured them that since neither the president nor the pope were Jewish, the issue was moot.

They enjoyed a mutually appreciative friendship.  The essay of December 26th, 1996 came after a turbulent year for the Middle East peace process in which President Clinton served as mediator.  It cited the Torah portion (Genesis 42-45) on Joseph’s dealings with his brothers in Egypt.  Joseph orchestrates the reunion of his brothers to Egypt and upon witnessing their transformation and how they are now able to protect another son of Rachel, Benjamin, he reveals himself as their estranged and forgiving brother— bringing a complete reconciliation.  “Leadership takes wisdom, patience, and determination,” wrote Genack, praising Clinton as someone “who is firmly committed to the vision of peace.”

The essay of September 1998, written before Rosh HaShanah, addressed the unique category of a leader’s sin.  It is not simply a private matter that requires the same sin offering as the sins of the common people.  “Also, as opposed to all others, where sin is a possibility, the Bible states that the sin of a ruler is an inevitability.  With power comes the requirement to make decisions, and inevitably among them will be mistakes, misdeeds, and transgressions.”   The Talmud offers the consoling message: “Fortunate is the nation whose ruler brings a sin offering (Horayot 10b).”  Genack wrote, “The ruler who has the courage and humility to recognize his sin and ask for forgiveness will receive atonement and even redemption.”

The essay of May 2nd, 2000 (during the second term and after Clinton’s acquittal by the Senate of all perjury charges) addressed the issue of truth, citing a passage from the Talmud that taught an interesting distinction between the Hebrew words for truth, אֶמֶת, and falsity, שֶׁ֫קֶר.  The former is formed from three letters from the beginning, middle, and end of the alphabet, while the latter is formed from three letters that are adjacent to each other in the alphabet.  The insight offered is that שֶׁ֫קֶר, or falsity, results when someone with a narrow perspective claims to have the whole truth.  But human beings are limited in our conceptual abilities. Genack wrote, “Genuine truth, אֶמֶת, is the result of bringing different points of the spectrum, in this case the Hebrew alphabet, together.”

Published in October, the book includes a lovely forward by Bill Clinton and an enlightening preface by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, then chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth.  The letters include contributions from notable and quotable people such as Israeli Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, former Ambassador (to Egypt and Israel) Daniel Kurtzer, and historian David McCullough.  It is fine reading on the lessons the Bible can offer on leadership, personal morality, and communal responsibility.


What Do We Need from Our Jewish Leaders?

As part of a lecture series at the National Museum of American Jewish History, this past Tuesday evening was a session titled, “Challenges to American Jewish Leaders Today.” The featured panelists were Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and winner of the esteemed Covenant Award for her work in Jewish education, and Dr. Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU.

Brown started the conversation with a quote from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic: “American Jews are the spoiled brats of the 20th century.”  Cohen explained that viewpoint as such: American Jews are ignorant and they don’t even know it.  But he, Cohen, is not as concerned about Jewish literacy–  as defined by the ancient rabbinic texts– but chooses to define and measure Jewish engagement and identity.  Brown declared that American Jews have accomplished a tremendous amount for American culture, but less for the legacy of Judaism.  Once they are finally introduced to their Jewish legacy, they do learn to appreciate the reservoir of Jewish wisdom that is applicable and relevant to their communal roles.  Cohen countered thus: Jewish knowledge comes from being effective.  It’s not essential to know the rabbinic texts.  Furthermore, he said, Jewish knowledge also includes cooking skills.  So, would you come to a program on chicken soup? quipped Brown.  Yes, but only to taste, retorted Cohen, I cannot cook and that makes me a deficient Jew.

Turning to Israel as another indicator of Jewish identity, Brown noted with dismay that American Jews cannot have a civil discourse over issues these days.  Cohen, who’d made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) in 1992, considers  himself  a learned Jew because of his intimate knowledge of Israeli life and politics.  He outlined the two camps of Jews in America thus: one that feels an obligation of loyalty to Israel and the other that is concerned primarily with human rights.  The former is concerned that the human-rights camp undermines the security of Israel while the latter camp is worried that the Zionist hawks undermine the democratic and moral character of Israel.  (Cohen considers himself  a security-driven dove.)  Brown regards incivility as representative of American politics today, as shown in vituperous anonymous exchanges on the Internet and sometimes even in person.  Cohen was more concerned about the lack of knowledge of policies than incivility.  Later, he noted that three comparison groups- American Jews of old (early 20th century), the Orthodox, and Israelis– are all defined by strong passion.  It’s not incivil to be passionate about an issue.

