Respect for Humanity: A Key to Jewish Leadership

There is much to learn from Jewish leaders who are willing to be inconvenienced and subjected to unknowing criticism in order to protect the other.

I get concerned when issues appear too simple and I find myself agreeing with too many people. After all, how do you argue the other side of spitting on an 8-year-old girl, traumatizing her so that even her mother can’t calm her as she walks the short distance from home to school? During this time - and with few exceptions - the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic community’s response has been to remain silent. In contrast, the news magazine broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 television spoke volumes. The picture painted of an intolerant minority imposing its will on its own community and the greater community is terrifying. This is not the Judaism that most of us know and love.

Last Friday, my wife, daughter and I went on a walking tour of Nachlaot with Rabbi Benji Levine, grandson of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the Tzadik of Jerusalem, from just two short generations ago. In story after story, what distinguished Rav Aryeh was his humanity, his normalcy. What impressed me that day was how the lessons of the grandfather had been passed down to the grandson. Sensitive to the feelings of the community we were visiting, Rabbi Levine made sure we always gave right of way to the passersby. He would also interrupt whatever he was doing or saying to personally greet everyone walking through our group, with a “Gutten Shabbos,” “Shabbat Shalom” or “Good Shabbos;” whatever was appropriate to the individual.

Emil Salman

A giant from the previous generation, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, was often late to his Beit Midrash in Shaarei Chesed, coming by bus from his home in Givat Mordechai. When pressed for the reason, he explained that sometimes someone would sit down next to him who, for his sensibility, was inappropriately dressed. He wouldn’t get up or change seats, as that could embarrass the person, so he would get off and wait for the next bus. Sometimes this situation would repeat. Rav Shlomo Zalman would then get off again, and wait for yet another bus. If only a fraction of his concern were exhibited by riders of our bus lines.

Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel from 1964-1973, worked to reform the rabbinic court system to make it more open to secular Israelis. A woman once extended her hand to Rabbi Unterman and he immediately shook it. He later made it a point to explain, “Don’t think that I am lax on not touching women. I am stringent on respect for all humanity.”

What makes the responses of these Jewish leaders unique is their respect for another person’s feelings, and their willingness to be inconvenienced and subjected to unknowing criticism in order to protect the other. As one of my rebbes, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, would remind us, the commandment to love the “ger” is repeated over 30 times in the Torah, many times with the explanation: because we were gerim, strangers, in Egypt. Clearly the term “ger” is not being used in its limited translation as a convert. It is being understood in its broader context as the “other,” he or she who is not like you. That’s who we are commanded to love.

Rabbi Levine concluded his time with us by saying that someone once asked his grandfather if he was one of the 36 hidden tzadikim, righteous people, on whose merit the world is sustained. “Sometimes,” was Rav Aryeh’s instructive response. May it be that we again are blessed with great leadership and that all of us seize our moments when we too can join ranks among the righteous ones, sanctifying G-d’s name in the world.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship.