Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Measuring the Charisma Deficit in the Jewish World

posted by David Klinghoffer

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.

Comments read comments(7)
post a comment

posted December 11, 2009 at 4:12 pm

One can send a note online to be placed on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s or Rebbe Nachman’s grave:
I’m sure it’s better to be there in person though!
In the Chassidic worldview, traveling to see a tzaddik in person is considered very critical, since having a personal relationship with the tzaddik is important one to achieve one’s personal soul correction. (A portion of the deceased’s soul is believed to still reside at the grave, so being at the grave of a tzaddik is also very good.) (a chapter from Likutei Eitzot on the Tzaddik)
I don’t see this kind of teaching so much in non-Chassidic Ashkenazic literature, but I think the Chassidism are right: being in the actual presence of very holy and charismatic people helps inspire one to greater efforts in spirituality and self-improvement. “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire a friend, and judge every person favorably.” Pirke Avot, 1:6. Even without personal encounters, though, we can benefit from their books and from stories about them.

report abuse


posted December 13, 2009 at 5:51 am

C = M x O
Clever equation! I might be tempted to include a fudge factor that takes into account the person who is inspired by the charismatic person.
For instance, when the “Vilna Gaon said that if the Ramchal were still alive he would travel across Europe by foot to learn from him” (see, that might imply something about the Ramchal more than if, say, Tiger Woods said the same thing.

report abuse

David Warheit

posted December 13, 2009 at 11:03 am

I thought you were going to say that the lady visited your mother’s grave.

report abuse

David N. Friedman

posted December 13, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Yirmi–thank you for your thoughts.
To follow up-is a tzaddik necessarily charismatic or is this a separate quality. Are we sure this is a good quality? It seems one might be a tzaddik and lack charisma completely and I sense David K might be reaching for something that is not there to be found. To be very thoughtful, very righteous–may or may not include a charismatic package and I also disagree that the internet poses problems.
I would argue the opposite–it offers great potential but the problem is that much of the ‘frum’ world opposes it.
I was speaking with a friend at shul some weeks ago when he spoke of a tremendous tzaddik in Israel. From my questioning–he tells me that this man is kept largely isolated and known only in a small circle. This is a travesty for the Jewish people.
And to back up Yirmi, I have been in the presence of perhaps only one true tzaddik in my life and the experience is unforgettable. We should all strive to know more and have many such experiences. Such a person has a real inner glow, an “aura” if one can allow me to use such a profane word to describe what is not so easy to describe. If this adds up to “charisma” I would say not really in the sense we mean charisma. Bill Clinton has charisma–this is not the kind of quality sought or achieved by the sages of Israel.

report abuse


posted December 13, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, too, David F. I’m sure you’re right that there are great tzaddikim who aren’t conventionally charismatic. And probably there are people who are very charismatic and seem holy but who either aren’t quite tzaddikim (yet) or who are actually not very righteous at all. R’ Gutman Locks has written about these issues here and there in his posts at Mystical Paths. Before he became a baal teshuvah he was a (Western) Hindu Guru, known as the silent guru or the guru of Central Park, and many people reported sensing a great energy radiating from them (as explained in his hilarious and captivating autobiography, Coming Down to Earth). Now R’ Locks says that such phenomenon aren’t always good when they come from a non-righteous person, even if they may seem to give someone a spiritual high.
About some tzaddikim being isolated and known to only a few, I think this is often understandable, because once someone becomes famous, especially in Israel, you might end up having to deal all day long with a stream of visitors wanting blessings (as with the Baba Sali and other similar figures). There’s a tradition of being a “hidden tzaddik” and doing good work in a small community. This is written about some in R’ Yitzhak Buxbaum’s book on the Besht, the Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, which I heartily recommend.

report abuse


posted December 14, 2009 at 5:22 pm

There is certainly precedent for using length one is willing to travel as a measure of someone’s greatness: The Vilna Gaon said that he would have traveled across Europe by foot to meet the Ramchal, the author of Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Just), if the Ramchal had been alive.
As an aside, many people from many different Jewish viewpoints have been studying the Bilvavi, which is based to a significant extent on the teachings of the Ramchal in Mesillat Yesharim. Blogger Dixie Yid often mentions the Bilvavi, for example. Much of this widely-acclaimed work, perhaps all of it, can be read online in English:

report abuse


posted December 14, 2009 at 7:54 pm

Great minds think alike, Yirmi. (see my comment above)

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

Another Blog To Enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Kingdom of Priests. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Kabballah Counseling Happy Reading!

posted 11:24:22am Aug. 16, 2012 | read full post »

Animal Wisdom: The Voice of the Serpent
Our family watched Jaws together the other evening -- which, in case you're wondering, I regard as responsible parenting since our kids are basically too young to be genuinely scared by the film. The whole rest of the next day, two-year-old Saul was chattering about the "shark teeth." "Shark teeth g

posted 3:56:33pm Mar. 16, 2010 | read full post »

Reading Wesley Smith: Why the Darwin Debate Matters
If the intelligent-design side in the evolution debate doesn't receive the support you might expect from people who should be allies, that may be because they haven't grasped why the whole thing matters so urgently. I got an email recently from a journalist whom I'd queried on the subject. "All told

posted 5:07:12pm Mar. 15, 2010 | read full post »

The Mission of the Jews
Don't miss my essay over at First Things on the mission of the Jews to the world. This, I think, the key idea that the Jewish community needs to absorb at this very unusual cultural moment, for the time is so, so right. Non-Jews are waiting for us to fulfill the roll God gave us in the Torah. Please

posted 6:14:16pm Mar. 05, 2010 | read full post »

Darwin at the Mountains of Madness: Evolution & the Occult
Of all the regrettable cultural forces that Darwinism helped unleash, perhaps the most surprising and seemingly unlikely is its role in sparking the creation of modern occultism. Charles Darwin himself could not have been less interested in the topic. But no attempt to assess the scope of his legacy

posted 2:04:11pm Mar. 04, 2010 | read full post »

Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.