Like Time Magazine and most other people on the planet, I have been blown away by Pope Francis. In under a year, he has managed to reverse the way most people look at the Vatican and the value of the Catholic Church in general. He was crowned Time Magazine Person of the Year, rekindling a pride in the church and the confidence of its followers. And he has successfully captured populist messages to advance the mission of the Church. Nothing puts it better than my favorite op-ed headline about him: “Like Pope Francis? You’ll love Jesus.”
Francis’ ability to tap into the public mood and impact the conversation in a positive way has lead some to wonder about the absence of a centralized Jewish spiritual leader. As Anshel Pfeffer notes, we Jews have not had a single leader since 425 CE (credit goes to Rome for that one) and will not likely have a single central authority until the coming of the messiah.
With no formal religious hierarchy since Roman times, Jewish spiritual leadership is found through meritocracy.
The concept of chief rabbi has no formal religious standing among the faithful, and is often times a convenient political construct. And while a global pulpit such as the British Chief Rabbinate can help propel some to global moral leaders – as was the case with Lord Jonathan Sacks – it is the person, not the position, that matters.
Making matters worse, the Jewish people have never been comfortable with authority, whether in biblical times (we are described as a “stiff necked people”) or in the modern era (consider all the jokes about our wanting to set up new communities at the first sign of disagreement).
Our lack of established structure makes outsiders wonder how we Jews recognize our leaders. When the New York Times asked Rav Moshe Feinstein z’’l how he had become the leader of his generation (“gadol hador”) he replied, “You don’t wake up in the morning and decide you’re an expert on answers. If people see that one answer is good and another answer is good, gradually you will be accepted.”
Jews have no conclave, and no formal process of discovering our spiritual guides. Our rabbis and teachers come from everywhere. Learning was always meant to be a meritocratic exercise, not a prophetic one. Though we pray for divine inspiration, no one is infallible; even G-d is debated by Moses.
The lack of structure entails a great commitment to finding consensus, and is something we all struggle with – be it between Ashkenazim and Sephardim or between the denominational streams. Discussions are flavored by where our own epistemological and eschatological red lines fall. The nuances among us are what drive fruitful debate from communal meetings – such as Limmud – to deliberations on how to manage our most holy sites.
Yet within the differing ideas and the fraternal arguments that are a staple of any Jewish communal discussion, there are those rare educators who manage to rise above the noise and receive an almost universal respect of their peers.
So despite being a stiff necked people, I have faith that we Jews will continue to generate the leaders we need to survive the challenges that the world will continue to present us with. Though we don’t have a religious leader on the cover of Time Magazine, and while it’s messy finding our own true leaders, we would not have it any other way.