Apology and Humble Leadership

1 April 2016
22 Adar II, 5776

Shalom Chaverim,

Last week I wrote about attending the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, with over 20 Gann students and learning about Israel and the Jewish People, the America-Israel relationship, civic life, leadership, and the democratic process. I concluded with some of the questions and dilemmas with which the conference challenged us to wrestle.

This week I want to share a few thoughts about “the apology,” an unexpected moment toward the end of the conference that I found memorable and meaningful.

During the plenary session on the last morning of the conference, just before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke via satellite, four of AIPAC’s lay and professional leaders walked onto the stage and apologized for the fact that a significant number of attendees applauded Donald Trump’s speech when Trump explicitly derided President Obama.

It is so easy to be cynical about this, just as it is so easy to be cynical about so many aspects of politics and leadership. Some say the apology was “political,” “disingenuous,” or “pandering” to particular constituents. Some ask: “Why apologize for this and not other things that are said and applauded with which some do not agree?” Others say: “Too little too late—you shouldn’t have invited him in the first place.”

Personally, I found the apology inspiring, but not because of my politics. To be honest, while Trump’s speech was benign for him, other aspects of it concerned me more than his unsurprising criticism of President Obama. I was moved by what I saw as a rare display of humble leadership. So much of our political discourse seems to privilege black-and-white over complexity, strength and power over vulnerability and humility. Our legalistic culture also forces people and leaders to defend and deny rather than apologize and own up. To apologize can be seen as weakening one’s authority, as undermining one’s convictions, or as taking responsibility for something that, at least, technically, “I didn’t do” or was “not my fault.”

Our Jewish tradition and other spiritual traditions as well, teach us that, regardless of why or what one is apologizing for, the very act of apologizing itself is an essential part of being a good human being and, I would add, an empathic and moral leader. Three times a day in our Amidah, the central Jewish prayer, we say “selach lanu,” “forgive us for we have sinned.” It’s easy to be cynical about this as well, for most of us don’t even slow down enough to really think about what we are apologizing for. Perhaps, the medium is the message. Apologizing can be training in humility and personal responsibility. We ritually remind ourselves that we are human and, therefore, flawed and that we inevitably fall short of living out our values and aspirations. And, because we live, work, and lead in relationship with others, our failings inevitably will cause others pain and disappointment. This is just part of life and, certainly, of leadership. Our spiritual and ethical traditions call upon us not to defend or deny or avoid this reality, but rather to embrace it, own it, learn and grow through it.

This is what I saw in the AIPAC leaders’ apology. With emotion in her voice, the president acknowledged that this happened “on our stage.” She could easily have blamed or disavowed the speaker or abdicated responsibility for what some people found upsetting. She could have said, “We cannot control what speakers say nor when people applaud, but it does not reflect the official views of AIPAC.” Instead, she took responsibility for what occurred on their watch. “We did not live up to our own ideals.”

She could have defended the decision to invite Trump in the first place. Instead, she focused on and took responsibility for how people experienced what happened rather than justified the intentions behind it: “There are people who were deeply hurt, and for that we are sorry.”

She also acknowledged that the effort to “come together” under a big tent, to be one community with shared values no matter how different and diverse we may be, is difficult and an imperfect science. “When we say ‘come together’, we still have a lot to learn from each other,” she admitted. This was an incredibly important message about both community and leadership.

As someone who leads a pluralistic Jewish community, I am acutely aware of the fragility of the “big tent.” Yet the sacred work of building community out of diversity, of staying in relationships with people with whom we passionately disagree, is as urgent and essential as ever for the Jewish people, American democracy, and the world.

I also know too well that leadership, especially of a diverse community, can be painful and is profoundly imperfect. Everyone expects leaders to get it right and to know it all. It is much easier to promote and defend simple solutions to complex problems. Instead, to be a leader, just like being a teacher or a parent, requires the humbling acknowledgement that the world and life are challenging and complex. The most important questions have no easy answers. Often we fall short of our own and others’ expectations, and sometimes the best we can do is apologize, affirm our core values and commitments to one another, and keep learning and growing together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker

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