Yitzhak Rabin & The Ethic of Jewish Power

Lessons learned from the assassination

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We know now: Jewish excellence is not auto­matic. Does Jewishness, then make a difference? If not, why be Jewish? But Jewish is as Jewish does. It will take an enormous effort to fuse Jewish memory and models to create a community that will sustain a higher standard of moral perfor­mance.

We live in a world where all of humanity seeks to attain power for increased life. Jews and Israel are in the spotlight continuously. If we succeed, then Jews are teachers and models to the world, "a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6). If we fail, then we become "an example and a byword [for failure] among the peoples" (Deuteronomy 28:37). Thanks to our emerging ethic of power, the choice is in our hands.

Ethical Principles of Power

The founders of modem Israel were the creators of the ethic of Jewish power. Using scraps of mem­ory, they forged this emerging ethic in the crucible of the 20th century--the greatest age of Jewish power and powerlessness.

The principles of the Jewish ethic, developed thus far, can be summarized briefly:

1) For the sake of life, the assumption of power is mandatory. To practice tikkun olam, one must be alive. To choose powerlessness is a sin, an invita­tion for evil to triumph.

2) Power must be exercised in the world--a flawed reality in which vested interests, entrenched evil and human error all play a role. Power links ultimate ends--the triumph of life and tikkun olam--with proximate means in a continual pro­cess. An ethical use of power means maximizing possible good (and life) and minimizing possible evil (and death). Therefore, typically, the standard of moral use of power is achieved on balance.

3) Jewish power is never self-validating or absolute. That would be idolatry. Therefore, power must be limited, guided and judged.

4) Given what cannot be changed, given the evil that cannot be avoided, there is still some best possible (or least evil) way of exercising power. Therefore, there can be no one-decision moral policy, only an endless series of judgments in specific situations, reconciling conflicting claims and shifting facts.

5) In an imperfect world, there will be inescap­able evil--or adverse side effects--in all use of power. The measure of morality, then, is to limit wrong action and correct it. Therefore, a moral society must incorporate checks on power and forces of self-criticism.

In Israel, these exist in the form of multiple parties with free elections, free press and media, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, separation between civilian and military authority, and tohar haneshek (moral purity use-of-arms doctrine). Distinctive memories and Jewish tradi­tions such as recollection of slavery and Exodus, of outsider status and suffering, of exile and Holocaust, also powerfully regulate Jewish behav­ior. One might add that since failure is inevitable, a moral society will need a deep capacity for repentance--and forgiveness.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).