It seems that every day another man in power is accused of sexual impropriety and subsequently fired. The adage “power corrupts” appears to be painfully true. Does Judaism believe that power corrupts and if so, does it have any advice on how to not get corrupted?
Lord Acton, a 19th-century British politician, famously wrote that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While pithy, Acton’s statement honestly doesn’t seem all that profound. It really seems like a simple and fairly obvious observation. There is, however, a less-famous second part to Acton’s quote: “Great men are almost always bad men.” I don’t agree with that.
There are many examples we can see of power corrupting people; many such examples occur in the books of Judges and Kings. I think one of the best examples is Yeravam (Jeroboam), first king of the Ten Tribes of Israel after they broke away from the kingdom of Judah in a civil war. Yeravam was originally a hero. King Solomon had been a righteous ruler but he wasn’t perfect. When Solomon made an error in judgment in a certain matter of public policy, Yeravam rebuked the king at great personal risk. Later, when the Ten Tribes seceded, Yeravam was appointed king over the breakaway nation with Divine assent. But what did Yeravam do once he had the job? He closed the border between the nations of Israel and Judah to keep his subjects from being able to visit the Temple, and he erected idols to serve as spiritual substitutes. Yeravam didn’t become corrupt until he had power. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102a) relates a story in which God personally asked Yeravam to repent but the newly-minted monarch’s ego would not permit it.
Yeravam’s story is better-detailed than most but it is not unique. We see other stories in Tanach where leaders got off to a good start and later lost their way. But it’s not an inherent consequence of having authority. There are plenty of rulers who started out righteous and stayed that way, plus a few who started out rotten but mended their ways.
I think it all boils down to “checks and balances.” Unlike the US government, however, whose three branches balance one another, Jewish leaders are balanced by the same Torah that gives them their authority.
Let’s take the kohanim (priests). These were the spiritual leaders of the nation and they enjoyed a number of benefits because of their position. Only kohanim were permitted to eat certain sacrifices and portions and, even today, kohanim are honored with priority in a number of areas, such as the first aliyah when reading the Torah. And yet, the kohanim did not have carte blanche to do absolutely anything they pleased – there are plenty of rules that apply only to the kohanim! Probably most familiar are the restrictions that a kohein faces in that he can’t attend a funeral except for his seven closest relatives (father, mother, wife, son, daughter, brother and unmarried sister), and he has a much more limited pool of potential spouses. But there are other such rules, including how often a kohein must get his hair cut! (In case you’re curious, it’s every 30 days.) The Kohein Gadol (High Priest) had even more authority and privilege than a regular kohein and, accordingly, even more restrictions! The Kohein Gadol couldn’t attend any funerals, had an extremely narrow marriage pool, and had to have his hair cut every week! So an average rank-and-file Jew was unrestricted in areas where the kohanim in general and the Kohein Gadol in particular were bound by a variety of obligations and prohibitions.
The Sanhedrin was a combination of Judiciary and Legislative branches and they also did not have unlimited power. The Torah imposes many restrictions on the Sanhedrin, from the obligation to follow the majority to penalties for “rebellious elders” who fail to abide by such majority decisions. There is a presumption of innocence on the part of defendants, acquittals could be made with a simple majority while convictions required a supermajority, and there were a ton of rules about which witnesses’ testimonies could be accepted. This certainly didn’t make the Sanhedrin’s job any easier but the Sanhedrin didn’t exist to make the members’ lives easier, it existed to serve the people. So the Torah in many ways tied the Sanhedrin’s hands rather than allowing them unfettered authority.
Which brings us to the king. The king had more authority than anyone else in the nation but even he had limitations. (For starters, like any non-kohein, he was not permitted to eat the portions that were reserved for the kohanim but that restriction is not specific to the king.) Regulations that applied specifically to the monarch included limitations on how many wives he could marry, how many horses he could have in his stables, and how much personal wealth he was permitted to accumulate. The king was also required to write a Torah scroll – on top of the one that a person is required to write as a private citizen. He was to carry this Torah with him at all times precisely because his position included an inherent danger of corruption. Writing and carrying a Torah served as a constant reminder of his obligations, his limitations and to Whom he reports.
Earlier, we spoke about good kings and bad kings. King Ahab was definitely one of the bad kings. Remember the story in which he wanted the vineyard belonging to Naboth? Ahab tried to buy it and went into a depression when Naboth refused to sell. Ultimately, Queen Jezebel had Naboth framed and executed so that her husband could confiscate the vineyard. So why didn’t Ahab just take the field? Because while the king had the right to confiscate property for public works (eminent domain), he was not permitted to do so for his own benefit. Even a rotten king like Ahab didn’t have limitless power.
Power should be like a game of rock, paper, scissors, with no one side having the upper hand in every scenario. In Judaism, every form of power also comes with limitations. Of course, a king or other leader could overstep but that is true of all of us. And like all of us, kings, kohanim and judges answer to God. The same Power that invests them with authority also limits them. If they ignore their limitations, they also deny the very source of their authority.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent