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  • Eli Gottlieb

Mordecai Nisan's Practical Course in Quiet Leadership


Translated from a memorial address for my teacher, Prof. Mordecai Nisan, delivered on 30.03.17.

Mordecai Nisan was my doctoral advisor and, for the next twenty years, my colleague at the Mandel Leadership Institute.

Mordecai belonged to many, different worlds, all of which are represented here this evening. To preserve a family atmosphere, we decided to have very few speakers. So I will speak tonight in the first person plural – not only in my name but in the names of the many students and colleagues who loved Mordecai and considered him a mentor.

When I sat down to think about what I wanted to say about Mordecai, and to Mordecai, the first phrase that came to mind was “Thank you.” Initially, the phrase seemed too modest. But one of the most important things I learned from Mordecai was, in the words of the Bible (1 Kings, 19:11) “God was not in the noise.” Like most of the lessons I learned from Mordecai, I learned this lesson “on the way” (Deuteronomy 6:7): Not from grand statements or systematic lectures, but from how Mordecai was; how he thought, how he spoke, how he conducted himself in the world. So I will make do with the modest phrase, “Thank you,” and I will focus on three out of the hundreds of things for which I wish to thank Mordecai.

Thank you, Mordecai, for believing in us.

Mordecai was, first and foremost, a man of faith. Not in the religious sense, of Kierkegaard and Soloveitchik, but in the human, or humane, sense. Mordechai believed in people. And not just in people or humanity in the abstract, but in particular people. He believed in us.

In one of the clips that we’ll see tonight, there is a moment in which Mordecai is playing with one of his granddaughters. Mordecai is sitting in an armchair and she is standing on his knees. Mordecai invites here to climb up onto him, encouraging her to climb higher and higher. That scene captures for me Mordecai’s belief in people.

It was no accident that Mordecai was a developmental psychologist. Developmental psychology rests on two basic assumptions. First, that are things worth striving for; i.e., that there are such things as cognitive, emotional and moral maturity. Second, that we don’t get there in a single leap; i.e., that people attain these heights slowly and by degrees; that each of us is on a developmental journey.

This dual belief – that are things worth striving for and that we don’t get there in a single leap – was deeply ingrained in Mordecai. Not just as a psychologist but as an educator and a person. I believe that this dual belief also holds the secret to Mordecai’s remarkable patience. It allowed him, on one hand to set us high goals, and on the other hand, to empathize and encourage us when we didn’t reach them. Or, more accurately, when we hadn’t yet reached them. Because Mordecai believed that if a goal is worthy, then it is worthwhile to keep on trying in to achieve it.

Both in my doctorate and in my work at Mandel, I often made mistakes and did things wrong. Mordecai would never lie to me and tell me that what I’d done was OK. But he would never react in a way that made me feel worse about the error than I felt already. Instead, he would make me feel that he was with me, would encourage me, and would think with me about how to correct or improve the situation.

My second thank you, Mordecai, is for the lessons you taught us about serving a higher purpose.

Mordecai was driven by purpose. He often used words like “purpose” and “commitment” when explaining what he meant by “educational identity.” But what does it mean to serve a higher purpose? To serve a higher purpose is to understand that you are working for something more important than yourself. Accordingly, one who serves a higher purpose acts with modesty and conviction; is undeterred by obstacles and disappointments; and makes sure that the means are worthy and not just the end.

Mordecai served a higher purpose. And the lessons I learned from him about serving a higher purpose, I learned not in the lecture hall or the seminar room, but in boardrooms, steering committees, and the corridors of power. In these political places, Mordecai was a lighthouse of truth and integrity. He was, in the words of the poet (Psalms, 24:4), “clean of hands and pure of heart.”

Mordecai would play the naïf. But he was the opposite of naïve. If there was any naïveté in him, it was “second naïveté” as defined (independently of one another) by Paul Ricoeur and Ernst Akiva Simon, namely, naïveté by choice, which recognizes harsh reality but refuses to submit to it.

In these political places, Mordecai did not concede or capitulate, but he would never attack or lose his temper. He had an arsenal of rhetorical devices that he would deploy to stand his ground with charm and grace. “I don’t want to sound like Cato the Elder again but …” or “I agree completely. Nevertheless …”

And just look at programs that Mordecai succeeded in launching at the Mandel Leadership Institute over the last few years: The IDF program, the doctoral program, the youth leadership program, and more. Compare his record with that of noisier leaders. Then you’ll perhaps begin to understand what I mean by serving a higher purpose. This quiet and modest man, without once getting embroiled in conflict or political intrigue, moved mountains. Even when he was forced to write paper after paper on the same topic, or to present the same proposal over and over again, he would always do so, gracefully and without complaint. Because it wasn’t about him. It was for a higher purpose.

The third “Thank you,” Mordecai, is for the lesson you taught us in how to make way for others.

As I said, much of what I learned from Mordecai I learned from how he spoke and acted. But I actually learned even more from the times that Mordecai chose not to speak and the places from which he chose to absent himself.

Mordecai recruited me to the Mandel Leadership Institute when I was a young research student and a new immigrant from England. Over the course of twenty years, we worked together in various constellations. And in all those years, throughout the delicate dance we danced together, between all the different roles we played in the organization, and for one another, Mordecai never once made me feel as if I owed him something or that my achievements weren’t my own.

Just as, according to the Kabbalah, God reduced himself, as it were, to create the universe, so Mordecai knew when to hand over the mantle to others, and when to leave what he loved, for the sake of what he loved.

One sees this in the way he would initiate and establish programs and then transfer to others the responsibility for continuing the work. One sees this too in the graceful way in which he retired from the Mandel Leadership Institute, quietly and modestly. I understand from his family that Mordecai departed from the world with the same grace – calm, quiet, loving and encouraging.

So, thank you Mordecai, for believing in us, for showing us how to serve a higher purpose, and for teaching us how to make space for others.

May we succeed in completing the practical course in moral development that we began under your tuition and become thereby worthy of the title, “students of Mordecai Nisan.”


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