I was listening to a TED talk recently, given by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. You may have heard about her book about women in leadership, Lean In and about her "Ban Bossy" campaign. No small wonder that I'm interested in the leadership philosophy and wisdom of a successful female leader.... One of the points Ms. Sandberg makes is that men have no problem giving themselves credit for their success and that women are much more self-deprecating. A man's message might be: "Yes, I'm great and I accomplished this task." A woman's message might be: "Yes, we did great work together to accomplish this task." The difference might not be in the actual work of leadership exercised by the male or female leader, but in the way each leader describes, and ascribes, his or her success.
All of this was still percolating in my mind as I tracked, with great interest, President Barack Obama's visit to Pope Francis this week. This visit was of particular interest to me because I have such deep admiration for Pope Francis. I share the same points of disagreement with the pontiff that President Obama has expressed: contraception, abortion and the consequences of these policies as they affect the health care options of employees of the Catholic Church in the United States. But there are so many ways in which I admire Pope Francis: There seems to be no factoring of political (even church-related political) consequences when Pope Francis speaks. He speaks out, and follows through with his actions, because there are truths that need to be aired. His humility is inspiring because it is integral to his being. There is no other way for him to be.
President Obama gave an interview on CBS after his visit with the pope. Commenting on the experience of standing in Pope Francis' presence, President Obama observed: "...nothing is more powerful than someone who lives out his convictions." This was a perceptive remark that I appreciate very much, for I, too, hold deep respect for those who move through this world guided humbly by their ideological convictions. And I find that the most powerfully impressive people are the most soft-spoken and yes, Sheryl Sandberg, the most self-deprecating. The message that reaches the deepest into the consciousnesses of those around us is: "it's not about me."
Perhaps President Obama and Pope Francis are admirably in touch with their feminine sides . . . but I find myself drawn to the leadership of those who are guided by that which is greater than human scope and who have the strength and self-confidence to acknowledge that our greatest attainments are never reached in a vacuum of our own effort and vision.
I am impressed by another quality shared by President Obama and Pope Francis, which was also shared by Nelson Mandela. I wrote about Mr. Mandela a few months ago and remarked on his extraordinary capacity to focus on the qualities of the human being and the nuances of the issue before him without pre-judgment or bias. I had a sense of the exercise of humility and perspective at work in the meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis: the whole world knew about every issue on which these leaders disagree, substantive issues. And yet, both leaders seemed to approach the opportunity of their discourse not to convince the other of the error of his ways, but rather to explore the possibilities of advancing their shared visions and goals.
I don't think that the words "humility" and "leadership" are often appear in combination . . . except, perhaps, as conflicting dynamics. That is definitely worth re-thinking. I'm all for "leaning in" when the opportunity arises to take on a substantive leadership task...as long as that opportunity is embraced with humility. That leads us to powerful leadership.
As you may have read in the Providence Journal this week, the debate over the place of guns in Rhode Island intensified at our State House on Tuesday afternoon.
Members of our Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island joined me as part of the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. We stood with members of other non-violence and gun control organizations (including an eloquent contingent from the Ne explaining that the passage of specific legislation would contribute to making Rhode Island a safer place to live.
The bills we stood in support of would:
Passage of these laws would also make us more reliable neighbors to Massachusetts and Connecticut which have already passed such legislation.
Not everyone has the privilege I had of speaking directly to our legislators (at the House Judiciary Committee) . . . but our legislators do read Rhode Island's newspaper of record, The Providence Journal. If you live in Rhode Island, you can send a direct message to our legislators by participating in a very simple, one question survey: "So you support stricter gun control?" Your "yes" will help the members of the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate appreciate the desire of the residents of Rhode Island to make our state a safer place for everyone, of every ethnic background, of every economic level, of every neighborhood.
Click this link and you will be able to read a Providence Journal article about the gun legislation debate and you will also find the one-question survey. I hope that everyone reading this blog will agree that the pending legislation will bring us a little bit closer to a violence-free Rhode Island . . . a vision which those who legally own and safely store and use guns can certainly embrace as well.
Here is my testimony delivered to the House Judiciary Committee of the Rhode Island General Assembly:
I am Rabbi Amy Levin, President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island and rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.
Our Board of Rabbis, twenty-six colleagues from a comprehensive spectrum of denominations of Judaism, unanimously moved to become early and active partners in the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
That's quite a vision, isn't it . . . A violence-free Rhode Island.
Our Religious Coalition's vision of a "violence-free Rhode Island" may seem like the pie in the sky day-dreaming of a bunch of clergy . . . for whom utopian envisioning is an occupational hazard . . . but I am here to tell you that we clergy don't work in ivory towers, we conduct the funerals of the men, women and children who lose their lives to violence, we sit at the hospital beds of those who suffer maiming physical and psychological wounds inflicted through violence. Were you to be present with us at the cemeteries and hospitals and houses of mourning you would share our sense of urgency about working towards a violence-free Rhode Island.
Were we to dedicate the time, and gather together many of the people in this room for a wider-ranging discussion, we would find that violence is a complex phenomenon and that firearms represent only one element in the chaotic morass that is violence. Indeed, our General Assembly legislators took a significant step on another violence-related front last year when you passed legislation funding educational efforts directed at domestic violence through marriage license fees.
But the pending legislation we are discussing today all focus on firearms. In the context of our acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of those who legally and safely own firearms for hunting and target practice and personal security are responsible and well-motivated individuals who also embrace the concept of a violence-free Rhode Island, we do urge you to vote on behalf of all the residents of our state.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island turns to you: You have the capacity to save lives:
We urge you to prevent individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning firearms.
