Great Servant-Leaders: Models for Our Time

04/11/2017 12:49 pm ET

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot

Today, it is impossible to read the news or turn on the television without seeing this grief and fear — of losing our homes, our livelihoods, our society, our only planet. But what is to be done? Rabbi Tarfon tells us not to despair. In such frightening times, we can look to extraordinary people who can become models for our actions, people who possess a saving vision, not just for our nation but also for the entire world.

In his classic Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (1977),Robert Greenleaf emphasizes the urgent need for people to model their lives after servant-leaders. To Greenleaf (1904–1990), a Quaker and former AT&T executive, a servant-leader is an extraordinary man or woman of great integrity, who struggles to see the world as it is, listens carefully to the time’s prophetic voices, and speaks out in the face of injustice. Servant-leaders desire to bring healing to the world rather than to acquire power, fame or wealth.

Today, perhaps more than at any time in our recent history, we need servant-leaders, people who, by their wisdom and love for others, can guide us to live more meaningful and compassionate lives.

Greenleaf was especially enthralled by the prophetic vision of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and saw him as a model of a servant-leader. By the 1960s, many people considered Heschel to be a modern-day prophet, including Heschel's best-known and perhaps most historically important friend, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At Heschel's 60th birthday, King said: ". . . I consider [him] one of the truly great men of our day and age. He is indeed a truly great prophet. . . . I feel that Rabbi Heschel is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights to guide us through these difficult days."

At the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, where Heschel and King first met, the rabbi, who had experienced Nazi racism firsthand, powerfully said: "Racism is worse than idolatry. Racism is Satanism, unmitigated evil." The Judeo-Christian belief in the inherent dignity of humankind in God’s image was, in my view, one of the key motivating forces for both men’s involvement in social action.

Just before King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on August 28, 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who emigrated to the U.S. from Nazi Germany and became an outspoken civil rights advocate, shared these brief remarks: "When I was a rabbi of the Jewish community under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence. . . . America must not remain silent."

Just five months before King was assassinated, King delivered a speech at Grinnell College in October 1967 titled "Remaining Awake During a Revolution." King spoke about his love for all human beings and his concern for humanity’s survival. He especially emphasized the widely shared belief that all life is interrelated and, therefore, we must end racial injustice.

King repeated the cry of the Prophet Amos (5:24), "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." His core message was that we must talk to each other and be fully present to each other. "[To] stand alone or live alone in the world today,” King said, “is sleeping through a revolution."

In April 1968, silence turned to anger and outrage after Heschel’s great friend, Dr. King, was gunned down on a balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. But after a turbulent summer, and a resurgence of conservatism under President Richard Nixon, emotion had again faded into silence. In a March 1972 interview, Heschel said the silence that condones bigotry and hatred was nothing less than acceptance of evil. "Indifference to evil . . . seems to dominate society today," he noted.  

I find it marvelous that Greenleaf, the Quaker business man; Heschel, the Jewish mystic; and King, the Baptist minister— all who came from radically different backgrounds — lived their lives according to the advice of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot. Despite the enormous task of repairing the world, they dedicated their lives, in times of great uncertainty and change, to engaging with society, dedicated to the liberation of all people, and refusing to be silent in the face of injustice. May they inspire all people to follow their example and refuse to be silent.

Harold Kasimow is professor emeritus of religious studies at Grinnell College.

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