Rabbi Chaninah, deputy to the kohanim, would say: “Pray for the integrity of the sovereignty, for were it not for the fear of its authority a man would swallow his neighbor alive.”
– Ethics of the Fathers, 3:2
Ethics of Our Fathers, or Pirkei Avot, is a tractate of the Mishna [a section of the Talmud: Rabbinic commentary on Torah] that details the Torah’s views on ethics and
interpersonal relationships. The online Chabad offers a weekly E-mail newsletter discussing the insights in these sayings. Their commentary on the quotation above begins: “The basic meaning of . . . Rabbi Chaninah’s words is that for a society to be civilized its members must submit to the rule of government and law. The need for ‘fear of authority’ may seem an insult to our sophistication and intelligence, but the fact remains that without it there would be nothing to check the worst in man, and the anarchic rule of the jungle would prevail.”
Few would disagree that it is wise to “check the worst” in human behavior. As a society, we reacted, twice in my lifetime, when airplanes were used as implements of death. We have, more times than we choose to remember, been outraged by the slaughter of children in schools and fast food restaurants and on city streets. Still, our “authorities” choose, by legislative action – or inaction – to allow physical violence to continue. Moreover, mostly by inaction now, they visited economic violence on more than 90 percent of the population.
So what happens when “the authority” is either anarchic in the literal sense, such as a Stalin or Hitler, or metaphorically, such as when the United States still used the military draft system? Is there any greater violence to a family than the loss of a child whether in a foreign war or a local massacre? Another violence against a family is the loss of livelihood(s) either through downsizing in a business or the erosion of the economy.
The Chabad article continued, “The ego of man is cannibalistic in essence. At worst, it destroys everyone and everything in its path in order to attain its selfish goals. At best, as in the case of a civilized, refined and tolerant individual, it acknowledges its status as one among many, avows its support of the ‘human rights’ of its fellows and concedes the legitimacy of pursuits other than its own.” It specifies that even the “liberal-minded” can fall into the ego trap, and ultimately espoused global fear of G-d], the sovereign authority as the path to avoiding the cannibalism of the anarchic jungle.”
Maybe “fear of authority” needs to be restated. Respect might be a better word choice, but for authority? Naturally, if we could teach or role-model respect for each other to every child, things would be better. Yet, what can we do right now to stave off this unrelenting hunger into which we’re being sucked? Perhaps the most obvious example of the rabid hunger is the circumstances surrounding “too big to fail/too big to jail.” Even if corporate entities are too big to fail, the individuals who have been running them immorally and illegally are not. After all, isn’t a corporation just a legal expediency?
Merriam Webster’s second definition of “corporation” states “a body formed and authorized by law to act as a single person although constituted by one or more persons and legally endowed with various rights and duties including the capacity of succession. In short, something that exists in order to make it easier to do business; though, too often that incorporation is the “authority” allowing business to be done with fewer ethical considerations.
I’m not saying that corporations are evil or that incorporation should be prohibited. Nevertheless, a case can be made that some corporate “persons” have stretched their legal endowments to the breaking point – or, at least, beyond economic capacity. It isn’t even a question of conservative or liberal. Even in the Sixties, some liberal activists became so caught up in their own egos that they turned “protests” for peace into grand oxymora. Life Coach Steven Barnes says both conservatives and liberals are necessary to our survival because conservatives keep the babies alive and liberals make sure we don’t stagnate.
Unfortunately, the more extreme politics becomes, the more difficult it is to reach a viable plan of action. Yes, I wish someone would create an easy solution, but even were it possible, someone would fight it simply because it wasn’t complicated enough. The only course of action is to take personal responsibility for how & when to express our respect for authority. When authority lets us down, we need to use the powerful tools at our command to make our voices heard. No more is it necessary to go forth into the parks and market place to swing signs and billy clubs at each other the way we did half a century ago.
Rarely a day passes on which a political comment or petition hits my e-mail box or Facebook RSS. Our world has a great many serious problems and injustices which may be implemented, endorsed, or ignored by authorities – some that we thought were under control, but they were just underground. So let our voices be heard whether we’re pleased or dissatisfied with authorities. So much will be learned, especially from those who ignore us.
THANKS TO GLENNZ TEES FOR ALLOWING ME TO USE THEIR IMAGE, Check out their website & FB page for wild & weird tees & images!
1. You can read more about The Ethics of our Fathers on the Chabad website: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/680274/jewish/Ethics-of-the-Fathers-Pirkei-Avot.htm.
2. 9/11 & the Kamikazes in WWII
3. The one bright exception is the Violence Against Women Act signed March 7, 2013. [http://dailycaller.com/2013/03/08/obama-signs-violence-against-women-act/ — Update: This law has been defunded by the president as of January 2017. More cannibalism and corruption.]
4. Traditional Orthodox spelling of God, intended as a metaphor for not taking the Lord’s name in vain.
5. Maybe my next blog should bring out some of the grammatical esoterica Merriam Webster Online has uncovered, including how it is really okay to end a sentence with a preposition.