The Missionary Cult of Personality

One of the social phenomena most at odds with Judaism is that of the cult of personality. Max Weber explains in Economy and Society that among three distinct models of authority is the charismatic leader, whose authority grows out of the charm or charisma associated with that individual personality. In Politics as Vocation, he explains that “Men do not obey him [the charismatic ruler] by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him.” The actual capabilities of the leader are irrelevant; all that matters is that the followers attribute such power to the individual, shielding the leader from legitimate criticism.

Such leadership does not established tradition or an objective selection process, but rather, authority is based purely in the belief the followers have in the charismatic leader. Such leaders are frequently volatile and erratic, as the locus of authority purely lies with them by virtue of how the masses perceive them. Oto haIsh would be classified as a “charismatic leader,” as would despots who claim divine right of rule, and gurus who head new religious movements. Nikita Khrushchev famously decried the cult of personality that developed around Josef Stalin. By not being bound by rules, laws, or tradition, such figures are ultimately accountable only to themselves, requiring unyielding obedience, and displaying narcissistic tendencies.

Judaism, on the other hand, sees Rational-Legal authority as the proper basis of leadership in a society. In this model, functionaries wield authority based in legally established norms and premises. Ultimate authority is seated in the rules themselves, not the rulers. Legality, rather than charisma, serves as the locus of authority, and the legitimacy of the leader is vetted and determined by whether they are acting in accordance with legal norms and tradition. Judaism ultimately places authority in legality, in the form of both Written Torah and its expounding in the Oral Torah. Charisma disrupts the routine and orderly, and is thus incompatible with a religious system based on normative standards of belief and practice. Law is set forth by sages in their capacity as masters of tradition and reasoning, as evident in the story of Akhnai’s oven (Bava Metzia 59b), where the sages declare, Ein Mashgichin b’Bat Kol; we do not accept the ruling of a heavenly voice when it contradicts the majority opinion of the Sages. (Some ruled more stringently, asserting that we do not accept the testimony of a Bat Kol even if it follows the majority opinion). “Lo bashamayim hi” (Deut. 30:12) serves to establish the objective, justified legal nature of the halakhic system as the locus of religious authority for Judaism; even prophets, whose authority would seem charismatic, are nonetheless subject to objective, rational standards (Deut. 18:15-22), as their prophecies are vetted against tradition and accepted norms. Holy books, not holy people, are the basis of authority. Torah is to be immediately accessible, neither “distant nor wondrous,” according to the deuteronomic tradition, and thus within the capabilities and reach of all who desire it.

Understanding these two paradigms of authority can enable us to understand why Christianity and Judaism are mutually exclusive and entirely incompatible. The Torah’s revelation was national, not personal. The entire nation, including the souls of converts, stood on Har Sinai, as Torah was revealed and subsequently transmitted from generation to generation. Revelation in Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism and any host of false religions is rooted in the charismatic experiences of individuals; i.e. for Christianity, the cult of personality serves as the ultimate source of religious authority and explains its origins. Its founder, Oto haIsh, yemach shemo, willingly violated traditional norms of Torah conduct by actively encouraging his followers to disrespect their parents, desecrate Shabbos by harvesting fruits, calling his mother “woman,” and other violations. Legitimate prophets and teachers, to the contrary, must uphold the codified standards that preceded them.

Malachi 3:6 (himself the last of the prophets) declares: Ki Ani HaShem, Lo Shaniti. G-d simply does not change. G-d is not capricious or fickle, and instead acts according to what He has said. Indeed, whenever Christians are confronted with texts, verses, and historical facts which prove the falseness of their beliefs, their answers are always circular, as they declare that Oto haIsh’s authority is axiomatic; i.e. based on who they believe this figure to be solely. This is perhaps the strongest proof that there is simply no logical or objective basis to anything they believe.

Judaism, on the other hand, presents an enduring vision of G-d, who is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, and for eternity, and we faithfully await the coming of the mashiach, who has not come yet, and who will act in accordance with what G-d has delineated in Tanakh.

About the Author
Daniel Sayani is a student of traditional Jewish texts, with an eye towards their contemporary applications. He has been widely published on issues of religion, ethics, and their geopolitical dimensions, and he is excited about entering the next phase of his academic and professional life. He is also an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and a firm proponent of mesorah. Rabbi Sayani is frequently consulted for his expertise in matters pertaining to chevra kadisha and Jewish end-of-life practices.
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