June 27th, 2009
By Arthur Harrow
Today we read the story of the Great Rebellion, where a series of people, most
prominently Korach, rose up and challenged the authority of Moses---and by extension that of God, who had appointed Moses. The question of rebellion or mutiny is not some theoretical Torah problem like what would happen if you tried to schect a chicken with the wrong size razor; I can tell you that during my two years as a synagogue president not a week went by without someone telling me how much better they could do my job. It happens in my practice, it happens on committees I sit on; it’s a part of human nature. It’s a prominent part of Christian theology---Lucifer felt he should be the guy in charge, and from that sense of envy arose sin and death.
I can understand how the Lord felt when dealing with Korach and the other rebels; like
Him, I have frequently been tempted to smite my critics and let the earth swallow them, roast their colleagues to a succulent medium-well, and condemn their sons to write song lyrics; but this would miss the teachable moment: telling the guy who’s sure he could do better that this is his chance; let’s see what he does when he’s in charge.
That brings me to the main topic today, which I will call:
What Would Bruce Do?
Some of you may have seen a ﬁlm a few years back called “Bruce Almighty.” The
premise is that a man challenges God as to the quality of his work product, and as an educational exercise is given Divine power, to do anything he wants without supervision or direction and show that he can do a better job. But Bruce is only human. So lo, he doth gird himself in Ferragamo and Armani, and the roar of his Ferrari is heard in the land, and he doth smite his enemies, and lo, it is good. But he then begins to realize that every action he takes has consequences, and that there is a responsibility associated with power.
This ﬁlm has obvious theological implications. First of all, Jennifer Anniston is de factoevidence of intelligent design, while the continued production of ﬁlms featuring Jim Carey calls strongly into question the existence of a just and merciful deity. And while I will be the ﬁrst to admit that Jim Carey and his ﬁlms are generally not associated with deep philosophical questions, several occurred to me after watching this ﬁlm. The ﬁrst and most obvious was whether it’s a mortal sin to attempt to improve Jennifer Anniston; but that is a topic for another day. The second, which I will dwell more on this morning, is what Judaism has to say about power, authority, and responsibility.
After all, we all at some point in our lives are in positions of authority. Whether as
parents, teachers, physicians, rabbis, or synagogue ofﬁcers, we face the question of where the line is between use and abuse of our positions. That’s half the point of the story of Korah, according to the traditional scholars; he wanted to assume leadership, but not for good reasons.
Other religions have things to say on this topic. J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, made this the core of The Lord of the Rings. His premise was that the temptation to use power would always overwhelm good intentions. As one person says, when offered the power represented by the Ring:
“No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And
And to the same point, another person is advised to take power and use it for good
purposes a little later in the book:
“I wish you’d take his Ring. You’d put things to rights. You’d make
Christianity, especially Catholicism, starts with the presumption that man is inherently corrupt and evil and therefore prone to the temptations which power and authority offer.
We know that Judaism does not have this primary axiom. How does this color our
approach to this question?
This is a very big topic, and I am reminded that time is limited and we must break for
Havdalah at some point. So let us explore different aspects of this question in a series of vignettes, which I will again call [with all due respect to our Christian colleagues] what would Bruce do?
•What if Bruce were in charge, and he became aware of a government in a country very far away; this government clearly had designs on its neighbors, and had treated its own citizens with cruelty and brutality, but did not clearly pose a direct threat to his own country?
Over the centuries, there has been debate over the concept of a “just war.” When is it
morally justiﬁable to attack? Can you attack ﬁrst, or must you wait until you are hit ﬁrst?
This question came up, obviously, in 2003. It was also the dilemma faced by Franklin
Roosevelt in the 1930’s, when the menace of Nazi Germany was obvious, but isolationist voices said that it wasn’t our problem, that we as Americans were not in direct danger, that [as modern conservatives would say] there was no vital national interest at stake.
This, to me, is a Jewish “no-brainer.” There is an order, an explicit mitzvah, which tells us to seek out Amalek and to blot him out. Not because Amalek attacked our people; we were attacked by other nations from time to time and not ordered to expunge them from the face of the earth. Amalek was singled out because he preyed on the weak and helpless, the noncombatants.
The modern implication is that we have a moral imperative to try to stop those who
would wage war on innocent civilians, whether it’s a question of the gassing of Iraqi
Kurds, the genocide of Tutsi tribesmen in Africa, or the murder of families at a Seder in Israel. Those who would casually murder the weak and aged will eventually be at our own door, and the cost of stopping them later is almost always higher than the cost of early intervention.
So if Bruce were in charge, he would tell us that aggressively pursuing justice against a foreign dictatorship is consistent with Jewish values. When to try sanctions and when to send in troops is a topic for another time and we will leave Bruce to think about that for now.
•What if Bruce felt that it was very important that his country take action against another, but that the intelligence information providing the impetus to this action was questionable?
Can the leader lie [or, in the elegant language of Obi-Wan Kenobi, say things that are true “in a sense”]? This is an issue that goes way back before any State of the Union speech. Israel, for example, has on occasion denied having nuclear weapons when in fact it was fairly common knowledge that they did in fact posses them. Is there justiﬁcation for lying?
Rambam tells us that the king must follow Torah values. Clearly lying is a violation
thereof. Can you lie to save a life? We are told that saving lives takes precedence over all other laws except those forbidding idol-worship and murder; hence those in our congregation who make hospital rounds on Shabbat, for instance. But to lie to convince the nation to enter a war --- which will cause death --- would be wrong. If sufﬁcient evidence exists to support war, then it should be explicitly stated.
So if Bruce were in charge, we would expect him as a good Jew to tell the truth in a
matter of this sort.
