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Power Corrupts: Political Checks and Balances in Parashat Vayikra

Prof. Ari Ackerman uses modern biblical commentators to explicate the Torah’s innate understanding that power corrupts. Specific sacrificial offerings made by the leadership are examples of systematic checks and balances. 

The parsaha of Vayikra is exclusively focused on the sacrificial order and it enumerates different types of sacrifices and the precise regimen of each of them.

Seemingly this detailed description of the ritual surrounding karbanot has little to offer us regarding political and social questions particularly those have come to the forefront in light of recent events. However, from close readings of the list of the karbanot, an important message emerges that is illuminating in respect to the Torah’s attitude toward politics.

The fourth chapter of Vayikra discusses the karban hatat, the expiatory sacrifice. It is the sacrifice which involves atonement for those sins done inadvertently. The chapter enumerates two general cases—when an individual sins and when the community sins. And then it enumerates three types of people who have sinned unintentionally: the High Priest, the elders of the community and the nasi.

What is remarkable about this list is that it only contains those in governance positions: either religious leaders such as the High Priest or secular leaders such as the community elders or the nasi. So why is it that just these men are mentioned here?

In answering this question, I would point to the commentary of the Netziv, R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893).

Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (Ha-Netziv)

He writes the following on the iniquity of the nasi:

“כי נשיאותו גורמת לו שיהיא עלול לחטא”

“It is because he was the nasi that he liable to sin.”

That is, the Netziv connects between his position of authority and his sinfulness.

I would suggest more broadly—and I am drawing here somewhat from the commentary of Yeshayahu Leibowitz—that the Torah is underscoring here the general proclivity of leaders who have authority and governance to sin inadvertently. The Torah recognizes here that it is human nature that power corrupts and often in ways that it is not evident to the sinner. This realistic views regarding the sinfulness of those who wield authority is particularly remarkable in the context of the Ancient Near East where leaders where viewed as infallible and even deified.

Now it is important to add that the Torah’s view of political leadership is not anarchistic. There is a need for political leaders with coercive powers and this is the rationale for the commandment to appoint the King. But this very commandment again demonstrates the Torah’s insight that we must take into account the likelihood of corruption and sinfulness. And it is for this reason that the Torah places additional restrictions on the King more than ordinary Jews and it requires him to place the Torah around his neck.

The Torah in this instance plays the role of curtailing the unbridled power of the ruler. Thus the Torah accepts the necessity and the importance of human rulers but it requires the need to install a system of checks and balances against political authority—whether it is invested in a single individual or a group of politicians.



Top image: Northrop Illustrated Bible 189,4

Prof. Ari Ackerman is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

President Ackerman is Associate Professor for Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Education. Prior to his elevation to president, Ackerman held the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education.  He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University and was a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University. His most recent book is a Critical Edition of the Sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Prof. Ackerman’s new book on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas – Hasdai Crescas on Codification, Cosmology and Creation (Brill Press, 2022) is newly published. President Ackerman lives with his family in Jerusalem.

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