Observations of a Kavod Maven

Over the decades my involvement in communal activities has shifted every few years from one specialized area to another, both within and outside the Orthodox Union. While this eclectic approach has its benefits, it has also all but ensured that I have no genuine expertise in any single sphere of communal life, with one exception—the dynamics of kavod, typically translated as “honor.”

I have observed kavod graciously accepted by the pious and fallaciously declined by scoundrels, demonstrating that accepting or rejecting kavod is itself indicative of neither haughtiness nor humility. I have discovered that bestowing kavod is sometimes obligatory, often optional and occasionally damaging. And most importantly, I now recognize that wisdom is required to convey kavod meaningfully.

Kavod is fascinating, perplexing and often amusing. It is a driver of both greed and generosity, both ostentatious frivolity and stunning self-sacrifice. Kavod and deference to communal leaders are foundations of communal stability. Competition for kavod among leaders, however, is a most common cause of communal strife and dysfunction, notwithstanding disguising the appetite for it as a stand on principle. Even our personal attitudes towards kavod are replete with inconsistencies and contradictions. We view it as worthy of achieving but shameful to pursue. Those who overtly relish it are ridiculed, but those who don’t succeed in earning it are viewed as failures. And while the receipt of kavod is often portrayed as being spiritually harmful, we curiously strive to ensure that this supposedly dangerous and corrupting influence is, in fact, received by those whom we love or admire most.

On a very personal basis, many of us, myself included, confront an almost self-delusional struggle with kavod. We declare our absolute disinterest in receiving kavod but are disturbed when it is denied. And then, when honest with ourselves, we are forced to engage in painful introspection when recognizing that we actually find receiving kavod to be desirable and meaningful.

A student of kavod eventually realizes that while the zealous pursuit or manipulative bestowal of kavod may be harmful, there are numerous instances when it has wonderful and even lofty purposes. Three such instances are when one extends gratitude, expresses values or imparts validation.

Gratitude
Hakaras hatov, extending gratitude, is a fundamental Torah value. Not only is it a cherished practice, but through its performance we hone the important personality trait of appreciation. Conveying kavod in the proper measure and in the proper manner is often the most powerful vehicle of expressing appreciation in a sincere and meaningful way.

On the other hand, when philanthropists—or even those simply helping others—signal an expectation of gratitude, they are often disparaged as being small-minded and petty, as seekers of kavod in exchange for kindliness. Unless the amount of expected gratitude is unreasonable, this characterization is unfair since there is a valid and purposeful reason for a benefactor to wish to receive thanks. Though we help others through charity and assistance because we are good Jews and good people, we also do so as an expression of our inborn need, imbued by Hashem, to be purposeful and relevant. This innate yearning to make a difference to others is satisfied only when we see that our efforts matter.

Sometimes the effect of our efforts is self-evident, but often we can only measure it by the degree of gratitude that is generated. When little or no recognition is granted, or an acknowledgement feels perfunctory or insincere, we suspect that the benefits we conferred were immaterial or misplaced. What we express as annoyance at the lack of gratitude may actually be our disappointment in failing to satisfy our urge to make a difference. Thus, gratitude transmitted through recognition and kavod actually conveys that the care or generosity received was truly meaningful.

Most importantly, I now recognize that wisdom is required to convey kavod meaningfully.

While individuals must certainly extend appreciation and heightened respect to those who have helped them, communal institutions—the OU included—are often guilty of failing to do so adequately. Invaluable staff members are frequently denied the honor they are due, and even donors typically receive recognition only in proportion to the financial benefit the institution received, notwithstanding the often greater degree of sacrifice incurred by many donors of small gifts. While the need to raise significant funds understandably informs this practice, institutions must ensure that proper kavod also be extended to those making generous, albeit modest, gifts.