In Cohen’s 2000 book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, he refers to “sheilaism,” a term coined by Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen in their monumental study, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life to encapsulate the egoistic adoption of ritual– Brown called it “the religion of one”– and the resultant breakdown of communal religious life.  Another term they bandied was “journeyism,” to refer to the expectations of the disaffected to be supported in their journeys of spiritual exploration.  They, and we, lose the communal and social reasons for religion.  So, how do we create community for these disaffected youth?  Cohen advocates the growing success the Jewish community has achieved in delivering personal meaning through new venues, such as minyanim and havurot.  Drawing upon semantics, he noted that observant Jews used to greet each other with chag kasher v’sameach for Pesach (Passover), but now we tell each other, “Have a meaningful fast.”  He was wowed by the inclusion of “meaningful” in the Artscroll machzor (High Holiday prayer book) that is widely accepted in the Orthodox community.    According to Cohen, we have moved from the normative system of “This is the right way to live” to an aesthetic system with an enriching culture.

A hot topic is conversion; current debates focus more on who has the right to determine who is a Jew than who is Jewish.  Brown cited Joseph Caro’s 16th century seminal work in traditional Judaism, The Shulhan Aruch, for posing the test question: Are you willing to accept the fate of the Jewish people?  If so, then the proselyte can be taught the mitzvot (commandments).  She claimed  that there is a big price to be paid for taking out the Jewish content.  Cohen said that we should welcome more converts.  He estimated that 10% of intermarried couples will have grandchildren who identify as Jews and only 50% of Gentile inter-married partners do convert.   He proposed cultivating conversionary-minded rabbis.  Brown retorted that a lack of teachers was not the obstruction but communal lack of acceptance.  She taught that the Biblical Ruth was ignored by the women of Bethlehem when she arrived there with her mother-in-law Naomi– and this was after Ruth’s dramatic and poetic declaration of faith.  Cohen agreed that prejudice against converts was morally wrong but its removal would be insufficient to increasing the incentive for conversion.  He thinks there is a sizeable cohort of non-Jews who are connected but would not convert.

Cohen then proposed the radical idea of dropping the God part of Ruth’s oath and calling for Jewish affirmation, not conversion.  Brown protested that this would unfairly narrow the definition of who is a Jew.  Cohen said that it would be gambling a loss of people choosing the cheaper, more accessible product– Birthright, for instance, instead of the more intensive and demanding six-weeks’ stay in Israel– but we’ll be compensated by a wider reach to those who would not have been tempted outright.  Brown quipped that he was offering wholesale instead of retail.  Cohen admitted  it’s a half step toward conversion.  It’s thus not a burden for rabbis and teachers, but we have not yet shown the love to motivate these non-Jewish partners for further engagement.   What is most important is inclusion, to keeping the tent opened wide.  Brown bemoaned the current culture of self-esteem and consumerism, in which our youth do not see themselves as stakeholders, but treat Judaism as “fee for service.”  They will attend High Holiday services but they would not pay dues, which cover the rabbi’s salary and the utility bills.

Regarding Jewish leaders under the age of 40, Cohen noted a major shift from people to purpose, from belonging to judging everything–  family, institutions, Israel–  according to our interests and passions.

What does it mean to be a Jewish leader nowadays?  Without minimizing Jewish literacy, Cohen extorted us to also recognize other forms of Jewish knowledge.  More than the rabbinic texts, there is an additional corpus of knowledge not recognized by our Biblical scholars and seminarians, but is represented within the gallery space of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. That is also Jewish content, Jewish knowledge.

On Leadership

              As an observer of the American electoral process, I’m bewildered by how people make their choice for President.  Repeatedly for many American voters, candidates such as John B. Anderson and Al Gore were considered “too intellectual” to serve as their elected leader.  They preferred someone who was just like them, someone they would feel comfortable with.  In a recent article in The New York Times [10/27/08], a young man from Pennsylvania was quoted, referring to Governor Sarah Palin’s speeches, “She’s always talking about the “Average Joe.”  Average me!  I don’t want myself in the Oval Office.  I want someone smarter.”

