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Our Heritage of Preventing Governmental Abuse of Power

The current US administration has been accused of a “tyrannical abuse of power”. Poll after poll indicates that “most Americans generally think that politicians are untrustworthy. So why trust them with so much power?” How could we have avoided this mess?

The United States government was set up with a separation of powers, modeled after the early Israelite nation. In his commentary on this week’s Biblical portion, Rabbi Sacks explains how that system worked. Politicians today should read up on our heritage.

The separation of powers dates back to Biblical times.

Neither authority nor power was to be located in a single individual or office. Instead, leadership was divided between different kinds of roles.

One of the most important of these divisions – anticipating by millennia the “separation of church and state” – was between the king, the head of state, on the one hand, and the high priest, the most senior religious office, on the other.

This was revolutionary. The kings of Mesopotamian city states and the Pharaohs of Egypt were considered demigods or chief intermediary with the gods. They officiated at supreme religious festivals. They were regarded as the representatives of heaven on earth.

A balance of powers was built into the system of governance.

Priests constituted a religious establishment. The prophets, at least those whose messages have been eternalized in Tanakh, were not an establishment but an anti-establishment, critical of the powers-that-be.

One arm of government was the “keeper” of another.

…it is clear throughout Tanakh that the priesthood was liable to corruption. There were times when priests took bribes, others when they compromised Israel’s faith and performed idolatrous practices. Sometimes they became involved in politics. Some held themselves as an elite apart from and disdainful toward the people as a whole.

At such times the prophet became the voice of God and the conscience of society, reminding the people of their spiritual and moral vocation, calling on them to return and repent, reminding the people of their duties to God and to their fellow humans and warning of the consequences if they did not.

To be “anti-establishment” was a social responsibility.

The cohanim were essential to ancient Israel. They gave the religious life its structure and continuity, its rituals and routines, its festivals and celebrations. Their task was to ensure that Israel remained a holy people with God in its midst. But they were an establishment, and like every establishment, at best they were the guardians of the nation’s highest values, but at worst they became corrupt, using their position for power and engaging in internal politics for personal advantage. That is the fate of establishments, especially those whose membership is a matter of birth.

That is why the prophets were essential. They were the world’s first social critics, mandated by God to speak truth to power. Still today, for good or otherwise, religious establishments always resemble Israel’s priesthood. Who, though, are Israel’s prophets at the present time?

We all must be on guard against “group-think”.

Leadership must always, I believe, be like this. Every team must be made up of people with different roles, strengths, temperaments and perspectives. They must always be open to criticism and they must always be on the alert against group-think. … only in heaven is there One commanding voice. Down here on earth no individual may ever hold a monopoly of leadership. Out of the clash of perspectives – king, priest and prophet – comes something larger than any individual or role could achieve.