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The Flexigidity Exchange, Part 3: Defining Successful Jewish Leadership

by Shmuel Rosner

March 19, 2014 | 3:33 am

Gidi Grinstein

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder and President of The Reut Institute, a Tel-Aviv based nonprofit and nonpartisan institution, described by Tom Friedman of the New York Times as "Israel's premier strategy group". Between 1999 and 2001 he served as the Secretary and Coordinator of the Israeli delegation to the Peace Negotiations with the PLO in the Bureau of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In his capacity, he participated in the 2000 Camp David Summit and in the negotiations on the Clinton Ideas. Prior hereto, Grinstein worked in the Economic Cooperation Foundation. He holds a Master degree in Public Policy from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner-Israel Fellow (2002) and a Bachelor degree in Economics (1991) and Law (1999) from Tel-Aviv University. He served as an economist in the Israeli Navy (1991-1995) and holds the rank of Captain (Res).

This exchange focuses on Grinstein's new book  Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability & Challenge and Opportunity Facing Israel.

(Parts one and two of the exchange can be found here and here)

 

Dear Gidi,

I'll begin this round with a quote from your second answer –

"The fundamental character of ‘Flexigid leadership’ is that it must stem from “a broad view of Jewish history and society”. Hence, it must seek to address the needs of a significant portion of Jewish society, if not all Jews…"

Now, it goes without saying that different denominations, communities, and leaders have very different ideas regarding what the real 'needs' of Jewish society are. Some Rabbis, for instance, believe that widening the Jewish tent (and their own communities' mass appeal) is paramount, and they are willing to go a long way in order to do that. Others believe that maintaining their denominations' (and their own communities') spiritual/intellectual integrity, as they see it, is far more important, and they are willing to live with having a smaller tent as a result.

The "decision and action path" of Flexigid leadership, as you describe it, includes the large-scale sharing and development of successful models and solutions which have been tested on a smaller, more communal level. Who decides what models and solutions count as 'successful', though? Is a conservative rabbi who has managed to double the size of his congregation by adopting more lenient policies more successful than one who has decided to focus his full attention on a smaller and more cohesive group? Is a more rigidly traditional and exclusive community with a lower intermarriage rate more successful than a more open-minded inclusive one which has more intermarriage and assimilation?

How do we assess the achievements of flexigid Jewish leaders when there are so many sets of criteria out there? 

Thank you again for the book and for taking the time to participate in this exchange.

Shmuel.

***

Shmuel,

I’d like to begin by thanking you again for your insightful questions, which challenge me to expound upon some of the key ideas of Flexigidity, this time on the dynamics of flexigid leadership.

The Jewish People permanently evolves through the interaction among a variety of leaders and institutions across the Jewish worldwide web of communities. It is an ‘organic’ and self-organizing process that eventually determines which leader will have a greater influence. It is a messy process of ‘constructive destruction' of old ideas, structures and institutions while transitioning into new ways which better address the needs of the people. Flexigid leaders thus balance the speed, curiosity, creativity, enthusiasm, and often the carelessness of Judaism's societal innovators with the slowness, introversion, rejectionism, skepticism and risk-aversion of its conservatives. The interaction among these factions ultimately optimizes the pace of collective adaptation of Judaism to ensure its survival, security, prosperity and leadership. As I realize that this idea is a bit hard to grasp, I’d like to break it down into the following points.

First, in Judaism there is no single institution, leader, position of authority or decision process that determines the course of the entire people, or gives preference to one initiative over another. It has been over a millennium and a half since the Sanhedrin was disbanded, in the fifth century, and even prior hereto it did not have authority over the entire Jewish People. This flat structure of leadership has been unique o Jews and essential for their collective resilience.

Second, Judaism doesn’t have, nor does it aspire to have, ‘silver bullets’ in the shape of one-size-fit-all responses to the challenges it faces. Different geographies, cultures and contexts require different solutions, not to mention that within a given area there are often different communities, which create their own lifestyles and approaches. This very modern notion – the freedom of communities to shape their destiny through the interaction with other communities – has been a Jewish reality for centuries, providing for unity without uniformity.

Third, Flexigid leadership can emanate from anywhere in Jewish society. Flexigid leaders may be conservative or progressive, reforming or reactionary, fast-moving or risk-averse. They can lead from anywhere in the Jewish world, from within the community institutions or without an official platform.

Therefore, the influence and authority of most Jewish leaders are limited in their geographic and demographic scope. This is an inevitable outcome of the vast spread of the Jewish People across multiple cultures, polities and economies. In other words, even if one leader is incredibly able to provide an ultimate remedy to the needs of his or her community, that solution is unlikely to be as relevant on the ‘other side’ of the Jewish worldwide web. Very few Jewish leaders have influenced the entire Jewish People. Herzl, the Vilna Gaon and Maimonides represent three examples of such prominent leadership.

Hence, the fate of any act of flexigid leadership is effectively determined by the decisions and actions of countless interrelated individuals, households and institutions. If such innovation is broadly embraced and sustained across the Jewish network of communities, it can then be framed as ‘successful'. For example, although the sixteenth century Shulchan Aruch received plenty of criticism from contemporaries of Rabbi Yosef Karo, it nonetheless emerged as the preeminent authority on Halacha in subsequent generations. Thus, it is impossible for anyone to answer the question which rabbi is more ‘successful:’ he who fills his shul or she who keeps her community smaller and insulated. Only time will tell, and the answer is unlikely to be loud and clear.

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