The Torah Value of Decentralized Power -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Recently a prominent Orthodox rabbi was arrested for voyeurism, for putting cameras in a mikvah. Much has been written already about what must be learned from this horrific abuse of power. Perhaps rabbis require more oversight and annual reviews, perhaps there should be more women’s leadership around issues of mikvah, tighter security at mikvaot, etc.

All of these lessons and precautions have merit but I would like to call particular attention to one, the tendency in our era toward the centralization of power in the Orthodox community. If a convert feels that only one court or one rabbi can perform a legitimate conversion for her then even when she is wary of that rabbi or court, even when she suspects that doing his office work is not part of the conversion process, or that not putting her water bottle in front of the clock radio in the mikvah preparation room is not a Talmudic instruction, she is stuck. She must play ball with him if she wants to convert even if she finds the process abusive or suspect if there is no other nearby source of orthodox conversions. In contrast, when there is an open market, when anti-trust provisions are in place, customers’ interests are better served. Is such democratization a Jewish value?

When the Jewish people want a monarch, a figure who will centralize power and hold its reins in the era of Samuel, God frowns upon the idea. We see from the description in chapter eight of the book of Shmuel that God’s concern is one of power’s tendency to corrupt:

“9. And therefore listen to their voice; but you should solemnly warn them, and relate to them the customary practice the king who shall reign over them. 10. And Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. 11. And he said, This will be the customary practice of the king who shall reign over you; He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. 12. And he will appoint for himself captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. 13. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. 14. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive trees, the best of them, and give them to his servants. 15. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. 16. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your best young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. 17. He will take the tenth of your sheep; and you shall be his servants. 18. And you shall cry out in that day because of your king which you shall have chosen; and the Lord will not hear you in that day. 19. And the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, No; but we will have a king over us; 20. That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. 21. And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22. And the Lord said to Samuel, Listen to their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said to the men of Israel, Go every man to his city.”

Even the institution of the high priesthood, with its concentration of power, suffered from the same plague:
“And Eli the high priest was very old, and he heard all that his children were doing to the people of Israel, and that they had slept with the women who came to the tent of meeting (Samuel, chapter 3).”

The existing system of prophets apparently was much more appropriate in God’s eyes. In prophet there was no concentration of power, no royal bloodline or priestly lineage. Just the opposite was true, the people often ignored the Biblical prophets and they did not have the power to coerce the people except through gaining their respect, through the prophet’s own merits. Prophets were anything but a system of centralized power. It required just study and training, and it was then in the hands of the people, their choice, to hear the words of the prophet and take them to heart.

It seems the free market of ideas, within certain bounds (there was of course the Biblical danger of the false prophet), was a strong Biblical Jewish value. The Talmud tells us that anyone had the potential to be a prophet and that there were no less than 600,000 male prophets and 600,000 female prophets among the Jewish people; surely a decentralized institution.

When it comes to power and conversions let us return to the decentralized system of conversion courts which existed until 15 years ago when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel under the guidance of the recently arrested Rabbi, centralized it. Then we can fulfill the immortal words of Moses as recorded in the Biblical book of Numbers, “If only the whole nation of God were prophets…”

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