Values
A powerful way we reinforce our personal value system, as well as communicate those values to others, is in choosing to whom we show kavod. In particular, we reflect the primacy of Torah and kedushah (holiness) by extending kavod to the Torah and its scholars, as well as to those whose lives exemplify reverence and piety. The same is true when honor is conferred upon institutions and those holding offices representing these values. The Mishnah directs us, “Aseh lecha rav—Make for ourselves a religious mentor.” Perhaps part of this mandate is to ensure that we extend kavod as an affirmation of our values.

In all segments of American Orthodoxy, however, respect for our rabbis and institutional heads, and for the institutions themselves, has increasingly diminished. The supposed justification for this decline is a perceived increase in our leaders’ deficiencies and flaws. Perhaps our hyper-focus on our leaders’ weaknesses and missteps is attributable to the scrutiny and magnification afforded by technology. Or perhaps, it is due to our self-righteousness. Regardless of the cause, the lessening kavod we extend to those who represent our values not only undermines our leadership’s efficacy but also compromises our personal and communal allegiance to the values themselves.

Perhaps even more concerning is that kavod, when given to inappropriate recipients, may actually undermine our communal values. Just as our institutions’ need for significant funding regrettably skews gratitude disproportionately to larger donors, it sometimes pressures them to bestow kavod on donors with compromised ethical standards and sullied reputations. While such honor is undoubtedly awarded merely to elicit desperately needed funding, our young people, in particular, keenly absorb the criteria by which communal kavod is disbursed as well as which inappropriate behaviors we are prepared to overlook.

When asked how our communal culture might be imbued with a deeper commitment to honesty and integrity, Rav Ahron Lopiansky, shlit”a, noted that communal culture begins with our children’s perceptions of our values and priorities. He observed that while our children’s stories recount examples of remarkable Torah scholarship and extraordinary acts of piety, we rarely tell stories conveying the immeasurable kavod due to those who exemplify adherence to everyday honesty and business integrity.

If we are to bestow kavod as a tool to solidify our values, how do the recipients avert susceptibility to misconstruing the kavod as due to them personally, rather than in respect of the values they represent? I surmise that many holy individuals simply transcend this susceptibility. Others may counter this risk by being particularly attentive to the kavod due to others also representing these values.

On a personal note, as president of the OU, I frequently receive significant “office holder kavod.” Though I recognize that my title serves as the conduit for gratitude expressed in appreciation of the impact of and benefits provided by the OU, I often fear personalizing this kavod. And so I try to counter this susceptibility by attempting to redirect the recognition to those truly deserving of the kavod—the exceptionally talented and passionate staff and volunteers who implement OU endeavors and those who provide the funding. Nevertheless, I abashedly concede that when complimented and thanked for the OU’s work, I cannot escape feeling that I deserve at least some of the credit.

Ultimately, however, I am shielded from thinking that the kavod is about me by my unapologetically candid chevra. They mercilessly ensure that I will not, for even a moment, construe the kavod as personal, or imagine that I will continue to receive White House invitations, speaking engagements or media inquiries for even a day after I conclude my tenure as OU president. Perhaps this is one of the objectives behind the Mishnah’s directive “kenei lecha chaver,” to acquire for ourselves a friend.

Validation
A particularly potent feature of kavod is its power to provide personal validation—something we all crave. I am often bemused when hearing disparaging assertions that a particular individual suffers insecurity. We all suffer insecurity. Even our limited self-confidence fleetingly evaporates when challenged. Though we often effectively mask our insecurities, we are so vulnerable to doubting our worthiness as to be pained by even the most subtle personal slight. Kavod is the tool we are given to validate each other by imbuing others with a sense of self.

*        *        *

The day after Yom Kippur, a rabbi shared with me his dismay regarding a congregant. Rather than being elevated by the shul’s powerful Yom Kippur davening, the congregant, following the conclusion of services, remarked how hurt he was by being the only man in the congregation not invited to open the ark over the course of the High Holidays. In contrast to the rabbi, my dismay was that the rabbi himself was incapable of empathizing with the congregant’s pain.

