Sunday, September 07, 2008

Walking The Dog

Five prominent Reform rabbis sent letters to Commentary about Prof. Jack Wertheimer's critique of the Reform movement in the June issue. In response, Wertheimer emphasizes his point (link):

A recent, posthumously published book of essays by the social critic Phillip Rieff, The Crisis of the Officer Class, argues that our cultural drift has come about from the top down rather than the bottom up. According to Rieff, the traditional guardians of society have stopped valuing culture and traditions, discipline and depth, and have abandoned the role of responsible guide for that of therapist. If our rabbis, too, bend to the demands of the Jewishly uninformed, how can we hope to reverse the tide of defection from Judaism?
Click here to read moreThis is a very harsh criticism but it does not only apply to rabbis on the left. There are also rabbis on the right who bow to pressure and forbid what the masses want. This, too, is a failure of leadership that leads to disillusionment and defections.

The Mishnah at the end of Sotah (49b) says that immediately prior to the coming of the messiah, one of the misfortunes of the era will be that "פני הדור כפני הכלב - the face of the generation is like the face of a dog." What does this mean? R. Yisrael Salanter is quoted by R. Elchanan Wasserman (in his essay Ikvisa Di-Meshicha) as explaining that when an owner walks his dog, the dog is in front of the owner and seems to observers as if he is leading the owner around. However, in reality the dog keeps looking back and checking with his owner where he should go. In the generation described in the Mishnah, the leaders of the Jewish people will act like a dog and check with their "followers" to know where they should go. That, I believe, is precisely how Prof. Wertheimer is describing our times.

Let's not overstate the case. There are leaders who are fearless and honest. However, the leader-followers seem to get so much press that they drown out everyone else. Which leads to cynicism and disillusionment, both on the left and on the right.

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