Leon Wiener Dow
Author of National Jewish Book Award Winner "The Going"

When Pharaoh Is Jewish

The Exodus story is more than just the story of the birth of the Jewish people as it passes through the birth canal of the Red Sea, and it is more than just a tale – riffed in countless ways over the course of Jewish history – of our people facing a death warrant and persevering. It is, fundamentally, a vision of liberation in that truth confronts and overcomes power, which is why it has nourished so many political and social movements, as Michael Walzer articulates so beautifully in Exodus and Revolution.

Tomorrow night, many of us will ask at our seder table The Four Questions, but I want to add a fifth, in light of recent events surrounding Michael Steinhardt’s treatment of women: What are we to do when a Pharaoh lurks in our Jewish institutional or philanthropic world?

I’m aware of the danger of asking the very question, for in so doing I implicitly compare some of our dearest and most committed Jewish leaders to the ruthless Pharaoh, who tossed Jewish babies into the Nile and submitted our ancestors to brutal slavery. But Pharaoh represents something much more villainous than an oppressor of the Jews. He is the embodiment of unbridled, unchecked power. That is why, according to the midrash, he would go to bathe in the Nile each morning: he would relieve himself in the water in order to create the illusion that he had no physical needs. He crafts an ethos of power by establishing a leadership predicated upon a qualitative height differential between him and his subjects. In direct contrast to Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics that allows the other to make a moral demand of me because she is in a position of height, Pharoah establishes a foundation of power that places itself on high. That, I would submit, is the ultimate ruthlessness of Pharoah’s tyranny.

The New York Times article and direct accounts such as Sheila Katz’s and Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi’s make it quite clear that Steinhardt’s behavior, too, was predicated on a power differential between him and those around him, be they employees of his foundation, employees of organizations that he funded, or individuals who received funding from him for their pursuits.

We would be foolish and irresponsible not to call out leaders in the Jewish community’s institutions that wield power they have compounded in order to get their way. And yet that is exactly what we have done, and what we continue to do – for two reasons.

Often we opt for silence because their abuse of power is in the name of a greater (Jewish) good, so we accept the tradeoff as necessary and perhaps even admirable, insofar as we forego one principle for the sake of another, “higher” one.  But there is a second – even more pragmatic, and even more inimical – reason that we allow their abuses to continue: precisely because that person has power, we are not wont to challenge it, for doing so exacts a serious personal cost.

Re-read Katz’s and Sabath Beit-Halachmi’s accounts as victims of Steinhardt’s behavior and Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s account as a witness and employee, and imagine the personal and professional cost that they had to endure because of the power differential at play between Steinhardt and them.

That cost is our continued bondage. Hundreds, if not thousands, in the Jewish institutional world are still enslaved to those who hold such privileged positions of power that they remain immune to critique. We maintain silence out of our commitment to the higher objectives at stake – and often because the personal consequences of speaking out would exact too great a price.

A Talmudic tradition teaches that because of the merit of righteous women who were in that generation, the people of Israel was redeemed from Egypt. A later midrash teaches that it is the righteous women in every generation that allow that generation to be redeemed.

Let us hope that Katz’s and Sabath Beit-Halachmi’s bravery will catalyze our generation’s redemptive ability to speak truth to those in our institutions who abuse their power.

About the Author
Leon Wiener Dow is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at Bina's Secular Yeshiva. His book The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in the area of Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and their five children.
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