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Friday, March 1, 2013

Charisma + Messianic Identity = Disaster


(Yerushalmi/Jerusalem Talmud, Ta'anit chapter 4)

We use the word “charisma” casually these days. Someone who is a popular and commanding presence, whose opinions are revered (sometimes beyond reason), and who gains a loyal following, is considered charismatic.
In the realm of business, this can be an asset. But there is a down side too: Charisma can command blind fanaticism in the service of megalomaniacs with dangerous values and perilous agendas.[1] Similarly, in politics a charismatic leader can serve the needs of the society, or exploit the society to serve his narcissistic needs.

In the religious and theological realm, charisma is a divinely bestowed spiritual power or personal quality that lends an individual authority over large numbers of people. The notion of “divinely bestowed” authority elevates religious charisma to another ballpark. Max Weber wrote about this phenomenon in Economy and Society. Thomas Robbins, in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, writes:


The notorious David Koresh (née Vernon Howell) rose to the leadership of the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the earlier schismatic Davidian offshoot of the SDA Church (Bromley and Silver 1995, Pitts 1995). Koresh "identified himself as the Lord's anointed and saw the standoff at Waco as the literal fulfillment of an intensifying campaign by demonic earthly rulers to destroy the righteous remnant" (Boyer 1993:30). It is arguable, then, that the most potentially volatile form of personal charismatic leadership is the messianic pattern in which charismatic leaders "identify the millennial destiny of humankind with their own personal vicissitudes and demonize any opposition to their aspirations and personal aggrandizement" (Robbins and Anthony 1995:244). "Messianic" leadership combines the instability of charismatic authority with the potential for volatility and tension inherent in apocalyptic world-rejecting movements.[2]


Jewish tradition has spawned a number of charismatic, messianic figures, among them Shimon ben Kosiba, the subject of much discussion in masechet Ta’anit, chapter 4 of the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud). Bar Kosiba led the Jews of the Land of Israel into a disastrous revolt against Rome in 132 C.E. He is better known by the appellation Bar Kochba (son of the star) because no less than R. Akiba identified him as the long-await messiah. The Rabbis of the Yerushalmi, however, dub him Bar Koziba (“son of lies” or “son of disappointment”), explaining:


R. Shimon ben Yochai taught: Akiba, my master, would interpret the following verse: A star (kokhav) shall come forth out of Jacob [and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab] (Numbers 24:17). Shimon ben Yochai then interprets for us: A disappointment (koziba) shall come forth out of Jacob. (Ta’anit 4:5)


Initially, the rebellion spearheaded by Bar Kochba succeeded. Bar Kochba took on the title of Nasi (prince) and coins were minted with the dates “the first year of the redemption of Israel” and “the second year of the redemption of Israel.” The Roman Empire was compelled to commit 12 legions — nearly half its army — to fighting the fledgling third Jewish commonwealth; the emperor Hadrian experienced costly losses. Concerning the Jewish side, the Roman consul Cassius Dio, who published an 80-volume history of Rome, wrote that 580,000 Jews died in the war, 50 fortified cities were razed, and 985 villages were decimated. Even accounting for victor’s hyperbole, the revolt was an unmitigated disaster.


Surprisingly, the Rabbis recollection of Jewish losses was far greater. Writing generations after the cataclysm of Bar Kochba’s failed revolt, they tell us that in Bar Kochba’s fortress refuge Betar alone, 80,000 myriads were slaughtered by Emperor Hadrian. The Rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud don’t hold back: they view Bar Kochba with contempt, derision, and loathing. They recount bone-chilling legends that reflect their abhorrence of, and hostility toward, Bar Kochba.


R. Yochanan said: There were 80,000 pairs of trumpeters surrounding Betar. Each was in charge of a number of soldiers. Ben Koziba was there, and he required 200,000 soldiers to [cut off their] fingers [as a sign of loyalty to him]. The Sages sent word to him: How long are you going to turn Israel into a maimed people?


