Shira is the director of education for 929 English

Jewish Leadership: The Power of the Many


In her essay Women & Power: A Manifesto, classicist Mary Beard prompts us to think about power in ways that are countercultural to current norms. Power, she argues, is often treated as “something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called ‘leadership,’ and often, though not always, to a degree of celebrity.” On these terms, narrow and limiting as they are, power is an object of possession that very few people can wield, and, as she argues, since it is “coded male,” it is one from which women as a gender are excluded. 

Given the exclusionary nature of such a structure, she proposes that we think about power in a radically different way. She argues that power should be separated from public prestige and thought of less as something that one possesses and more as an attribute. To effect systemic change, we should be thinking collaboratively about the power of followers, not just of leaders. It is through the joined hands of the many that the greatest changes can take place, and that is where the real power lies - in the products (or movements) that result when individuals come together with common goals and shared vision.

Beard offers the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of power dynamics at play in such a model. The movement was the brainchild of three women - Alicia Garza, Patrisee Cullors and Opal Tometi - who joined together with an idea that resulted in one of the most influential political movements of the last decade. While very few people recognize their names, together they had the power to effect far-reaching social change through collaborative forces and global efforts. 

To take Beard’s thinking a step further, the notion of collaboration as power that is most effective and far-reaching is one that is rich and diversified. It is this model of power and of leadership which we find deeply entrenched in biblical thought and as a core value of Jewish life. Leadership in Tanakh is divided between different kinds of roles, temperaments, and offices. There are prophets and poets, politicians and priests, shepherds and kings, each with their own style and mandate. In the language of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks,

“In Judaism, leadership is less a function than a field of tensions between different roles, each with its own perspective and voice… a musical form defined as the technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality. It is this internal complexity that gives Jewish leadership its vigour, saving it from entropy, the loss of energy over time.”

The more voices involved, the more powerful the notes of the chorus will be.

Collaborative Power in Judaism 

This sensibility is deeply rooted in Judaism’s evolution from biblical times through to the rabbinic period as well. There is a sense of collaborative power and of inclusion at the core of rabbinic thinking, which trickles down to the role that each individual plays in the great symphony of Jewish life. 

The most salient expression of this can be found in the very institution of the Anshe Knesset Ha-gedolah (“The Great Assembly”), the body of leaders who ruled in the period post-prophecy up until the development of rabbinic Judaism in 70 CE. According to rabbinic traditions, the Assembly was not only an administrative and legislative council but a body that instituted enactments of all kinds and shaped Jewish texts and practices. Much of Jewish liturgy, including Kiddush, Havdalah and the Amidah are said to have taken form under the auspices of the Assembly. The Assembly members are credited with redacting particular books of Tanakh, and even for the process of canonization of Tanakh as a whole. In these and many other ways, the Assembly democratized Jewish education and learning, making the Torah the possession of all, and not limited to the priestly class.

What is remarkable is that we do not know the names and identities of the Assembly members. It is likely that there was no fixed membership, or set number of members, and that the accomplishments took place over the course of a number of centuries. The core group was responsible for shaping and forming Jewish texts and traditions through its individual and collective hands. That this anonymous body is responsible for much of what Jewish life and ritual looks like today is an astounding testament to the power of a collaborative, diversified and cohesive leadership model.

A Contemporary Jewish Leadership Platform 

Over the past three and half years, I have been privileged to play a role in gathering, curating and conducting such a symphony of voices and leaders in a project which rests on the power of diversified and rich collaboration. 929 English, the daily Tanakh study project and platform, has brought together over 9,000 pieces of content from over 500 contributors from across geographic and denominational lines, all reflecting on unique aspects of an individual chapter of Tanakh: 929 chapters, one a day, for 3.5 years. 

The platform has joined the voices of scholars, rabbinic leaders, artists, intellectuals, musicians, historians, graphic designers, podcasters, poets, students, novelists, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, politicians, doctors, bankers, teachers, lawyers, archaeologists, lyricists, university presidents and kindergarten children who are all reflecting on the same words. It is a democratized space and a creative space, where power emerges from the combined thoughts of the many - young and old, scholar and student, artist and intellectual - sitting side by side. 

Similar to the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement and to the Anshe Knesset Ha-gedolah, individuals might not be aware of the names and faces of the hundreds of contributors to the 929 project, but they are deeply impacted by its collaborative force nonetheless. For me personally, working within this model has been a humbling gift, and a true testament to the strength, harmoniousness and powerful impact that diversified Torah learning and collaborative leadership can yield. 

The model of collaboration as power feels particularly resonant at this moment of pandemic disruption, as traditional leaders have been tasked with all kinds of new challenges and opportunities, and as leadership as a whole has found itself shifting under the weight of a new reality. The need for collaboration and diversity of leadership - a leadership model comprised of individuals all anchored in a common narrative and shared goals - feels more critical than ever. At this moment of continued isolation, the power of the many is there to draw us in, to ground us, and to connect us in ways that we might have thought were unimaginable before.