Passion Yes, Charisma No

March 1, 2009
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Hayim Herring

Of the issues discussed in the preceeding roundtable, the relationship between charisma and leadership is of utmost significance. To the best of my knowledge, there are no courses in either rabbinical school or continuing education programs that are designed to teach rabbis to be charismatic. That is a good thing. It is not good, however, that few programs help rabbis think about the dimension of passion in their rabbinate. This gap in rabbinic education needs to be addressed. Charisma, no, passion, yes — rabbis need to be inoculated with passion before they leave their seminaries and then receive periodic booster shots in all of their continuing education programs once they are practicing in the field.

Here are some of the differences between passion and charisma:

  • Passion is centered on a dream; charisma is anchored in the self.
  • Passion inspires others to work together; charisma can create divisions.
  • Passion is about purpose; charisma is about drama.
  • Passion endures and lifts people around it; charisma often creates a crash-and-burn syndrome, and takes others down with it.
  • Passion helps to build community because those feeling it respond to a higher calling; charisma, however, diminishes community because people ultimately perceive that the ego behind the charismatic leader leaves little room for others.

Stressing passion over charisma is not a game of semantics. When congregants speak about charismatic rabbis, they are suggesting that rabbis need to inspire people with ideas, action, wisdom — with a vision of that which transcends the self. Passion is about uncovering core issues and drawing from that an authentic sense of purpose. It’s what some colloquially refer to as “finding one’s voice” and, I would add, then not losing it over the years.

Many rabbis begin their first years with a sense of calling — the passion that brought them into the rabbinate. But the distractions of petty politics and the narrow concerns of congregational life can unconsciously become the focal point that, over the years, mutes a sense of higher calling. The result is that rabbis become less inspiring because they learn to play it safe rather than to speak from their authentic selves. That’s when rabbis become dull. They may be able to fake charisma, but they can’t pretend passion.

This discussion on continuing education is critical and all conscientious professionals work to refine their skills and deepen their professional knowledge. Learning how to give a good sermon or teach an exciting class or offer a stirring eulogy is a craft, but we need rabbis who are more than technicians. We need rabbis who maintain their passion for the challenges of a calling that is increasingly complex. And we need congregations who will support and reward rabbis for doing so.

The Torah was acutely aware of the dangers of charismatic leaders as well as the differences between leaders who were not only charismatic but also passionate. The biblical Korach was charismatic and caused a catastrophe. On the other hand is Moshe Rabeinu, Moses, the rabbi par excellence. The trait that characterizes his leadership more than any other is humility — and it is that humility that repeatedly averted disaster. Charisma, over time, seems to defeat humility and create out-of-control situations. Conversely, the compatible qualities of humility and passion are precisely those that have the power to create enduring dreams.

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Rabbi Hayim Herring, PhD, is executive director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal). He is currently writing a book titled Tools for Shuls: A Guide to Make Over Your Synagogue (

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