Power Corrupts and Religious Power Faithfully Corrupts – Part 1
With a new ultra-orthodox, super nationalist government officially empowered in Israel, millions of Israelis feel liberal democracy is dangerously threatened. The Bible tells us that there is an even more powerful Jewish tradition of speaking truth to power; and being critical of self-righteous perfectionists.“Do not be excessively righteous or overly wise; otherwise you might ruin yourself.” (Ecclesiastes 7:16)
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)
But one of Gideon’s many sons did want to become a king and rule over Israel or at least a part of Israel so he convinced the leaders of his mother’s clan in the city of Shechem to support him: “Now Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal (Gideon) went to Shechem to see his mother’s relatives. He said to them and to his mother’s entire extended family, “Tell all the leaders of Shechem this: ‘Why would you want to have seventy men, all Jerub-Baal’s sons, ruling over you, when you can have just one ruler? Recall that I am your own flesh and blood.’
“His mother’s relatives spoke on his behalf to all the leaders of Shechem and reported his proposal. The leaders were drawn to Abimelech; they said, “He is our close relative.” They paid him seventy silver shekels out of the temple of Baal-Berith and Abimelech then used the silver to hire some lawless, dangerous men as his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and murdered his half-brothers, the seventy legitimate sons of Jerub-Baal, on one stone.
“Only Jotham, Jerub-Baal’s youngest son, escaped, because he hid. All the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo assembled and made Abimelech king. When Jotham heard the news, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim. He spoke loudly to the people below, “Listen to me, leaders of Shechem, so that God may listen to you!
“The trees were determined to go out and choose a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my oil, which is used to honor gods and men, just to sway above the other trees! So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be our king!’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my sweet figs, my excellent fruit, just to sway above the other trees!’ “So the trees said to the grapevine, ‘You come and be our king!’ But the grapevine said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my wine, which makes gods and men so happy, just to sway above the other trees!
“So all the trees said to the thorn-bush, ‘You come and be our king!’ The thorn-bush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to choose me as your king, then come along, find safety under my branches! Otherwise may fire blaze from the thorn-bush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’
“Now, if you have shown loyalty and integrity when you made Abimelech king, if you have done right to Jerub-Baal and his family, if you have properly repaid him— my father fought for you; he risked his life and delivered you from Midian’s power. But you have attacked my father’s family today. You murdered his seventy legitimate sons on one stone and made Abimelech, the son of his female slave, king over the leaders of Shechem, just because he is your close relative.
“So if you have shown loyalty and integrity to Jerub-Baal and his family today, then may Abimelech bring you happiness and may you bring him happiness! But if not, may fire blaze from Abimelech and consume the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo! May fire also blaze from the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo and consume Abimelech! Then Jotham ran away to Beer and lived there to escape from Abimelech, his half-brother.” (Judges 9:1-21).
Jotham’s speech appeals to that current in Biblical thought that believed that kingship itself was an unnecessary and unproductive institution. When a military leader was needed, one would arise; and when no longer needed, he could and should fade away. This view was similar to the view that prevailed for most of American history that the United States did not need, and should not have, a large standing army, as was the case in Europe.
Even when a monarchy was established by Samuel’s selection of Saul and then David to be the first two kings of Israel, the prophets of Israel and Judea were quick to proclaim God’s challenge to the kings of Israel and Judea when they did evil acts either morally or religiously. The arrest of Prophet Jeremiah provides a good example of the political danger for, and divine duty of a Jewish prophet in ancient Israel.
“The Lord spoke to Jeremiah at the beginning of the reign of Josiah’s son, King Jehoiakim of Judah. The Lord said, “Go stand in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple. Speak out to all the people who are coming from the towns of Judah to worship in the Lord’s temple. Tell them everything I command you to tell them. Do not leave out a single word! Maybe they will pay attention and each of them will stop living the evil way they do. If they do that, then I will forgo destroying them as I had intended to do because of the wicked things they have been doing.
