Power Corrupts, Religious Power Corrupts Faithfully – OpEd


From very early in Jewish history and religious literature there has been a strong current of criticism of those who are powerful and how they use their power; and even more radical, of the self-justification of powerful institutions. The clearest example of this opposition to institutional power occurred at the end of the eleventh century BCE at a time when many of the People of Israel said they wanted to be ruled by a hereditary monarchy just like all the other nations around them. 

According to the first Book of Samuel chapter 8: “In his old age Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second son was Abijah. They were judges in Beer Sheba. But his sons did not follow Samuel’s ways. Instead, they made money dishonestly, accepted bribes, and perverted justice.

“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.

“But this request displeased Samuel, for they said, “Give us a king to lead us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you. So now do as they say.  “But seriously warn them and make them aware of the policies of the king who will rule over them.” 

So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you: He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment. 

“He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers. 14 He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants. In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day.”

“But the people refused to heed Samuel’s warning. Instead they said, “No! There will be a king over us! We will be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.” “So Samuel listened to everything the people said and then reported it to the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Do as they say and install a king over them.”

Samuel’s objections to a monarchy is not that some, or even most, of the kings will be corrupt and unjust. As can be seen from the list of the king’s demands, these are just the normal demands that a government makes of the people it rules. Samuel the prophet was not alone in his view that powerful institutions and organizations demand what they and many others think of as appropriate support and therefore people would be better off without them.

Three or four generations prior to Samuel’s opposition to the people’s desire for a king, a Jewish military hero named Gideon refused to become a king when the crown was offered to him. “The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son, and your grandson. For you have delivered us from Midian’s power.” Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you. (Judges 8:22-3)

This Jewish tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ continued until the first century when John the Baptist was executed by king Herod whom John had denounced for an illegal marriage. “Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had repeatedly told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Although Herod wanted to kill John, he feared the (Jewish) crowd because they accepted John as a prophet. 

“But on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod, so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Instructed by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” Although it grieved the king, because of his oath and the dinner guests, he commanded it to be given. So he sent and had John beheaded in the prison.” (Matthew 14:3-10) 

All this changed radically during the generations after both the city of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. For the next 1878 years there was no Jewish king, and Jews were governed by non-Jewish kings and rulers. During this period Jews ruled their own communities by virtue of the rabbinic interpretations and expansions of the Biblical legal system, and the leadership of great rabbinic legal scholars and the personal persuasiveness of local saintly rabbis. 

An excellent example of how the prophet’s word of God from heaven was replaced by the human words of religious scholars here on earth comes from a mid second century event related in the Talmud: “It is taught: R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If the Halakhah (religious law) is in accordance with my view, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they retorted.

Again he said to them “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the channel of water prove it!” Sure enough, the channel of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a channel of water,” they rejoined. Again he urged, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it!” Sure enough, the walls tilted as if to fall. But R. Joshua, rebuked the walls, saying, “When disciples of the wise are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what right do you have to interfere?” Hence in deference to Rabbi  Joshua they did not fall and in deference to Rabbi Eliezer they did not resume their upright position; they  still stand aslant.

Rabbi Eliezer again said to the Sages, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven.” Sure enough, a divine voice cried out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, with whom the Halakhah always agrees?” Rabbi Joshua stood up and protested: “The Torah is not in heaven!” (Deuteronomy 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You (God) wrote in your Torah at Mount Sinai, `After the majority must one incline’. (Exodus 23:2)”

Rabbi Nathan met [the prophet] Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One do at that moment?” Elijah: “He laughed [with joy], saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'” (Baba Metzia 59b)

Thus God himself was happy that his children had now achieved enough maturity to govern themselves without the need for ongoing prophetic guidance. The divine voice is still available for personal guidance but not for setting community policy. 

Artificial Intelligence and the power of science to genetically modify food crop seeds and animal reproduction is rapidly coming upon us. Will our political and spiritual leaders guide us with self-confident pride or with open minded spiritual humility. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *