4. Judaism’s Powerful Ambivalence to Power
Yet the Jewish view of power is not so clear-cut. Saadiah Gaon, the famous medieval philosopher, for example, writes in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions that the desire to attain leadership is actually both an innate and a positive attribute.
Perhaps more germane to our discussion, however, is the view taken by Professor Stuart Cohen today, which lays emphasis on the covenantal nature of the Jewish People and the ideological consequences of leadership. At Mount Sinai, Cohen notes, the People of Israel became the instrument whereby the higher rule of the Divine was publicly proclaimed, confirmed and legitimized. Thus, all Jews who were present had equal rights. Or, to be more precise, all Jewish males then attained equal shares in the management of what was to be the Kingdom of Heaven.
According to some interpretations, this was precisely what Korach and his followers had in mind when they declared to a shocked Moses and Aharon,
Why do you raise yourselves up over the assembly of the Lord?
Above all, Korach was motivated not by equality for all, but by ambition and jealousy (an oft-repeated Biblical failing). The equal status he sought was for himself as a Levite with that of the Cohanim [Priesthood] - and he was stirring up the populace to achieve it. Furthermore, he knew very well that both Moses and Aharon were Divinely appointed, and held different responsibilities to the people. This context makes the text shocking and the motive clear – and Moses spells it out to him and the People. His challenge to G-d's order and to public order are the reason for the severe and ultimate Divine punishment. The text of Korach's protest is nonetheless interesting for its rebellious challenge to authority as a socio-political behaviour, and for its assertion that there should not be distinctions between the leaders and the led, within the convenantal community.
Cohen notes that the rabbinic ambivalence towards leadership also manifests itself in the recognition that, since the ultimate Leader and Judge reigns eternally supreme, the power vested in Moses, Aharon, and others is - at best - a concession to the People’s weakness.
This ambivalence also expresses itself in a powerful and moving Midrash about Noah, in whose hands were bestowed no less than the key to all human and animal survival. Of Noah it was said that he was, in his generation, “a righteous and wholehearted man."
The term “righteous” is a rare accolade, ascribed to a very select number of personalities in the Bible.
Noah - the classic provider and longstanding, faithful servant - toiled wearily day and night to ensure that all in the Ark received exactly what they needed. For close to a year, he laboured for the lowliest of insects, as commanded by G-d.
- So how could such a kind-hearted man fall prey to the abuse of power?
Let us follow the story as recorded in the Yalkut Shimoni relating to the Midrash about that moment when Noah sends the raven to search for dry land:
Raven: “Why do you send me of all the beasts… especially when there are only two of us [in the ark]? If something happens to me, what will be…? Take from the species of which there are seven of each gender.”
What would we expect Noah to answer to such perfect logic, particularly when confronted with such obvious compassion for one of G-d’s species?
Certainly not the short, snappy response given in the Midrash!
Said Noah: “What need has the world of you?”
Noah, in fact, said to the pleading bird – if you die, you die. He was uncaring of the individual bird, although this threatened the raven as a species. There is no explanation in the text, but the Yalkut Shimoni and Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer single out the raven as having sinned in the Ark, and as a corrupting influence. However, Noah fails to elaborate, a behaviour that stems from being drunk with power, or from exercising diminished judgement through power: drunkenness eventually led Noah to his downfall.
Once again, it is important to remember one traditional Jewish dictum about great leaders and their leadership - Noah’s righteousness was relative to the times in which he lived:
Noah was a righteous and wholehearted man in his generation.
Bereishit 7:1; Sanhedrin 109b
Leadership is relative to time and space. Needless to say, there is also a dissenting opinion (Resh Lakish), namely, that Noah would have been great in any generation, or in a righteous generation (R. Nehemiah, Midrash Rabba), but there is not a lot of disagreement. Judaism is not given to addressing relative greatness in its leaders and tends to emphasize how much one person was needed in that particular generation: a useful lesson for historians…
In this spirit, there is a question about why G-d showed Adam each generation of the future, but only its leaders. The great Hassidic leader Rabbi Simcha Bunam commented:
Had G-d shown Adam the leaders first, Adam would have said: “Should such a (blind) man as Bunam be a leader?” But when Adam saw the generation first, he said: “In such a generation, even Bunam is worthy to be a leader…”
Noah: My Jewish Learning, www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/noah_index.htm
Moses: Who are those most fit to serve as Jewish leaders? Behaalotcha. Rabbi Pinchas Lipner. Jewish San Francisco
Moses, Eldad & Medad: Democracy, Dissent and Leadership Responsibility, Steven Bayme. American Jewish Committee.