Tell them that the Lord says, ‘You must obey me! You must live according to the way I have instructed you in my laws. You must pay attention to the exhortations of my servants the prophets. I have sent them to you over and over again. But you have not paid any attention to them. If you do not obey me, then I will do to this temple what I did to Shiloh. And I will make this city an example to be used in curses by people from all the nations on the earth.’”
“The priests, the prophets, and all the people heard Jeremiah say these things in the Lord’s temple. Jeremiah had just barely finished saying all the Lord had commanded him to say to all the people when all at once some of the priests, the prophets, and the people grabbed him and shouted, “You deserve to die! How dare you claim the Lord’s authority to prophesy such things! How dare you claim his authority to prophesy that this temple will become like Shiloh and that this city will become an uninhabited ruin!” Then all the people crowded around Jeremiah.
“However, some of the officials of Judah heard about what was happening and they rushed up to the Lord’s temple from the royal palace. They set up a court at the entrance of the New Gate of the Lord’s temple. Then the priests and the prophets made their charges before the officials and all the people. They said, “This man should be condemned to die because he prophesied against this city. You have heard him do so with your own ears.”
“Then Jeremiah made his defense before all the officials and all the people. “The Lord sent me to prophesy everything you have heard me say against this temple and against this city. But correct the way you have been living and do what is right. Obey the Lord your God. If you do, the Lord will forgo destroying you as he threatened he would. As for my case, I am in your power.”
Do to me what you deem fair and proper. But you should take careful note of this: If you put me to death, you will bring on yourselves and this city and those who live in it the guilt of murdering an innocent man. For the Lord has sent me to speak all this where you can hear it. That is the truth!”
“Then the officials and all the people rendered their verdict to the priests and the prophets. They said, “This man should not be condemned to die. For he has spoken to us under the authority of the Lord our God.” Then some of the elders of Judah stepped forward and spoke to all the people gathered there. They said, “Micah prophesied during the time Hezekiah was king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah: ‘The Lord who rules over all says, “Zion will become a plowed field. Jerusalem will become a pile of rubble. the temple mount will become a mere wooded ridge.”‘
“King Hezekiah and all the people of Judah did not put him to death, did they? Did not Hezekiah show reverence for the Lord and seek the Lord’s favor? Did not the Lord forgo destroying them as he threatened he would? But we are on the verge of bringing a great disaster on ourselves.” “Now there was another man who prophesied as the Lord’s representative against this city and this land just as Jeremiah did. His name was Uriah son of Shemaiah from Kiriath Jearim. When the king and all his bodyguards and officials heard what he was prophesying, the king sought to have him executed. But Uriah found out about it and fled to Egypt out of fear. However, King Jehoiakim sent some men to Egypt, and they brought Uriah back from there. They took him to King Jehoiakim, who executed him and had his body thrown into the burial place of the common people. However, Ahikam used his influence to keep Jeremiah from being handed over and executed by powerful people. (Jeremiah 26)
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 human words 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 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 prophetic guidance. The divine voice is still available for personal guidance but not for setting community policy. In future centuries, the influence of saintly rabbis reached a higher point with the rise of Spanish Kabbalah in the 13th century; and then spread and was popularized with the rise of Hassidism in the mid 18th century. This stimulated a reaction to the Medieval stories of spiritually powerful rabbis who could influence socio-political events, and there appeared a warning tale about an otherwise unknown Kabbalist named Joseph della Reyna.
He was a rare tragic folk-hero who emerged out of the final turbulent years of Spanish Jewry prior to the expulsion of all Jews who refused conversion, and the first two generations of exiles after the expulsion. Rabbi Joseph della Reyna became a highly popular figure in Jewish traditions east and west. In traditional Jewish literature tragedy befalls those who die at the hands of their tormentors.
But Joseph della Reyna was caught in the snare of his own messianic expectations, mystical visions, and passionate desires for an ideal world of justice and peace. Traditional narratives of his battle with angels and demons are the only testimony to his life.