A Failure of Leadership: Rabbinic Overreach
What happens to a leader when they overreach? How many leaders in the world have begun to believe their own press and tried for one last grab for absolute power only to damage their reputation and adversely affect the prestige of their office?
There have been three examples of overreach recently within the Australian rabbinate. Two of them have yet to play out, so we do not know what the ultimate effect on the prestige of their office will be, however, one rabbi has already caused many former supporters to simply ignore a particular directive.
The first instance was reported on this website recently. It involved Rabbi Laibl Wolf of Spiritgrow. While Spiritgrow is usually the purveyor of the warm, homey messages of Judaism, here Rabbi Wolf moved to Israeli politics seemingly comparing those who ‘collaborate’ in the peace process to the kapos who collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust.
By so radically moving off script, Rabbi Wolf has potentially damaged his main message by delegitimising all those with left wing opinions, and putting them on the same level as some of the most vile individuals in our recent histories. There should be space for people to disagree, without being compared to Nazi collaborators.
The second instance of rabbinic overstep happened when Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant recently took over as the head of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australia (ORA).
This was reported in both The Age and Herald-Sun. In The Age he was called “the most prominent face in Australian Judaism” and “the new voice of local Jewish leadership.” The Herald-Sun went one step further and called him “the de-facto leader of the Jewish community,” news I am sure to the JCCV and ECAJ. While these peak bodies may exist in an imperfect democracy, they do still have some claim to being representative. ORA does not.
The RCV and ORA leadership are not even viewed as the leaders by all the rabbis, let alone by the wider community. Each of the rabbis of the larger Orthodox communities would be acting independently to ORA and ORA really has no way of controlling them.
Then there are the non-Orthodox rabbis. It is a terrible irony that Rabbi Kluwgant proudly talks publicly about interfaith projects he’d be pleased to engage in, while steadfastly refusing to appear publicly with non-Orthodox rabbis.
There is no way the newspapers would have assumed Rabbi Kluwgant was a de-facto communal leader without him having indicated as much and this constitutes a continuation of a number of instances of rabbinic over-reach in Australia over the years.
The rabbinic leadership have made submissions on behalf of all Australian Jewry to the government – in secret! Three that have come into the public domain were their submissions to give ORA exclusive rights to the word “kosher” on food packaging, opposition to gay marriage, and opposition to lesbians accessing IVF. There may have been more that we do not know about.
All of this has occurred in the context of splits and disputes within the rabbinate and with synagogues’ lay leadership over a variety of issues.
The third instance is the recent proclamation by the rabbis of Kosher Australia declaring most whiskeys on the market to be not kosher (in reality this is not a new story, rather one they seem to revisit every few years, but now it is with more force than previously).
While this may seem a non-story, and the very thing we are paying our rabbis to do – to make decisions on Jewish law – there is more to the story.
Many rabbis in Israel, including many roshei yeshiva have not only declared these whiskeys to be kosher, but will drink them themselves. There was also a rabbi of one of the significant congregations in Jerusalem who told me when buying my chametz before Pesach that if I ever felt that I could not drink my whiskeys I would always find a willing buyer at his office.
This is the latest in a line of stringencies that Kosher Australia place on the community without their knowledge and without declaring quite how strict they are with their standards.
Obviously Kosher Australia have every right to set their own standards (or more accurately to accept upon themselves the standards set by the AKO), but there is a point where new stringencies are viewed as so over the top that they end up being ignored.
The situation as it now stands is that many people have told me that they would only eat food certified by Kosher Australia but they have no intention of following the new whiskey edict. With KA’s attempt to further regulate an already over-regulated marketplace they are leading where many of their constituents have no intention of following.
Herein lies the message from all three of these cases. A leader is only a leader by virtue of the people that are willingly lead by him. The rabbinate seems to be distancing itself further from their willing followers to the point that the rabbinate may soon find that they are a group of leaders with no followers.
Their fears of people leaving Orthodoxy for secular lifestyles or to the Conservative and Progressive communities are self-inflicted. They need serious top down reform to become more relevant rather than the recent cosmetic changes. But as a group not answerable to anyone, I do not hold much hope for this happening.