From Within or Without? Leadership Lessons from Esther
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The question, of course, is not just for Bari Weiss. We see it playing out wherever we turn. Centrist Democrats debating whether or not to remain loyal to the party despite the ideological excesses of the far left. Republicans wondering whether they can, in good conscience, remain Republicans. As one former Republican recently said, cleverly invoking President Reagan’s famed party switch in the opposite direction: “I didn’t leave the Republican party, the Republican party left me.” It was not lost on me that last Friday night’s dialogue occurred against the backdrop of the latest New York Times brouhaha, in this case, concerning opinion writer Bret Stephens. Despite his objections regarding his employer, despite the fact that his objecting OpEd was quashed by his own editors, Stephens appears, at least at this point, to be doing what Bari did not do, namely, continuing to write under The New York Times masthead. We all face this question at some point. We join organizations, we leave organizations; we give to them, we withhold our giving. We build synagogues, we build breakaway synagogues. We Jews even joke about it. There is the story of shipwrecked Goldstein, who, when saved after many years, is asked by his rescuers to explain the two structures he built in his years as a castaway. “Those are synagogues,” Goldstein replies. “But why two?” they ask. “One, I daven in. The other, I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Given that every synagogue, every institution, every newspaper, every everything inevitably contains imperfections, we must all ask ourselves where our presence will be most impactful. Shall we break away, risking everything save our principles? Or shall we work from within, telling ourselves and others that as imperfect as it is, it is far better to stay put and work to be the change that we wish to see?
And lest you wonder where I am heading, you should know that it is these very alternatives that are presented to us in the Megillah, the scroll of the season, the story of Esther that awaits us this Thursday night when we celebrate Purim.
Our first leadership model is Queen Vashti. Chapter one: King Ahashverosh gives a feast for all his ministers and courtiers, extravagant in wealth, wine, and wantonness. Vashti is summoned to appear wearing a royal diadem. The reasons for Vashti’s refusal to appear are never made explicit; we can only deduce that her heroism was born of unflinching adherence to principle. As Tennyson wrote: “Oh Vashti! Noble Vashti / Summoned forth, she kept her state…” (“The Princess: A Medley,” 1847) Vashti loses everything, perhaps even her life, but she maintains her integrity. She exits the stage and the story, but asserts womanly dignity for coming generations to recall. As the great women’s suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton would write: “…Rising to the heights of self-consciousness and self-respect, [Vashti] takes her soul into her own keeping, and though her position as wife and as queen are jeopardized, she is true to her Divine aspirations of her nature.” (The Woman’s Bible, 1895]
Our second leadership model is, of course, Queen Esther. If Vashti’s exit from the royal court came by way of her unwillingness to reveal, Esther’s arrival in the royal court comes by way of her willingness to conceal. It is actually the etymology of her name; “Esther” comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to hide.” Esther suppresses her Jewishness in order to gain access to the royal court. Ancient and modern commentators squirm over Esther for her willingness to remain hidden as a Jew, not to mention her willingness to be compliant with the patriarchy. And yet, in retrospect – wow! – are we all not glad that she stayed put? Because when push came to shove and the hammer of Haman’s evil designs was about to fall upon the Jews, it was Queen Esther who came out as a Jew, as a woman, and as her people’s savior. The point is not merely that Esther saved the Jews. The point is that Esther was only able to save the Jews because she was positioned in the royal court. Contrary to Vashti, Esther’s heroism came by way of her willingness to exist in a deeply imperfect context, to compromise, and perhaps even be complicit in the system, so that when it mattered most, she could assert her power for noble purposes.
Vashti and Esther. Two heroines, two exemplary women – for women, for men, for all of us. Two leadership ideals worthy of study, remembrance, and emulation. Measuring by how we dress our daughters on Purim, Esther clearly has the edge. By the metric of recent feminist literature, Vashti’s stock is on the rise. In terms of application to our own lives, the question is a bit more complicated. Vashti gets the nod for her principled stance, her bold refusal, her virtuous signaling. “We cannot,” as Audre Lorde wrote, “dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” (1979) And yet Vashti’s story is a one-chapter story; she exits stage left, the news cycle moves on. As the great scholar of our day Erica Brown notes: “[Vashti] didn’t change court culture, she was its victim.” (“Having an Esther Moment,” in The Atlantic, March 8, 2020). In retrospect, Vashti’s refusal is measured more as a statement of conscience that anything else. In thinking of Vashti, I am reminded of de Gaulle’s comment that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. Esther’s choices are not straightforward. The leveraging of her sexuality, the compromises she makes – for all of Esther’s heroism, her choices of bedfellows are, literally and figuratively, problematic. Esther’s legacy, deservedly celebrated as it is, is not without its complications.
Ultimately, of course, the choice between Vashti and Esther is not “either/or.” The Vashti/Esther leadership discussion is not so much a study of contrasts as a continuum upon which we all live. We need both models, at different times and at all times: our Vashtis and Esthers, our Bari Weisses and our Bret Stephenses, our Abbie Hoffmans and our Tom Haydens. There is a need for those who fight the good fight from inside institutions and those who throw rocks from the outside. A need for those who protest in the streets and those who run for office. A need for those who make change from within and those who make change from without. Most importantly, there is a need to embrace the fact that in some chapters of our lives we may be exercise one muscle group and in other chapters another.
As for me, if you will indulge me in a bit of personal reflection, I suppose at the end of the day I am a little bit more Esther than Vashti. I believe in changing from within. I believe in the power of organizational life. I believe in sitting on boards, supporting political candidates, and overhauling existing institutions before creating new ones. What is the vocation of a congregational rabbi if not a career based on the belief that the spiritual aspirations of hundreds if not thousands of Jews can be realized within the imperfections of a single institution? The trick, of course, and I work on this constantly, is how to build an institutional culture sufficiently reflective and supple that criticism can not only be housed, but leveraged to correct the very shortcomings that give rise to that critique.
All of which, in a very roundabout way, brings us back to UJA-Federation.
We live in a day and age where everyone wants to direct their philanthropic dollars to their own pet causes. We see the imperfections of our central agencies and we walk away, or, if we have the means, we go off and create new ones. There are urgent needs facing the New York community and the New York Jewish community. We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. To support UJA-Federation is to support the belief that in the face of such urgent needs, there is power in centralized giving, that we can do more when we do it together. Are there imperfections in an agency so large? Of course there are. Does giving to UJA mean that you give up control on the precise destination of every dollar you give? Yes. Does the steamship of UJA turn as quickly as we may all want it to? Perhaps not. But is UJA the most effective vehicle for impacting local, national, and international Jewish and non-Jewish life? Categorically, yes. To support UJA is to adopt a posture of leadership worthy of the legacy of Esther. To support UJA is to support an institution capable of embracing and leveraging the voice of Vashti. It is why, outside of Park Avenue Synagogue, the Cosgrove family’s most significant annual philanthropic commitment is to UJA-Federation. It is why Park Avenue Synagogue so proudly embraces the UJA mission.
As in Esther’s day, so in our own. A generation in need of relief and salvation. A time to support those efforts best positioned to provide swift deliverance. A time to lean in, to step up, and join together toward healing our world in such desperate need of repair.
For further reading:
Halpern, Stuart. Esther in America. (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2020)