Can Power Corrupt a Rabbi?

One week ago, I announced that I intend to run for Jerusalem city council. 'Be careful, rabbi,' they tell me.

One week ago, I announced that I intend to run for Jerusalem city council with the Yerushalmim party and city councilwoman Rachel Azariah. While the announcement has been met with overwhelming support, there has also been an undercurrent of concern from some of my closest friends and students. This is no surprise; people are suspicious of politics and politicians. Power tends to corrupt said Lord Acton, and perhaps those who care for me are doubly concerned: first, that I might get hurt by others, and second, that I might get corrupted from within. Be careful, rabbi they tell me.

Politics is without doubt a dangerous game of power, but that is only part of the picture. Over the last two years, I have discovered that the arenas of activism and politics are also about problem solving, creativity, and building a better world. I have been a serial entrepreneur for my entire career, having started three schools, a business and numerous other projects. I find the creation of communal and social value both fun and rewarding. When I consider leveraging a democratic mandate, and municipal resources, the possibilities seem endless.

Also as a rabbi my life has been about teaching, inspiring, and connecting with people. I have been drawn to community leadership as I have sought to grow my audience. I have things to say, and the more people I can reach the more satisfaction I find. Politics is a step up in this regard, a public declaration that a message is relevant to an entire city. The message that the ethical core of Torah is relevant to public life, that a more moderate and socially aware articulation of Torah exists, and that there is an Orthodoxy that is able to value those who see things differently are all parts of my message, and I see becoming a city council member as a golden opportunity to bring them to the table.

Of course we all carry a dark side, what our tradition speaks of as the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. In the case of politics, it would clearly be the desire for power and control. Anyone would be naïve to claim immunity from our animal side. It is important to know it well, and when seen clearly for what it is, it can serve as a valuable teacher and guide. When noticed, the yetzer hara can remind us to examine our choices and motives, bringing self-examination and consciousness to our work.

Another crucial immune system regarding the yetzer hara is to surround ourselves with people who share our higher ethical values and commitments. Our community is our mirror and, when it serves us well, can help keep us on track.

But, looking deeper, I suggest that power reverts to a desire to control when the one who wields it is beyond their level of competence. The Peter Principle states that where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, people will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. Certainly, this can be applied to politics, and most of us would have no problem thinking of examples. Fear of failure, public shame and loss of control are unpleasant specters indeed, and when combined with hubris and power the results can border on true evil. It is here that humility, self-awareness, and faith in God may serve us well.

Ultimately, the illusion that we run the show is limited, as are our abilities. We are called upon to bring our best to the table, to work super hard, but, most of all, we are called upon to be true to God and to each other - to be true to truth. Please bless me with that kind of success.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, and is a candidate for Jerusalem city council with the Yerushalmim party led by Rachel Azaria.
 

Reuters