After a hiatus of about four years, I’ve returned to my course on Ritual Studies. I love this course, which has grown to become a synoptic understanding of the major currents in western thought since the nineteenth century. Every time I teach it, I become enamored anew of the geniuses who dissected the realities of modern life so brilliantly. This time round, I have rediscovered Max Weber, who so trenchantly predicted the institutional malaise that threatens the quality of Jewish life today.
This malaise substitutes managers for leaders. Weber predicted it as part of modernity’s transition from traditional and charismatic authority to authority that is rooted in the calculus of institutional rationality.
Traditional authority is best illustrated by royalty, where rule passes automatically from father to first-born son. You get what you get: monarchs whose competence varies with chance. Charismatic authority depends on the gift of personal magnetism: Ghandi or Churchill (on one hand), Hitler or Stalin (on the other). Again, you get what you get, a “great man” cult, but no guarantee of what the “great man” will represent.
By contrast, said Weber, the modern world seeks rational predictability. Financial markets thrive on “no surprises.” Corporate efficiency requires process and protection from tyrannical whim. People move up systematically to inhabit roles that are hedged with rules. To be role-defined and rule-driven, institutions expand bureaucracies and bureaucracies spawn managers.
Bureaucracies abhor novelty; they like rule makers, not rule breakers; they squeeze out individualism and chase out eccentrics. The managers risk imprisonment in what Weber called an “iron cage” of their own bureaucratic making. They mistake rules for reality, and then, seeing the intricate interplay of one rule with another, they live in mortal fear of precedents that might plague them later. They play it safe by multiplying meetings and erecting committees to make choices which they then merely implement.
While market-based organizations have a bottom line — sleepy bureaucracies get put out of business — not-for-profits survive as long as they retain monopolies on basic services that people require. But how long will monopolies last? How long will people still want what their parents and grandparents did? How long will they settle for services that are not spectacularly delivered?
All our institutions face these questions. As I said in my last blog, for example, synagogues that collect dues through the primary promise of life-cycle moments and pastoral care are discovering that they cannot maintain the monopoly. Granted, they usually promise community too — but in practice, that sense of community reaches only a tiny proportion of the members who are insiders: the people who like study and prayer but who generally have no exceptionally high standards for what study and prayer should become.
I may seem unduly harsh because I overlook synagogues that do much more (and do it much better), but the synagogues that I describe do exist, and they exist in large numbers — run by managerial rabbis who care deeply for people and for Jewish tradition, but who substitute management for leadership. Overworked and undersupported by institutions that barely make their threadbare budgets, these rabbis have little time to grow, to study, or to think.
Their synagogues remain stable, orderly, and predictable. The small coterie of regulars come and go to services, classes and meetings, complaining on occasion about their inability to interest more people, develop new leaders and raise more money. They are congregations in stasis – managed well and smoothly run, but limited, because managers rarely shake up well oiled systems. Congregational greatness requires rabbis with enough dissatisfaction to risk change. They need rabbis who are more than managers.
Appreciating bureaucracies for what they can do but knowing their limitations, Weber himself wondered how leaders might push management into being less risk averse. He put his faith in holdovers from charismatic authority. Charismatics dislike stasis. They thrive outside the system. They champion visions of alternatives.
These visions arise from what Weber called “ends derived from values” rather than assessments dictated by purely managerial reasoning. Only leaders who are value-driven will risk challenging bureaucratic steadiness despite the uncertainty attendant upon unsettling the status quo. Boards need to be challenged to go beyond custodial and fiduciary responsibility and develop what has been called “generative thinking” about the mission that makes what they do worth doing.
What goes for congregations goes elsewhere as well. The days of monopoly rule are over. Our institutions need to know more than how to do business with fiscal probity and managerial efficiency. They need to make sure the business they are in is responsive to a new era; and then do it creatively, nimbly, and with excellence that questions the rules as much as it honors them.