*        *        *

Kavod in public display, or through pomp and ceremony, is often appropriate, but is actually the more superficial form of honor. Genuine kavod is subtle, thoughtfully fashioned to recognize and elevate the essence of its recipient. The sincerity of authentic kavod cannot be misinterpreted as flattery and is never in expectation of reciprocity. Examples of meaningful kavod include seeking and following consequential advice, and placing a premium on another person’s time. Proper kavod leaves the recipient feeling that he or she matters.

Genuine kavod is subtle, thoughtfully fashioned to recognize and elevate the essence of its recipient.

Granting someone kavod should not be confused with basic menschlichkeit. Extending a pleasant greeting in passing is menschlichkeit. Calling someone during the bustling days before yom tov to convey sincere admiration and respect is kavod. Complimenting someone’s talent after a performance is menchlichkeit, but taking the time to call the individual the next day to convey appreciation is kavod.

While we are all empowered to validate and elevate others through giving kavod, the particularly potent capacity of prominent community members to convey kavod is commonly squandered. I often speculate that highly regarded individuals are simply unaware of their power to infuse others with an invaluable, increased sense of self through gestures, large and small.

I and many others observe the grace and elegance of imparting kavod in the manner of Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, who among other things will frequently sit in rapt attention listening to the public Torah discourses of those significantly his junior. By contrast, I am pained by those who scamper out of shul when the rabbi rises to speak, thereby diminishing the rabbi personally, while also undermining appreciation of the Torah’s primacy, as the community silently observes a repeated public humiliation of the Torah’s representatives.

Within the Family
Perhaps the most significant and consequential context for conveying kavod is within the family. This is highlighted by the inclusion of the mandate to honor one’s parents within the Aseres Hadibros, the Ten Commandments, and by the Talmud directing us to honor one’s spouse even more than one honors himself. While there is always room for improvement in these family dynamics, insufficient attention is paid to the honor that parents need pay to their children.

Honor and respect should not be confused with love. Certainly, emotionally healthy parents love their children, but even such parents are often inattentive to giving children proper kavod. While kavod, by its nature, provides an infusion of self-worth, such infusion has particular significance in parenting. Every child relies on others to help him develop a sense of self confidence and self-worth. Although these traits may also be advanced or crushed in a classroom or playground, they are most significantly nurtured or squashed by parents. Many parents fail to recognize that, by contrast to the embrace of love, kavod is conveyed only at arm’s length. Respecting one’s child requires seeing the child as an “other.”

Parents are due kavod for giving their children life, but the giving of life does not cease upon childbirth. By imbuing a child with a gradually increasing, and always necessary, sense of self, an ongoing giving of life is occurring. Perhaps that is why in accordance with Torah values, “kol hamegadel yasom besoch beiso ma’aleh alov hakasuv k’ilu yelado—adopting and raising a child is akin to giving birth to him” (Sanhedrin 19b).

Well through a child’s adulthood there is no greater source of encouragement and validation than from a parent. Even now, years after my parents, a”h, are no longer alive, I still long for their approval and validation. I am a fundamentally diminished person by their absence, and I recognize that my mourning their passing is not only for the loss of my parents’ love, respect and guidance, but also for the part of me that is no longer.

A parent’s kavod to a child, like all authentic kavod, is most impactfully conveyed when sincere and when accompanied by no expectation of reciprocity. Kavod to a child, whether school age or adult, is expressed by asking the child for input and respecting the child’s views and ideas. It is respecting the child’s privacy. It is also recognizing and acknowledging a child’s accomplishments, failures and dreams as the child’s own, rather than those of the parent.

Perhaps the most significant form of kavod that parents can give to children mirrors the most significant kavod that children can give to parents—conveying the joy in spending time together.

Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm Ropes & Gray LLP.

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This article was featured in the Winter 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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