With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

2 Aug


Rabbi David Blau (left), new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and Pope Francis (right) each have displayed different approaches to the Spider-Man credo, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Rabbi David Blau (left), new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and Pope Francis (right) each have displayed different approaches to the Spider-Man credo, “With great power comes great responsibility.”


My children enjoy a good superhero film, as do I. The magnetic appeal that superheroes have on pop-culture may be best summed up by Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. In his dying breath told his powerful nephew, “With great power comes great responsibility.” There are many claims as to the source that inspired Spider-Man creator Stan Lee to use that statement. I’d like to suggest that the sentiment behind “With great power comes great responsibility” is rooted in the Torah.

More than any other book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy is concerned with social justice. Time and again, Deuteronomy expresses concern for the weakest, most vulnerable members of Israelite society: the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor and the Levites who were a landless class who subsisted on the donations of the rest of the nation. Other parts of the Torah call for caring for the weak and vulnerable. The book of Leviticus, particularly Chapter 19, frames helping the weak in terms of holiness; the Israelites are set apart through their virtue. The narratives of Genesis and Exodus highlight the triumph of the underdog who taps into inner strength and courage to overcome incredible odds. Deuteronomy takes the advocacy of social justice to another level. It appeals to the people’s empathy. We are reminded repeatedly that the Israelites were strangers and slaves in Egypt. Therefore, they must remember the suffering of the stranger in their midst. As the Israelites become a strong nation in their own right, it is as if Moses reminds them “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Parashat Re’eh hits on this theme at various points. Chapters 14 and 15 address social justice issues explicitly. The aide to the Levites, the remission of debts, the call to lend to the poor and the freeing of slaves all appeal to the nation’s empathy. What is striking is that even in Chapter 16, which is concerned with the observance of the pilgrimage festivals, the Torah appeals to the Exodus experience. Regarding the middle festival, Shavuot, (vv. 9-12) the Torah describes a highly egalitarian celebration:

You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws.”

How striking it is indeed that even in describing a ritual observance, the Torah appeals to empathy and social justice. The great responsibility on the shoulders of the nation is to live an exemplary, ethical life in their daily activities and in ritual observance. Rabbinic Judaism classifies two kinds of law: mitzvot bein adam l’Makom, commandments between people and God (ritual laws), and mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro, commandments concerning interpersonal relationships. The Torah presents an ideal of laws governing ritual and interpersonal relationships complementing each other. By extension, one can reasonably conclude that responsible leaders of a religious community must embody these norms simultaneously. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.

This past week we saw snapshots of two different prominent religious leaders, each one of whom is fairly new on the global scene. I don’t know how much stock we should put in either of these snapshots, but they may offer a glimpse into larger character. The figures are Pope Francis and Rabbi David Lau, new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.

In a remarkable in-flight news conference on a flight from Brazil to Rome, a reporter asked about his stance on acceptance of priests who have a homosexual orientation. Prior Popes and other Church leaders might have retorted with hard line anti-gay Church doctrine. Instead, Pope Francis said “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” This humble statement of compassion towards gay Catholics who had previously felt ostracized by Church hierarchy was like a breath of fresh air to many Catholics. He did not change Church doctrine, but he sure did change the tone. A teacher of mine, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Co-President of CLAL, wrote on a blog this week:
“Who is he to judge? He’s the pope. Isn’t that part of his job?! He is the leader of a millennia old institution – one steeped in legal tradition and religious norms. How could he not judge? If not him, then who?

“Has Pope Francis become some kind of relativist? A post-modern paralytic unable to take a stand when asked what many would deem to be a straightforward question, and one with what many more would assume is an equally straightforward answer? Hardly.

“What Pope Francis did in answering as he did, was to distinguish between making a judgment and being judgmental.”

Rabbi Hirschfield elaborates and writes: “The ability to exercise judgment without becoming judgmental is fast becoming something of this pope’s trademark, so it should really come as no great surprise that he answered as he did.”

In contrast to the new Pope’s humility and non-judgmentalism, Israelis this week were treated to an ill-considered statement by the newly installed Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau. In a recorded interview for a Haredi news service, he exhorted yeshiva students not to waste time watching basketball games in neighborhood convenience stores when they should be in yeshiva studying Torah. He said: “Why do you care about whether the ‘kushim’ who get paid in Tel Aviv beat the ‘kushim’ who get paid in Greece?” In the Bible, Kush refers to Ethiopia, but in modern Israel ‘kushim’ is a derogatory word for anyone with black skin or of African descent. It is regarded by Israelis as equivalent to the “N” word in English or “shvartze” in Yiddish, terms that people of good will should shun. Derogatory terms such as these create a sense of “otherness” for people who are different. To paraphrase Martin Buber, our goal should be to seek “I-Thou” relationships where we regard fellow human beings as created in the image of God. Rabbi Lau later said his basketball comment was intended as a joke. Not too many people were laughing.

Rabbi Lau’s ill-considered remarks were more striking particularly as they stand in contrast to his father Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who previously held the office of Chief Rabbi. While I was not a fan of the elder Rabbi Lau’s adherence to fervently Orthodox religious policies that I think are detrimental to the pluralistic character of Israel, I have great respect for him as a dignified man of character and integrity. Ironically, his legacy is linked with a prominent African American basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with whom he developed a friendship. At the age of eight, Rabbi Lau was liberated in Buchenwald by a US Army unit of African-American soldiers. A close friend of Abdul-Jabbar’s father personally liberated Rabbi Lau. The two found each other as Abdul-Jabbar was researching the legacy of this army unit and travelled to Israel to meet Rabbi Lau in 1997. It’s a great “feel-good” story of an Israeli rabbi befriending an African-American Muslim basketball star. Based on the younger Rabbi Lau’s first week on the job in which he denigrated black basketball players, he could learn a lot from his father.

Now, nobody is perfect; however, when you hold the title of Chief Rabbi, I think it’s fair for the public to expect more consideration and thoughtfulness, especially in your first week on the job.

This week we got two glimpses of different models of religious leadership. The Pope displayed humility and sound judgment. The Chief Rabbi displayed a parochial and doctrinaire judgmentalism. I’d suggest he get some executive coaching from Pope Francis. For religious leaders of all faiths, our Torah portion this week teaches us three things: Remember where you came from; remember we are all God’s creatures; remember that with great power comes great responsibility.

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