Searching for Spiritual Leadership on the Red Carpet

What I learned from the Oscar Winners 2016

Amichai Lau-Lavie


I didn’t watch the Oscars this past Sunday night but caught up on the best dressed and biggest wins, finding it fascinating that both best feature films, domestic and foreign, echo the contemporary crisis of faith and evoke our deep yearning for spiritual leaders who will address and maybe even heal the real and pressing needs of our minds and souls.

As Super Tuesday rolls around today the headlines of of best actors are replaced with the votes for most likely presidential candidates and the spiritual vacuum in the realm of leadership and this country seems evermore like an infinite abyss.

Who can we truly trust? Where are the leaders who can rise above the chaos and commotion of our daily digital grind and guide us, together,  towards lives lived with more dignity, love and meaning? How many more morally flawed role models does it take to finally shake us up and claim a better future for ourselves and for our children?

I don’t read tea leaves but I pay attention to which public narratives rise to the surface of our collective consciousness and what those stories tell us about who we are, what we are not, and what we aspire to become. The ‘White People’s Oscars’ are hardly the arena for assessing the highest values of our culture, but they do shine a spotlight and mirror something about our blindspots, hopes and fears. What does the convergence of the recent two winners tell us about the stories America now tells itself about what matters most?



I haven’t had much time for movies this past year but I did get to see ‘Spotlight” and “Son of Saul”, the two winners, one at a theater and the other on a flight, weeping during and after both.

“Spotlight” depicts the tragedy of Catholic clergy who betray the sacred trust of their faithful by sexually abusing children and prioritizing power and privilege over truth and compassion. The damage done by the church to generations of scarred believers is too immense to imagine. “Son of Saul” is a horrific journey into the hell of the Holocaust, zooming in on the impossible search of one of the Jewish prisoners who seeks a rabbi to officiate the funeral of a young boy in the middle of one of the cruelest human slaughter houses in history. The priests of Boston are found guilty of multiple cases of abuse, while the rabbi finally found in the barracks of Birkenau is a fraud, unable to recite the mourner’s prayer.  Both stories take us into the pits of despair, and while the Hungarian film ends with mute carnage, the American movie at least ends with a happier  Hollywood end and the beginning of justice. But in some ways they both tell a similar tale of longing for leaders, disappointed despair , and the eventual mistrust in the role of a religious leader and religious life itself.

And those are all real reasons to sob.

In several months I will be ordained as a rabbi, completing a five year journey at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, continuing my mission of making the sacred accessible to more of us in search of dignity, connection and lives full of meaning and purpose. “Son of Saul” reminded me of why I chose the rabbinate,  of how deeply runs the human need for a delegate of divine mysteries of life and death to hold our heart and hand, especially at moments of great peril or pleasure. ‘Spotlight’ reminded me of how high a bar this role needs to answer to, and how many terrible role models, of all religions, so many of us have come to know. And at what price. I was deeply moved by both movies, wondering to myself, and now as I write this –  what can I and other leaders of faith do to repair the psychic multi generational damage inflicted by so many horrors on so many of us? How can my rabbinate be not only a source of solace to those I minister to – but one that will help us repair the rupture of religion and spirit in a world so suspicious of spirit, so torn by wars, by greed, by hypocrisy?

In moments of grief and in moments of joy faith leaders are called upon and summoned to represent the presence of something larger than life, bigger than self, offering perennial perspective, walking the hallowed talk of truth in an otherwise  seemingly chaotic and meaningless existence. People who take on the role of spiritual leaders represent at least in theory some of the highest of human aspirations. Their betrayal is the darkest side of humanity, honestly reminding us that we are all fallible, and that the highest we rise, the lower we fall, and the more people we damage. But they also remind us of what it is we are so hungry for, and what sort of leaders we remember to still yearn for, even as so many lousy role models, in all areas of public life, taint our cherished views of the values most important to us all.

If these two 2016 Oscar winners of best story award tell us anything of the zeitgeist it is about the despair – and the repair. In both movies there are shining lights of courage and moral character, taking on the tyranny of injustice and apathy. Both Boston and Birkenau remind us today  that a helpful leader – in the spiritual, political or other arenas – is an honest leader, and that our souls and minds and every fiber in our sacred bodies deserve and demand nothing less.

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