Power, Influence and Authority in the Torah


I have been writing a series of papers on the contemporary university which I will continue now that I am back in Toronto. I went to Torah study upon my return yesterday morning. We were at the end of the Book of Exodus reading Ki Tissa. Rabbi Splansky wanted to place the discussion within a larger compass and pull back rather than focus on any minute detail After reading two short excerpts about Shabbat, we turned to reading the final chapter from Jonathan Sacks’ 2010 book Covenant & Conversation – Exodus: The Book of Redemption called “Exodus: The Narrative Structure” (329-337) Sacks is the brilliant ex-Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and a prolific author. The book itself justly won a National Book Award.

He claims, with much justification, that Exodus is the transitional volume in transforming a family into a nation. Though he focuses on the theme of moral courage in a time of crisis, on the emphasis on “the power of individuals, driven by justice or compassion, to defy tyrants and change the course of history,” I want to cut across his discussion of politics and morality to unpack his conceptions of power, influence and authority embedded in his thesis.

Before I do, I begin with where Rabbi Splansky began, with a reading of 31: 13-15

יג  וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם–לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
13 ‘Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying: Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you.

יד  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ.
14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; everyone that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
טו  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת. 15 Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

and 35:1-3

א  וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם. 1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת. 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
ג  לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת.  {פ} 3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’ {P}

Does this identification of fire with work have anything to do with God first appearing to Moses as a burning bush (Rubus sanctus) on Mount Horeb in which the flames burned brightly, but the bush itself did not burn? All of Sinai is summed up as seneh, Hebrew for that particular bush.

In the first extract, one is commanded to keep Shabbat as a sign between God and the Israelites throughout the generations in order to recognize one’s nation as a consecrated or sanctified nation. And, of course, you cannot work or you will be put to death. In the second extract, nothing is said about consecration of the nation but the work which is forbidden is depicted as that which is connected with kindling fire. I will return to these extracts in tomorrow’s blog after explicating Sacks on power, influence and authority.

Sacks first introduces the theme of power when he argues that the major theme of Exodus is a narrative moving from slavery to freedom as a result of God’s intervention in history to challenge any tyrant who seeks “to dominate others by the use of power,” (my italics, what I have previously called coercive power) and a matching theme running in the opposite direction of transferring power to the people in the form of humans assuming responsibility for their own destinies. In this theme, God is an educator working through influence rather than countervailing power in order to displace coercive power with creative power. In this counter current, the text is “less about divine power than about divine empowerment.” Note that the transfer works through influence, through education.

Within this intellectual frame, that thus far has not included any reference to authority, Sacks then moves to unpack the structure of the text according to a chiastic or mirror image. The dominant chiastic pattern is a b c b a OR abcdedcba in which there is a pivot in the centre. Rabbi Splansky dismissed the ABBA structure as not chiastic, but it is, just a different version without a pivot. Different chiastic structures can be located in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as in the Torah. Thus, the story of the flood narrative has a pivot between two wings each with 10 elements:

A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)

B: All life on earth (6:13:a)

C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)

D: Flood announced (6:7)

E: Ark (6:14-16)

F: All living creatures (6:17–20)

G: Food (6:21)

H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)

J: Waters increase (7:17–20)

PIVOT: X: God remembers Noah (8:1)

J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)

I’: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)

H’: Animals (9:2,3)

G’: Food (9:3,4)

F’: All living creatures (9:10a)

E’: Ark (9:10b)

D’: No flood in future (9:11)

C’: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)

B’: All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Exodus, according to Sacks, has two overarching arches reflecting one another:

Unjust society (1-6)

Liberation (ten plagues) (7-13)

Division of the Reed Sea (14-18)

Liberty: ten commandments (19-20)

Just society (21-24)

In the tale, Israel was instructed to become an anti-Egypt “predicated not on power but on respect for human freedom and dignity.” (331) Yet Sacks also insists that the “most powerful force tending in this direction [the move from slavery to freedom] was the Sabbath.” (331) The Israelites moved from a hierarchical society of pyramids and the focus on a central ruler to a flat desert “in which nothing intervened between man and God.” (331)

Why is the parting of the Reed Sea the pivot point in this first arch, the link between Moses when he stands alone with God and confronts burning bush and the second in which God appears “like a devouring flame”? One individual, Moses, with God working through him, changes history by means of “the inner dialogue between a single soul and the God of freedom and dignity.” (332) This is a tease rather than a fulfilling answer, but I will expand and explicate it further in tomorrow’s blog.