We urge you to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines from Rhode Island.
We urge you to ban firearms from school grounds.
We urge you to take these concrete steps bringing us that much closer to a violence-free Rhode Island.
This Shabbat, immediately preceding Purim, is Shabbat Zachor / the Shabbat of remembering. The root of this special Shabbat is in the association between the notorious Haman of the Scroll of Esther who aspired to wipe out the Jews of the Persian Empire and the biblical Amalek who attacked the Israelite convoy at its weakest point in an equivalent attempt to destroy our wandering ancestors. Both Amalek and Haman are associated with unbridled, random and terrifying violent aspirations.
In the special additional Torah reading appended to tomorrow's Parashah/Torah portion, we are enjoined:
If you read this passage closely you may very well emerge confused: we are to remember what Amalek did, we are to wipe out all memory of Amalek from under the skies, and we are not to forget.
Amalek is the embodiment of violence and I would suggest that we can read the key phrase from Deuteronomy as a command to wipe out all memory of Amalek's actions. How can this be achieved? By erasing every act of violence that threatens security and safety. Anyone's security and safety. To make violence a distant, barely conjurable memory.
Recently, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island joined the newly-formed Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. This is not an "anti-gun" coalition, but rather a collaboration of faith leaders from around our state who share a vision of Rhode Island as a "violence-free zone." Violence takes many forms and those who perpetrate violence use many instruments . . . from guns to knives to fists to words. Our premise is not that guns and knives and fists and words must be eradicated from society: for their are legal and legitimate and non-violent uses for guns and knives and yes, even fists, and certainly words. But the force of these instruments must not be directed against any human being. That is our contention.
As a first step toward achieving this vision, our Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island is joining with other non-violence bodies in our state for our rally this coming Tuesday, March 18th at 3:30 pm at the Rhode Island Statehouse. I will be speaking at the rally along with other leaders engaged in bringing the reality of life in Rhode Island closer to the ideal of our vision.
We will then proceed to testify at the General Assembly's House Judiciary Committee to address the pressing need of that body to act and bring to the floor pending legislation that will help create the violence-free Rhode Island we all crave.
The specific bill under discussion is HR7310 determines that a person who has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor will be banned from owning a gun in Rhode Island. In the state of Rhode Island, every child who has been killed in a domestic violence scenario has been killed by a firearm. Although we recognize the general principle that individuals have a right to own guns and keep them in their homes, that right, like many others we enjoy, need to be subject to parameters and guidelines. In the case of domestic violence, there is a sad record of violence perpetrated against family members . . . including family members who are bystanders, like children. When guns are taken out of the equation, the survival of victims and bystanders in cases of domestic violence rises.
Thousands of years after God enjoined us to wipe out violence to such an extent that acts of violence are just a faint memory, we are still struggling to achieve modest steps toward that vision.
I hope you will feel moved to join us at the Statehouse rally this coming Tuesday, and let our elected leaders know that you share our Religious Coalition's vision of a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
Along with many members of the Conservative Movement and Conservative rabbis this week, I received a letter from the leadership of our sister Israeli movement, the Masorti Movement, explaining the latest developments in the inexplicably complex effort to gain access to the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount for prayer by non-Orthodox groups of Jews.
This length of retaining wall is as close to the site of the great Temple as we Jews can get. The Temple was the focal point of the Jewish world from the time of Solomon (10th century BCE) to its final destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. For close to two thousand years, the western wall has served as the prime pilgrimage destination for Jews.
I remember my first visit to the western wall quite vividly: it was 1973 and the approach to the section of the wall reserved for prayer was much simpler than it is today: no gates. It was a quiet place for contemplation and prayer. There was a very low, moveable metal barrier separating the men's section from the women's section. I was overcome by the confluence of physical reality and the mythic power of biblical narrative before my eyes. I was in that place.
I'll admit I was young and in love and in Israel for the first time in my life . . . but with all that being said, I am sure that it was not the stars in my eyes that blinded me to political and religious tensions around the site. It is that over the decades, this site has accrued layer over murky layer of political and religious, politically religious and religiously political conflict. The tensions and confrontations that now muffle the spiritual significance of the kotel were just not there before the intifada, and before the non-orthodox movements began to establish Israel-rooted congregations, youth movements, seminaries and organizational structures.
Except for one day a year, on the fast of the 9th of Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, I am not moved to pray at the western wall. That's my choice, for my own reasons. The centrality of this site in Jewish history, Jewish practice, Jewish spirituality is absolute and it should not be acceptable that Jews wishing to pray in proximity to this retaining wall should be booed and assaulted and physically removed . . . or even have to ask special permission and special access when other Jews have free access any time at all.
The leaders of the Masorti Movement in Israel are eloquent, determined people of vision and understanding. Understanding that there is a wide spectrum of Jewish identity and Jewish practice and Jewish community in the world, and it all converges on Israel. How ironic it is that in the only sovereign Jewish state in the world, Jews are discriminated against for their Jewish commitments. Trained and ordained in Israel, the only place in the world in which the marriage or the conversion I conducted is not recognized by the government of the country in which I was trained and ordained.
We are not understanding each other well, we diverse Jews. The principle of כלל ישראל / klal yisrael / the collective concern for the collective of the Jewish people is atrophying from disuse.
I pray that we will, none of us, receive such letters from Jerusalem again.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.