One of my colleagues recently completed a Jewish learning fellowship where she studied traditional and contemporary texts on the theme of “power.” Coincidentally, or not, the latest edition of the Maimonides Fund’s new journal, Sapir, focused on the same theme. As thoughtful people trying to make sense of the social, political, moral climate in which we are living, many seem to be gravitating to questions of power.
As American Jews, we are living in, perhaps, the most thriving, high achieving, fully accepted Jewish diaspora community ever. And, the Jewish People have a sovereign Jewish State for the first time in 2000 years. For thousands of years, we have found ways to survive and adapt as powerless minorities, so it is no surprise that our newfound experiments with unprecedented Jewish power feels both miraculous and messy.
As Americans, we are wrestling with generations of economic and racial inequities, many of which have resulted from the ways that those with power in our society have misused it. At the same time, we are also seeing how necessary moral critiques of power can cross over into harmful vilifications of power itself and all those who have it. This country was founded on the principles of “by the people, for the people,” a vision of self-government that flips the script of traditional power structures. Also, both miraculous and messy.
Many of the Sapir authors offer different perspectives on the complexity and nuances of Jewish power, recognizing that power is deeply flawed and requires self-critique, while reminding us that possessing power and agency is essential to human, and Jewish dignity and self-determination. As a People, while the purity of powerlessness can be enticing – freeing us from making impossible, real-world choices and trade-offs – Jewish history has taught us too well that the alternatives to the messiness of having power generally have not gone well for us. As human beings, a critical step in our ethical development and emotional maturation happens when we take claim of our agency and take control of our lives and our choices.
So how do we make sense of the paradox of power? Without it, I do not control my own destiny, cannot be held accountable, am not a fully actualized human being; with it, I will inevitably make mistakes and act in ways that negatively affect, or worse, harm other people.
Perhaps the theology of the High Holidays has something to teach us.
On one hand, perhaps the most well-known section of High Holiday liturgy, the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, describes humanity as a flock of sheep passing the shepherd, wondering “who will live and who will die?” Bringing us face-to-face with our own mortality, with our smallness, and with all that we cannot control in our world, this liturgy, and the High Holidays themselves humble us. It’s our tradition saying, “check your privilege” at the door because in here we are all flawed, struggling human beings throwing ourselves on the mercy of a forgiving God.
On the other hand, consider the extraordinary notion of teshuvah, repentance. The same autonomy and free will that leads imperfect human beings to make bad choices and fall short of our best selves are the reasons why we are able to learn, grow and change for the better. Teshuvah begins with the assumption that we are in control of our lives and that we are very much accountable for our choices and our actions. We are not passive recipients of God’s power, but rather we are God’s partners in creating and repairing ourselves and the world. Yes, we are but dust and ashes; and, we are radically powerful.
Jewish ethics and theology do not glorify power but neither do they vilify it. They demand of us that we accept and honor our power by balancing it with reverence and humility; that we do not wield our power over others to our own benefit, but rather use our power to better the lives of others and, ideally empower others to do the same.
A thriving, vibrant, diverse Jewish community that is engaged with the world is one that both claims and wrestles with its own power. May the High Holiday season inspire us to grow in our self-awareness, our moral agency, and our capacities to use our powers for good.
Rabbi Marc Baker is the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.