Sacks then puts forth a second arch, a second chiastic pattern, “less about politics than about spirituality, and the place of God in society. Its symbol is the sanctuary. The chiastic pattern follows:

Tabernacle: instruction (25-31:11)

Sabbath (31:12-18)

Golden calf (32-34)

Sabbath (35:1-3)

Tabernacle: construction (35:4-40)

The pivot point is not the division of the Reed Sea, but the making and worship of a Golden Calf. It is here that Sacks diverts into some questionable Freudian interpretation, that the Golden Calf represents not so much idolatry, but the fear of absence, for when the father is absent, the child feels a mixture of guilt and fear and needs to construct a substitute father as the core mechanism to explain the origins of religion. The Freudian references are Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The Golden Calf is “a substitute for an invisible God and the missing leader and father figure.” (333) Of course, for Sacks, the theory is not a stage in the historical evolution of beliefs, but the eternal recurrence of a repeated pattern thus justifying the continuing role of religion.

In this exposition, Sacks ignores all the anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber and Claude Lévi-Strauss who have heaped scorn on Freud’s theory for ignoring culturally-determined influences in favour of macroscopic universal frames weak in evidence as well as subsequent developments in psychoanalytic theory which rejected the application of individual psychological dramas and tensions to superimpose them on history. Géza Róheim, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist, did not, at least initially. However, Róheim eventually accepted Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as discredited, but continued to respect Freud’s theory as a classic.

Finally, quite aside from whether Freud’s idea is about a fear of absence, quite aside from the legitimacy of Freud’s idea, whatever it is, there are so many other differences between what Sacks is explicating and Freud, that the interposition of Freud comes off as ludicrous. To give just a few examples:

Totem and Taboo

Sacks Freud
Transition from family into a nation Treating a tribe as if it were a family
Power of individuals to defy tyranny Individual impotence to defy authority
Totem = a time – Shabbat Totem = an animal spirit in space
Why – God consecrates Source of consecration unknown
How – banning work (use of fire) How – banning contact (incest)

There are other differences, but I want to move on to the core exposition of Sacks’ views on power, authority and influence. I will eventually circle back to totem and taboo, especially when linking Sacks’ theories to the psychological and social structures embedded in two movies that I saw last evening, Warren Beatty’s 2016 romantic ‘comedy’ Rules Don’t Apply about Howard Hughes, and Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception, a heist sci-fi movie focused on stealing and shifting an individual’s unconscious. In the meanwhile, I will bracket Sacks’ simplistic assertion that Freud is about the longing for and resentment of father figures that explains our political craving for strong leaders. For Sacks, the pivot point is the Golden Calf, not because it is an idol, but because it signifies the disintegration of a nation unready for freedom because of its obsession for a strong leader.

For Sacks, the Sanctuary serves two purposes. It is a visible symbol of the presence of God in the midst of a people to assure them that God was among them and they need not fear His absence. Secondly, in actually constructing the Sanctuary, what we do supplants what is done for us. The whole community builds the Sanctuary. Allowing the Israelites to express themselves as “free and creative human beings,” what I had heretofore referred to as creative rather than coercive power, provides an apprenticeship in liberty. The fire of God was now with the people daily. Further, the building of the Sanctuary marked a turning point from a reliance on prophets for a specific time and place to a reliance on Priests, on individuals solely with authentic authority to those who also had positions of formal authority and, therefore, could offer institutional continuity.

The central thesis: society in general, and Jews in particular, need the presence of God in their midst to avoid repression and corruption. God is the sovereign authority, the ultimate authentic authority for a nation living under God to circumscribe all human power, to ensure that might is subordinate to right. If one forgets to worship God, one opens oneself to tyranny. This second interposition – the first was the reference to Freud’s totem and taboo – is Sacks’ political theory on the roots of tyranny and the method of offering insurance against it.

Sacks went on to paint another chiasma, the use of that pattern to place the social and political within a cosmological context by comparing the pattern in Genesis with that of Exodus. But I will skip the effort at cosmology to sum up Sacks’ theories of power, influence and authority while bracketing the Freudian theory, bracketing the explanation of the roots of tyranny and the mode of insurance against it, and his cosmological exercise.

coercive versus creative, and the energy and labour of the people must be used to consecrate freedom, to embed freedom to create and ensure freedom from the rule of tyrants
Non this issue, Sacks is weak because he only focuses on intellectual inFfluence, on the transfer of thoughts and ideas to a whole community and ignores the role of material influence which is really symbolized by the Golden Calf rather than a substitute for a missing father. (I will expand on this theme when I analyze the two films I saw last evening.)
both authentic (God or God’s voice through prophets) and formal through boundary conditions – the main one, not working on Shabbat, not playing with fire on Shabbat – and exercised through the formal religious structure of priests and a formal political structure of kings and/or parliaments or presidents.

After the expansion of these themes through reference to the two films and critiquing both Sacks’ interpretation and interposition of Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as well as his thesis on the origins of tyranny, I will return to the exposition of the development of universities as the central institutions responsible for cultivating influence rather than authority in a society.

To be continued.