Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Moses and the Journey to Leadership

The second in the sequence of books for my D.Min. program is Moses and the Journey to Leadership:  Timeless Lessons of Effective Management from the Bible and Today's Leaders, by Dr. Norman J. Cohen.  Dr. Cohen is a Professor of Midrash at Hebrew Union College, and it shows.

The book is layered through with tellings and retellings of Torah, both from the primary narrative and from the secondary/legendary traditions of Midrash.  Dr. Cohen continually drops into a patois of blended Hebrew and English, peppering transliterated words into the flow of the narrative both for flavor and to engage in impromptu word-study.  It's a pretty standard rabbinic schtick, one that made reading through the book reminiscent of listening to the rabbi expound on Torah at my family's synagogue during the High Holy Days.

In reacting to the text, I had several challenges as I schlepped my way through the reading.

The first was that it seemed somewhat removed from the actual practice of leadership.  Given the scholarly/rabbinic character of the work, this is perhaps not surprising.  In an effort to relate the leadership of Moses to leadership dynamics in government and business, the text is smattered with pull-out boxes that describe semi-related leadership approaches in both government and business.  This was intended to give context, but after about the tenth pullout telling us, again, that Ernest Shackleton was a collaborative and positive leader, we get it already.   The general points were an inclusive leader, be sure of yourself, don't overfunction, involve and empower others...but they felt generic, underdeveloped, and cribbed from another primary source.

The style and dynamics of rabbinic explication also ended up feeling like a distraction.  The extensive and repeated explorations of the root meanings of words were fine in and of themselves, but felt a bit aimless in that meandering academic way.  In explaining the significance of the word rephidim, for instance, we are on page 79 told that it derives from the Hebrew term rafeh yadayim, meaning "weak hands."  Because the people squabble with God, their hands are weak.  But five pages later, we're told that rephidim derives from raphad, meaning "chair" or "support," because Moses needed the support of Aaron and Hur.  Recognizing that the rabbinic tradition is filled with such etymological exploration, and that the Hebrew language lends itself to polyvalent word-root speculation, it feels distractingly inconsistent.  Or perhaps just like an entertaining late night bull session at yeshiva.

I also stumbled over some of the interpretive work, particularly the efforts to reclaim and validate the Biblical injunction against being an Amalekite.  Or a breathing one, at least.  Where Cohen suggests that we should just understand Amalekites as symbolic representations of all that is evil in the world (p. 87), I just can't get there.  It's just an ugly bit of unpleasantness, if we're honest about it.   Not being a literalist, I see no need to read those passages as anything other than an unpleasant historical echo of ethnic tension that has been theologically spun.

Certain sections were more resonant, like the chapter exploring the need to empower individuals who support the vision laid out by the leader (ch. 9) and the last chapter, which dealt with the need for leaders to manage the inevitable transition to another leader.

The call and leadership struggles of Moses are a particularly powerful and resonant narrative for those who've been called to lead the church, and Cohen's exploration of that dynamic did have potential.  Ultimately, though, it felt disconnected from both a foundation in organizational praxis and in tenuous relationship with secular research on leadership effectiveness.