I am reading my kids the biography of Benjamin Franklin and am completely in awe of his accomplishments and morality; He would write down his flaws at the end of every day. Can you give me names of any Jewish role models in the last 400 years with similar credentials to share with my kids as well?
Where to start? At least by limiting it to 400 years, you’ve cut down the potential list from possibly thousands to hundreds of pages, though I’ll limit mine to a little less than that. This should allow you to focus on some individuals without just throwing a long catalog at you, but any reader of this is welcome to add other names to this subjective, chronological list. Beyond the famous, there are also numerous unsung heroes who can serve as great role models, probably including people you see in your daily life, but I have limited my choices to people whom you can easily research and study.
Morality plays a central role in Judaism, and serves as a fundamental barometer of one’s true religiosity. The following figures have accomplished great feats in their lifetimes, while generally standing as beacons of morality and goodness. To read more about these role models, especially if I haven’t suggested a biography, do an online search which can lead you to essays or books about them.
Maharal of Prague (technically, he’s just beyond 400 years as he died in 1609, but he’s such a towering figure that I am breaking the rules here) – a great rabbi and leader for all Jews
Gluckel of Hameln – inspiring woman who overcame many challenges – please read her autobiography
The Ba’al Shem Tov – founder of Hasidut, who gave great hope to thousands of Jews, and began a positive, religious revolution
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev – great Hasidic master who always defended Jews
19th – 20th Centuries
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter – created movement to stress ethics and morality at all times – like Franklin, some of his followers would also write down their flaws daily in order to improve daily
Rabbi Yisrael Kagan (the “Chafetz Chaim”) – brilliant scholar who stressed the evils of gossip, known for his great sense of ethics and humility
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook – first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, known for his great love of all Jews, regardless of background or observance
Hannah Senesh and the founders of “NILI” – courageous young Jews who paid with their lives trying to save lives of Jews in Europe and Israel before the establishment of the State of Israel
Holocaust - "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust" by Yaffa Eliach to learn about Jewish heroism in the midst of the greatest evil imaginable.
David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir – two of Israel’s founders and great leaders (I really could add the tens of others who played crucial roles in establishing Israel – hopefully, you’ll be inspired and read about people like Menahem Begin and Mickey Marcus, or watch the movie about the latter, “Cast a Giant Shadow”)
Rabbi Aryeh Levin – great Jerusalem rabbi who gave great comfort to Jews imprisoned by the British (read the wonderful biography, “A Tzaddik in Our Time”)
Eli Cohen – incredible Israeli spy in Syria, whose work played a crucial role for Israel’s security – read “Our Man in Damascus”
Yoni Netanyahu – the hero of the Entebbe rescue whom you can read about in “The Letters of Yoni Netanyahu”)
Professor Nehama Leibowitz – great Bible scholar and pedagogue, known for her great humility (there are a number of biographies on her)
Natan Sharansky – Prisoner of Zion who defeated Soviet tyranny – read his “Fear No Evil”
As mentioned, these are but a few examples of the role models, both past and present, who should give us inspiration and help us reach our goals of being the best Jews that we can be. Enjoy your journey.
While we can find public figures of great character that may serve as Jewish role models for us, Judaism has had a predilection of anonymity with its greatest heroes.The Talmud famously refers to the hidden thirty-six righteous of the world, whose anonymous righteousness ensures survival of humanity. One of the great motifs of Jewish literature over the past few hundred years has been the anonymous peasant who performs great acts of righteousness.This impulse has been carried through today by Danny Siegel, who developed the concept of mitzvah heroes, ordinary individuals who do extraordinary acts of righteousness.Some of his followers have established a Mitzvah Heroes Fund to promote such actions.
When looking for specific identifiable heroes let me suggest several culled from recent Jewish history.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also know as, the Hafetz Hayim
The Hafetz Hayim was an influential Rabbi and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life. He was recognized as both an outstanding scholar and an extraordinarily righteous man. He refused to accept any rabbinical position and supported himself from a small grocery run by his saintly wife in the town of Radin where they lived. The Hafetz Hayim devoted himself to the study and teaching of Torah. A major reason for the enormous influence and acceptance won by the Hafetz Hayim was his utter and complete integrity.
Hero of the American Revolution.Haym Salomon helped finance the War of Independence save the newly proclaimed United States. Though he came to America from Poland only 4 years before the Declaration of Independence, his patriotism was so strong that he suffered imprisonment. He subsequently became official broker to the Office of Finance of the Continental Congress, working with Robert Morris to maintain the public credit of the infant government.
Generally credited with being the father of modern political Zionism, Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. A renowned journalist, he was so profoundly affected by the infamous Dreyfus trial in France that he became the foremost spokesman and activist for a Jewish homeland. His untiring efforts to convince kings and potentates of the justice and urgency of the Jewish claim to a homeland, as well as his untimely death in 1904 at the age of 44 make him a true Jewish hero.
Anatoly (Natan) Shcharanzky
As a Soviet Jew, Shcharansky petitioned to emigrate from the Soviet Union to live in Israel. He was arrested and accused of being a spy for the United States. President Jimmy Carter told the Russians that this was not true, but his government was intent on making an example of him and he was put on trial.The viciousness and ferocity of the Soviet government's desire to quell the Jewish dissident movement was brought to the attention of the entire world by the way Shcharansky was treated. He was sentenced to many years in prison, but not before he made a number of statements in court, which made all of world Jewry proud of him. He showed his great courage when he said: "One would think I would be sorry, but I am not. I am happy because I have lived at peace with my conscience... I am happy that I helped people... I am happy to have witnessed the process of liberating Soviet Jewry. For more than 2,000 years, my people have been dispersed. Wherever Jews were, they would repeat every year, 'Next year in Jerusalem.' At present, I am as far as ever from my people ... and many hard years ... are in store for me. To my wife and my people, I can only say, 'Next year in Jerusalem.'"Finally in 1988 he was ransomed from the Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel.
There are many who occur to me. The first is Rabbi Maurice Eisendratrh, a”h, who had the courage to lead the Jewish world during the civil rights era. I still picture him carrying a Sefer Torah while he was marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King in Alabama. Another is Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a”h, who was both a scholar, a giant of social justice, and an impassioned leader of the Zionist cause. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan,a”h, founder of the Reconstructionist movement was both a scholar of the tradition, and a challenging modernist. Rabbi Jacob Weinstein, a”h, was a great leader of the fight for organized labor, yet had a wonderful combination of humility and a great sense of humor.
These are but a few. Read their biographies for more detail about them.
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