•What if Bruce were in charge, and in response to an attack on our own soil the government ordered suspicious ethnic groups related to those felt to be responsible to be relocated in the name of national security, and used “advanced interrogation techniques” to obtain intelligence, and the response of the government to criticism is that we are under attack, and you should either love this country or leave it?
How far does a concern for security go? We hear a lot of talk these days about the balance between civil rights and homeland security. But it’s rarely as simple as that. If your child is hit at school, you may well have immediate thoughts about swift and sure justice, but you may choose to talk to the bully’s parents instead. At a national level, the stakes are even greater. We have yet to see the ﬁnal consequences of the so-called Patriot Act, but we do know that the knee-jerk reaction to Pearl Harbor ended with American citizens of Japanese descent placed in camps; and we all know what happened when the panic over the Reichstag ﬁre stampeded the German legislature into passing the Enabling Act. What does Judaism say?
We are told to treat the stranger among us with fairness and justice because we ourselves were “strangers in a strange land.” If explicit evidence existed regarding speciﬁc individuals, then they should be speciﬁcally prosecuted. Should all Jews in Hebron be rounded up because of the actions of a lone gunman who shot up a mosque? Consider the Nazi response to the assassination of Rudolph Heydrich by a Jewish partisan; there was an immediate wave of reprisals speciﬁcally against Jews [above and beyond what else was happening]. Surely we can be better than Nazis!
So Bruce, informed by Jewish values, should be very careful not to infringe on the civil liberties of generalized groups of people because of the actions of speciﬁc individuals.
•What if Bruce was an ordinary citizen, and in response to an attack on our own soil the government ordered suspicious ethnic groups related to those felt to be responsible to be relocated in the name of national security, and used “advanced interrogation techniques” to obtain intelligence, and the response of the government to criticism is that we are under attack, and you should either love this country or leave it?
Should a bad law be obeyed or protested? Should Jews be involved in civil disobedience, whether it relates to government policies towards Arab men, to Jim Crow laws, or to immigration quotas? We know that there is a history [and I will go out on a limb and call it a PROUD history] of Jewish involvement in civil disobedience and the civil rights movement. There is also a tradition of some Jewish resistance to civil disobedience. Our fellow Jews could be found on both sides of the question of the Vietnam war, and those who read the history books presented in some schools will recognize the fact of Jewish Confederates, ﬁghting for and on occasion giving their lives to defend a nation which supported slavery. What is the Jewish view of deliberate disobedience of authority?
The Rambam tells us that those who defy the authority of the king are to be executed. But with all due respect to the Rambam, and keeping carefully out of reach of those who quote him for a living, I must disagree with him. We are told that King Saul, enraged that priests were rendering assistance to David, ordered their summary execution for defying his policies. His staff refused, and someone else performed this deed, which is listed as one of Saul’s very bad moves. The Jerusalem Talmud asks, “Who were the refusing servants?” They were Abner and Amnon, who replied to the king “Do we owe you anything beyond this belt and mantle? Here, take them back!” They renounced their ofﬁces rather than carry out what they considered an immoral act. Another tract of the Talmud poses the question “why did this Abner meet an untimely end?” Because he might have made a stand against the killing of the priests but did not. In other words, it was considered insufﬁcient merely to refuse to participate; active opposition was called for.
It is ﬁtting to refer ﬁnally to Abraham Joshua Heschel in this setting. He once remarked “in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty while all are responsible.”
So Bruce, seeing something he perceives as a cruel or immoral act of his government, should feel compelled by his Jewish conscience to act in whatever way he can to change the government’s policy. He should not accept “if you don’t like it, go back where you came from.” He comes from here, and has a responsibility to act.
We can learn a lot from Bruce. When he’s put in a position of power, his Judaism
compels him to recognize evil and act against it, to make a clear and honest case for his actions, and to be prepared to use whatever power he has to pursue justice even from his own government. And we should hold our own leaders, whether they are Jewish or adhering to an ethic derived from Judaism, to the same standards we would follow ourselves. It’s called doing the right thing, and it’s how we who have held positions of responsibility can sleep at night.
Now this is all well and good, but you may be asking at this point “What does this have to do with Korach? After all, he never got to be in the position of being in power.” And that’s the point I’m getting to.
Bruce had the opportunity to learn these lessons, because when he challenged God, God challenged him in return to try to do a better job, and to learn from it. And it’s clear, whether in the movie or in this little fantasy that I have presented this morning, that he did learn from having to “walk the walk.” While I was writing this, I kept thinking that Korach and his co-conspirators were pretty capable and savvy people. Instead of being swallowed up by the mouth of the earth, or getting barbecued, perhaps an attempt to bring them back into the fold would give them the chance to become productive members of society. Would there have been beneﬁt from God taking a deep breath, forgetting what a lousy day He was having, counting to ten, and trying to make this a teachable moment rather than an opportunity for swift and total punishment and showing just Who was Boss? In these times of what has been called “the politics of personal destruction,” when compromise is seen as weakness and all opponents are enemies who must be vanquished [whether in national politics, ofﬁce politics, or even [dare I say it] synagogue politics], how would we want to behave when in a situation of dispute? How should we treat those we disagree with, and how do we wish to be treated when we are on the short end of the stick? When our children, our students, our subordinates, our fellow volunteers on synagogue committees defy us and challenge us, and we’re tempted to get mad, prove
we’re right, and take irreversible steps, perhaps we should remember Bruce [who was
given the opportunity to learn and grow, and ended up being a better person for it] and
Korach [who was immediately and without discussion buried alive].
Not that I would tell God how to do his job, of course…