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When Great Men Fall


Soap opera-like debacles have stunned, stupefied, and dismayed our community. We have witnessed a prime minister, governors, and men of stature plummet to the depths of scandal and ignominy. Especially disconcerting and the epitome of paradox is when revered men, charged to exemplify God’s Word, purportedly disgrace His Word instead. Why do great men fall?

Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men .”

Why is it that great men, predominantly, become bad men?

Research published recently in Psychological Science showed that power tends to corrupt and to promote a hypocritical tendency to hold other people to a higher standard than oneself. The research also demonstrated that powerful people not only abuse the system but also feel entitled to abuse it.

According to Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, a social psychologist at Stanford University who focuses on the study of power, “When people feel powerful, they stop trying to control themselves.”

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle summed up the research as follows: People with power tend to be more oblivious to what others think, more likely to pursue the satisfaction of their own appetites, poorer judges of other people’s reactions, more likely to hold stereotypes, overly optimistic and more likely to take risks.

In other words, Gruenfeld and her colleagues discovered that powerful people tend to have a heightened sensitivity to their own internal states and a reduced sensitivity to others.

Perhaps this is why the Torah’s regulations for a Jewish king are so strict. For instance, a Jewish king must keep in his possession a Torah scroll (according to several meforshim it was worn as an amulet) to remind him of his subservience to the Law, “lest his heart becomes haughty over his brethren and he departs from God’s commandments right or left ” (Devarim 17:20).

The king was only allowed to divest himself of his personal Torah when attending to personal needs, such as using the lavatory (see Maimonides, Hilchos Melachim 3:1). The Torah scroll functioned as a perpetual admonition to the king not to abuse power, behave superciliously, or act above the law.

It seems from Sefer HaChinuch that arrogance and self-centeredness is the prime cause for turpitude in a leader’s rule. The Jewish king, or leader, is commanded to place every self-interest aside and act solely in the service of the people, following the law of the Torah.

Reporters were astounded at the estimated 300,000-500,000 people who attended Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s funeral in 1995. Most of the journalists had never heard of him. After a thorough search of encyclopedias and computerized archives for information on this heretofore uncelebrated personality, they were baffled that they came up with virtually no information.

The quintessential Jewish leader throughout the ages – whether it was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (or any one in the constellation of illustrious rabbinic personalities that have graced the Jewish world throughout the millennia) – was not necessarily renowned for charisma, elocution, or popularity (there is no ballot that elects a Jewish leader). Rather, it is the intense sincerity, integrity, selflessness, and, above all, infusion of Torah into their lifeblood that are responsible for the seemingly gratuitous selection and adulation of these outstanding men.

Nor does education or knowledge insure a leader’s virtue, tenacious commitment to morality or lack of corruptibility. This fact is poignantly illustrated by the following accounts.

Michael Wildt of Hamburg University, in his book Generation Des Unbedingten, chronicles that the SS forces, those who ran the concentration camps, were comprised of some of the most educated people in German society. An elite of intellectuals and academics – a consortium of Ph.D.s in literature, philosophy, law, history, and science – directed the genocide.

A famous story is told about Bertrand Russell when he was professor of ethics at Harvard. Russell was engaged in eyebrow-raising sexual antics that were highly unacceptable in Boston in the early 20th century. The dean, especially irate that a professor of ethics should be acting so unethically, summoned him and excoriated him for his behavior. Russell rejoined: “I was a professor of geometry at Cambridge, but no one ever expected me to be a triangle or a square.”

Russell, one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was maintaining that what a person studies and teaches need have no bearing on his behavior.

This is the polar opposite of the Torah viewpoint. Torah knowledge and Jewish leadership is sine qua non with Torah living. Torah study is not so much about pedantic learning, flawless logic and cerebral chess as it is about refining and purifying one’s rudimentary, crude being.

According to the Vilna Gaon the raison d’être of Torah is self-perfection – to serve as a vehicle for rectifying one’s character traits. The objective of Torah study is to form a Torah-ingrained personality. What one studies and teaches must become an integral part of his or her life.

The first Jewish powerhouse was Avraham Avinu. The progenitor of the Jewish people and the world’s first disseminator of monotheism had no tradition about God. His immediate forebears were pagans, as was the culture in which he lived. Avraham operated without any initial revelation. It was necessary for him to engage in a scientifically objective quest to find God.

Interestingly, the written Torah is entirely mute on the subject of how Avraham discovers God. Avraham is mentioned only in the context of his first spiritual assignment, but his entire spiritual saga of discerning God remains shrouded in mystery.

Why is that? Why should Avraham’s intellectual drama be so obscured? Perhaps it is to teach that one’s individual metamorphosis is too personal of a subject to be broadcast publicly. To decipher truth amid decadence and hedonism is a formidable challenge.

The emotional and intellectual rigor, turmoil, and anguish of refining one’s instincts and imperfections is a battle waged in the innermost recesses of one’s heart. Mustering the courage to let go of long-held doctrines and beliefs, and forgoing illicitness one has become ingrained with, is a deeply private exercise. And it is the most important exercise.

In our current chinuch system, we often lose the forest for the trees and get derailed by extolling the didactic, pedagogic, and technical instead of celebrating the work and spirit that goes into shaping an ethical and altruistic conscience.

Our true leaders, like Avraham, never succumbed to the temptation of power. They knew that real power is defined not by one’s clout or material worth but is achieved by perfecting one’s character and living a life of empowering, enabling, and honoring others.

Lord Acton was right – to an extent. Power does tend to corrupt, but only when in the hands of mediocre leaders. Great men fall not because they are innately bad men but because they have not become intrinsically good men.

About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer is a popular lecturer and educator and the author of "Search Judaism: Judaism's Answers to a Changing World" (Targum, 2009), available at SearchJudaism.com. He is also director of the Think and Care Tank (thinkandcare.org), an organization dedicated to spreading Jewish values and innovative Jewish programming.


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