Charisma is hard to define, but you know it when you feel it.
Some snapshots. When he was young and we were even younger, my best friend and I went to Lincoln Center to see Tennessee William’s incomprehensible “Camino Real,” starring the still unknown Al Pacino.
When he was onstage — in my memory that was most of the time — the sun itself was onstage with him. He glittered and glowed, and we barely breathed. It didn’t matter what he said or did; the play didn’t matter (and that was a good thing). We just sat and basked in it. That was our first brush with charisma. (To be fair, I don’t know if the part of the audience that was not teenage girls felt the same thing we did. That’s part of charisma’s mystery.)
We also went to hear Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Soviet poet whose political courage and canny sense of what would have been going too far for real made him vastly popular, both at home and abroad. He spoke Russian. We did not. He read his poems in Russian, and we watched the crowd go wild. We did not understand a single word. He had charisma, we could see it at work on others, but it absolutely did not reach us.
In the early 1970s, Philip Roth wrote a savage political satire, featuring, among other characters, Jacqueline Charisma Colossus, widow of President John Charisma and wife of the Greek mogul Colossus. He was right (and oh was he brilliant; that name is perfect).
I had a college friend who was a monk, studying for the priesthood. We talked about celibacy, and he told me that he was trained to diffuse his sexuality and use it as a way to draw in other people, to use his own thwarted needs as a tool for righteous seduction. It worked. I could feel it work. Of course, because we lost touch I have no idea how it turned out for him. That seems a hard way of life to sustain.
A friend reports having seen former President Bill Clinton from the back of a room of about 9,000 people. From where she stood he was microscopic; she watched him on a monitor. But she could feel the charisma with which he was irradiated pulsing off him. When she told me about it I remembered watching him on television years earlier as he accepted the Democratic nomination for the first time, walking through the city streets to Madison Square Garden. I know I wasn’t the only person who felt a mad desire to break through the screen to walk behind him.
This time of year, we read the saga of our ancestors. Abraham and Jacob had charisma. Poor Isaac did not. If you don’t have it you can’t fake it. Moses had it, against his will and despite his wishes. If you do have it, you just have to learn how to protect yourself from it. Certainly Deborah had it in bushel-loads — she was a judge in the land of Israel, respected, a leader even in war, even though she was a woman, her gender weighing heavily against her. If you have it, in the end, no bushel will hide it. God gave charisma to Samuel, to Saul, and to David, but the gift to Saul was grudging, and eventually it was revoked.
Charisma is a Greek word, meaning something like “gift of grace,” and until well after World War II was used almost entirely as a theological term. That gift of grace came from God. Now it’s used to mean a quality of hard-to-define specialness that sets someone apart, a quality so extraordinary that if you are inclined to believe that such qualities are God-given it’s no stretch to think that it’s a divine gift.
Charisma is a fraught side discussion when the subject of leadership in the Jewish community comes up. Charismatic leaders start movements — think the Ba’al Shem Tov. They can cause revolutions — Bar Kochba did, and so did Zev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin; so did Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. Charismatic leaders cannot be created, although they can be recognized and encouraged, and their gifts can be refined. But they cannot be controlled, and once they are done they are hard acts to follow — no one yet has managed to replace the last Lubavitcher rebbe. Charisma can be enormously divisive, as those who are affected by it and those who are not form different camps, split by the gulf of almost complete lack of understanding. And one person’s charismatic leader is another person’s demagogue —pick almost any name I’ve mentioned.
Bureaucratic leaders are far easier on everyone’s nerves. They are predictable, they can be good, solid builders; when they are good they do what they say they are going to. The rest of us can identify with them. They stand stolidly at the fronts of our shuls, dutiful if plodding. They provide the backbone we need, but they do not inspire.
Charismatic leaders come in different wattages. The most brilliant leave us open-mouthed but burn out more quickly; the more low-key ones are likely to last longer. We want them, but they are dangerous, at best thrilling, at worst mad, bad and dangerous to know. Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank did centuries worth of damage.
Many of us, too, want some kind of unrealistic combination of charisma and ordinariness. I know that I want to be moved by the intensity and passion of a charismatic leader, but I also want to be able to look at that leader’s words and actions in clear daylight and have them still make sense. They can’t work only in the smoky torchlight that is all true believers need. I want to believe, but I do not want to feel manipulated.
In other words, I’m waiting for the Moshiach.
Joanne Palmer is the communications director at United Synagogue, where she edits CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.