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Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe

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A Jewish Perspective on the Dangerous Charisma of Power

Posted: 05/12/11 01:08 PM ET

In the ancient world, what was the traditional attitude towards power? When the son of Persian King Cyrus, Cambyses, himself became King, he wanted to marry his sister. He called in the royal judges to inquire whether there was a law permitting this practice. They came back and said they could find no such law, but they did find a law saying that "the King of the Persians might do whatever he pleased."

The Bible warns against Kings because it knows that the charisma of power is dangerous. What was true then is true now. A man like bin Laden acquires followers not only by having a potent ideology, but by having acquired previous followers, that is, by the charisma of power. In more conventional circles the same rule applies: in Kissinger's new book on China he writes that "Nixon complimented Mao on having transformed an ancient civilization, to which Mao replied: 'I haven't been able to change it. I've only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.'" Kissinger then adds: "After a lifetime of titanic struggle to uproot Chinese society, there was not a little pathos in Mao's resigned recognition of the pervasiveness of Chinese culture and the Chinese people." The NY Times reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, calls this "startling." It is worse; so see pathos in Mao's failure to kill sufficient millions to uproot the native culture is monstrous. The charisma of power sometimes works across cultures as well, and it can be frightening.

How intimidating can this be? Allied to charisma is fear. Sometimes the fear is quite literal -- the threat of the powerful to crush the powerless. But sometimes it is symbolic and no less intimidating for that: A terrifying tale that emerged from the Soviet Union reminds us of the cost of fear and force: For a long time, the crimes of Stalin were not mentioned inside the Soviet Union. The first official breaking of the taboo was by Nikita Kruschev. He delivered a secret sevn-hour anti-Stalin speech in the Politburo, chronicling the dictator's crimes. In the midst of his speech, a voice was heard from the back of the chamber: "Comrade where were you when all this was going on?" Kruschev stopped. "Who said that?" he thundered. No one stood. "Who dared to say that?" he asked again. When once more no one responded, Kurschev spoke calmly again. "Comrade," he said, "that's where I was."

What is the Jewish attitude towards rulers? A blessing tells the story. When one sees a potentate, one is supposed to recite the blessing: "Blessed are you oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given of his glory to flesh and blood." All power is derived from a higher source. Earthly rule reflects back to God. The person before you may seem a god. He is a person, with the same stubborn flaws that afflict us all, if anything, they may be magnified by power.

The Talmud teaches that during the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer, a regular worshiper bows at the beginning and end of two of the benedictions. A High Priest bows at the beginning of each of the eighteen blessings, and a king remains bowed for the entire prayer. The greater the temptation to pride, the greater the need for humility. Can one resist the charisma and intimidation of misused power? Perhaps we have a chance if we remember that human beings, however gifted or exalted, are dust and ashes. True sovereignty is Divine.

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