The New York Times surprised many readers on February 20, when it published a human-interest story about a weekly tennis game among three rabbis and a judge that has been ongoing for about 45 years. Judge Alvin Hellerstein and Rabbis Haskel Lookstein, Michael Shmidman and Jonah Kupietzky—all in their 80s—play and joke around with each other on a Manhattan tennis court. This story is not just about comradeship among the surprisingly active elderly. It is about humanizing authority figures, breaking leaders down to a common experience.
In today’s age of massive distrust of leadership, we revel in reminders that people in positions of authority are really the same as the rest of us. They put on their pants one leg at a time and hang out with friends just like everyone else. This story is newsworthy because it celebrates the humanity of leaders in an attempt to remove their authority. Implied in the narrative is that they are just like us so why do we have to care what they say?
There is no denying the ordinary aspects of leaders. They eat and sleep like the rest of us. They entertain doubts and worry about the future. However, good leaders have specific training and skills that enable them to serve the community. Even if we all share certain aspects of life, we do not share every talent and experience. I’m pretty sure that Rav Moshe Feinstein could not do my job because I have very specific training and experience that he lacked. He probably could not have written this article because his English skills were limited. Likewise, I cannot fill his position because I lack both his genius and his vast immersion in Torah learning that are requirements for his role.
I am far from advocating gadol worship. Rav Moshe was a human being, with his own flaws and achievements. He had his own personality, with many unique traits that distinguished him from his colleagues, students and followers. He rose to a position of leadership because of his remarkable Torah expertise and his exceptional religious and interpersonal behavior. Accomplished Torah scholars would not have asked him questions if they had not respected his ability to answer, and they would not study his responsa today if they did not find important insights in them. He earned respect and even deference, despite being a person.
How do we balance the respect accorded to a Torah scholar with his obvious humanity? In the past, the human aspect—the normalcy—was taken for granted and generally ignored. Stories are told of the Chafetz Chaim’s greatness, not his ordinariness. This path risks forgetting the Torah scholar’s humanity, affording him a superhuman stature, as has happened in some circles today. In other circles, the pendulum has swung in the other direction and people are emphasizing the human frailty of rabbis as a means of detracting from their scholarly accomplishments. Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen offers a middle path.
R. Cohen’s new book, “We Are Almost There,” tells stories from his own life about his personal and career challenges. After years of successful work as a lawyer but unsuccessful years of dating, he finally found his match and changed careers in a whirlwind story that will bring tears to your eyes. All along, he, of course, had doubts and fears that he shares with readers. When his special needs child was born, new emotions arose but Rabbi and Mrs. Cohen learned to adjust and delight in their new child. This is a very personal story, not just biographical but psychological and emotional—the thoughts and feelings that accompany, and sometimes overwhelm, the author throughout his journey.
However, the personal story of this rabbi—until recently the rabbi of the Young Israel of the Upper West Side—adds, rather than detracting, from his rabbinic position because it includes more than his frailties. R. Cohen also discusses his rabbinic training. He studied under the Torah giant Rav Dovid Lifshitz, apprenticed under two leading rabbis—Rav Benjamin Yudin and Rav Emanuel Gettinger, and developed close teacher-student relationships with two important educators—Rav Ari Waxman and Rav Moshe Weinberger. You become an expert by training under experts.
A rabbi learns his trade by studying and doing. R. Cohen shares with us his fears and accomplishments—the first time he comforted a family mourning a tragic death and how that informed his future activities. “You can never be fully prepared for something like this, but the experience years ago alerted me to the potential issues and intricacies.” In addition to his yeshiva studies, his experiences as a leader have trained him to occupy the position. R. Cohen’s personal interactions with experienced mentors prepared him to succeed as a leader. For example, he relates how Rav Gettinger “used a verse we were learning together to scold me and remind me about what topics are better left unaddressed in a public forum,” affording R. Cohen a lesson in both how to rebuke and how to preach.
In his controversial biography of his father, “Making of a Godol,” Rav Nosson Kamenetsky tells how an elderly Rav Chaim Soloveitchik once visited Kovno for a snowy Shabbos. Some young students from the nearby Slabodka yeshiva walked through the raging blizzard to get a glimpse of the famous Torah giant. They entered the house where Rav Chaim was staying. Rav Chaim said to them, “You came to see so you see, a poshuter mentch (plain person),” in an effort to dispel the superhuman myth. Yes, he was just a mensch, but what a mensch he was. In R. Dovid Cohen’s book we learn that he, too, is just a mensch, but a mensch with insight and experience, someone trained to teach and lead the community.
By Rabbi Gil Student