In an effort to educate myself about cultural views on the qualities of leadership, I learned that the ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu, wrote: “you need to lead from the front.  In general, people are lost.  When they see someone ahead of them to guide the way, they tend to follow.  Be that someone.  By default, you are their leader.  No formal ceremony necessary.”  [, a website on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War]

            Then I found an insightful speech prepared by D. Quinn Mills, a professor of the Harvard Business School on “Asian and American leadership styles: how are they unique?”  (delivered in Kuala Lumpur in June, 2005 and  posted on the school’s website).  While his analysis applies to business situations, I thought it would be a helpful guide to the electoral process.

Mills says that “leadership is about a vision of the future and the ability to energize others to pursue it,” in contrast to management or administration.  Across Asia, it is common for family leadership of business enterprises, including large companies.  While this also is true for some American firms, both publicly held and private, they are more commonly run by professional managers, appointed by the board of directors.  To a significant degree, says Mills, large American firms are at a later stage of development than many Asian firms.

            There are five leadership styles exhibited in America: directive, participative, empowering, charismatic and celebrity.  Directory leadership, which stresses the direction given by executives to others in the firm, is very common in Asia but while well-known in America, it’s declining in frequency.  Participative leadership, which involves close teamwork with others, is “more common in Europe, where it is sometimes required by law (as in northern Europe, especially in Germany) than in America.  It is also common in a variant colored by national cultural norms,[as] in Japan.”

            Empowering leadership is relatively new and stresses delegation of responsibility to subordinates.  American companies, says Mills, that operate with largely autonomous divisions employ this style of leadership.  “At the core of empowering leadership is the ability to energize the people in a company…Energizing others is the core of the new leadership in America.”

            Charismatic leadership is the leader who looks like a leader.  People follow such a leader, says Mills, because of who he is, not because of good management or even business success; nor because [the people] are offered participation, partnership, or empowerment.  Human magnetism is the thing and it is very different in different national cultures.”

            Celebrity leadership looks outside the company to the impact on others—customers and investors.  “It is in a bit of a slump in the United States right now due to the corporate financial reporting scandals, which have focused attention on CEOs with the ability to get things done right in the company; but celebrity leadership will make a recovery.”

            Then Mills spoke about the nine key qualities that research shows people seek in a successful leader: passion; decisiveness; conviction; integrity; adaptability; emotional toughness; emotional resonance; self-knowledge; and humility.

            The emotionalism, says Mills, that goes with passion is more common in America than elsewhere.  “Europeans see it as a sort of business evangelicalism and are very suspicious of it.”

            Decisiveness is common to effective executives in all countries, says Mills.  “In this regard European and Japanese chief executives are the most consensus-oriented, and Chinese and American top executives are more likely to make decisions personally and with their own accountability.”

            Conviction is common to all.

            Integrity, says Mills, is a complex characteristic very much determined by national cultures.  “What is honest in one society is not in another, and vice versa.”

            Adaptability, says Mills, is a pronounced characteristic of American leadership generally.  “It is less common and less valued in Asia and Europe.  It will be needed everywhere soon enough.”

            Emotional toughness is common to all top executives, says Mill, but “Americans spend more time trying not to show it.”

            Emotional resonance, the ability to grasp what motivates others and appeal effectively to it, says Mills, is most important in the United States and Europe at this point in time.  “It will become more important in Asia as living standards improve, knowledge workers become more important, professional management gets greater demand, and CEOs have to compete for managerial talent.”

            Self-knowledge, says Mills, is important in avoiding the sort of over-reach so common in America; “it is less common a virtue in America than in Asia and is a strength of the Asian executive.”

            Humility, says Mills, is a very uncommon trait in the American CEO.  It is sometimes found in Asia.  “It is often a trait of the most effective leaders, as it was in the best-respected of all American political leaders, Abraham Lincoln.  Once, when the Civil War was not going well for the Union side, a high-ranking general suggested that the nation needed to get rid of Lincoln and have a dictatorship instead.  The comment came to Lincoln’s ears.  Lincoln promoted the general to the top command in the army anyway and told him, “I am appointing you to the command despite, not because, of what you said.  Bring us victories, and I’ll risk the dictatorship.””

            Up until the polls close on Tuesday, we can only judge the style of leadership exhibited by Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.  After Tuesday and the inauguration in January, the nation will know whether the new President will be an effective leader after all.  The world, and all the crucial policy issues pending, await our choice.