A dear friend chides me by email for saying that we are going through a period when there’s a Jewish charisma deficit. She cites several rabbis in her area who are gifted teachers, who make rabbinic texts really come alive, and I don’t doubt that it is true. This caused me to wonder how, really, do you measure charisma? A reasonable yardstick might be how far you are willing to travel to be in personal contact with the charismatic personality, how many obstacles you are willing to overcome. It could be expressed as an equation. Charisma equals miles traveled multiplied by obstacles overcome.
Or, C = M x O
One of the laws of Yom Kippur helps set the parameters. The Day of Atonement is a day of affliction, one of whose prohibitions, along with eating and drinking, is on bathing. But the Talmud (Yoma 77b) gives an exemption in certain cases. For instance if you are crossing a river without the benefit of a bridge in order to visit your rabbi, you can go ahead and get wet without concern for the prohibition, even passing into the water as deep as your shoulders. People actually used to do this on Jewish holy days.
I’ve traveled across the country on more than one occasion to be with a charismatic personality and would do so again. People visit the graves of charismatic sages to be near the place where their mortal remains rest. A few years ago I heard from a woman in Southern California who was my mother’s best friend before my mother died (that was when I was in college). Her friend more recently developed cancer. We knew this wonderful lady from the Reform temple where I grew up, but do you know what she did when she got sick?
Among other things she was in touch with a Chabad rabbi and traveled to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Ohel, or gravesite,
on Long Island. Did making the trip in particular help her? I don’t know, but one thing’s for sure: When a Reform Jewish woman crosses the country to pray at the grave of a dead Chassidic rabbi, that’s charisma.
Unfortunately, if my measuring stick is a good one, it’s bad news for bloggers and other Internet denizens. Clicking on a website is the cheapest, easiest, and most impersonal way there is to gain access to someone else and his thoughts. When buying a book, while you are not actually seeking the physical presence of the author, you are at least putting down money, which is an obstacle for most of us. Even if you get the book from the library, for free, you still have to travel to the library to check out the book.
Some charisma value could then accrue to a writer through the medium of a book. But through the Internet? Zero. Which come to think of it is another reason we’ve been, on balance, impoverished by this online age of ours.