The Rabbis tell us that Bar Kochba, like so many charismatic leaders, did not countenance opposition to his authority and agenda. The story of how he murdered R. Eleazar of Modi’in is blood chilling.


R. Eleazar of Modi’in would sit on sack cloth and ashes and pray every day, saying, “Lord of the universe! Do not sit in judgment today! Do not sit in judgment today! Hadrian want to go see him. [The Talmud then describes how a Samaritan convinced Hadrian to allow him to spy on Betar on behalf of the Emperor and thereby pave the way for Hadrian to defeat the city. The Samaritan enters Betar through a drain pipe, finds R. Eleazar, and pretends to whisper into the rabbi’s ear. The Samaritan spy is caught and brought to Ben Koziba, and he confesses his mission.] [Ben Koziba] went to R. Eleazar of Modi’in. [Ben Koziba] said to him, “What did this Samaritan say to you?” He replied, “Nothing.” [Ben Koziba] said to him, “What did you say to him?” [R. Eleazar] replied, “Nothing.” [Ben Koziba] gave [Eleazar] one good kick and killed him. Immediately a heavenly voice broke forth and said, Woe to my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword descend upon his arm and upon his right eye! His arm shall shrivel up; his right eye shall go blind! (Zechariah 11:17) Forthwith Betar was taken, and Ben Koziba was killed.


The Rabbis continue to describe the slaughter that ensued in disturbingly graphic terms. For example, Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel recalls the massacre of school children in a manner reminiscent of the way R. Chananiah b. Teradyon was said to have been martyred at the hands of the Romans during the Hadrianic persecutions[3]:


It has been taught: Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says, “There were 500 schoolhouses in Betar. The smallest of them had no fewer than 500 children… On account of the sins, they wrapped each one [of the children] in his scroll and burned him, and out of them all, I alone survived.


The Rabbis next tell us that the Emperor, Hadrian, owned a vineyard that was 18 mil square (approximately 10 miles square, with a perimeter approximately 40 miles in length). The Rabbis tell us: The length [of the perimeter] was the distance from Tiberias to Tzippori (Sepphoris). Hadrian, they recount, surrounded his vineyard with a wall of the bones of slaughtered Jews that was as high as a man is tall, and as wide as one’s handbreadths. They hold Bar Kochba responsible for the deaths making that wall possible.


There is no end to the Sages’ contempt and scorn for Bar Kochba. With the divine imprimatur bestowed upon him by R. Akiba, he was inordinately dangerous.  Charisma can be dangerous; combined with a messianic overlay, it is deadly. Together, charisma and messianism often come packaged in a personality who is manipulative, exploitative, grandiose, callously unconcerned about human life, and excessively confident. Recall Shabbatai Tzvi, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Osama bin Laden.


Charismatic leaders are often described as “visionary,” but the ones who carry the label messiah harbor visions that are harbingers of death and destruction. Again, Thomas Robbins:

The absence of institutional restraints upon charismatic leaders interfaces with the lack of institutional supports available to sustain leaders' authority. "Charismatic authority," notes Wallis (1993:176[4]) "is a fundamentally precarious status" because leaders' claims to authority rest "purely on subjective factors." Followers' perception of the leader's extraordinary qualities may be situated and ephemeral. The charismatic leader must continually face the prospect that his special "gift of grace" will no longer be perceived and his authority will fade. Johnson (1979[5]) analyzes a spiraling process whereby the steps that Jim Jones took in response to challenges to his charismatic authority brought into play new factors that potentially undermined his authority, and that in turn required new defensive responses. The leader's increasingly frantic defensive measures to shore up his authority and the unanticipated consequences of his responses contributed to the cataclysmic end of the Peoples Temple settlement at Jonestown, Guyana.

Long before Max Weber and legions of sociologists and experts in business leadership wrote about the dangers of charismatic leaders, the Sages of the Yerushalmi were acutely and painfully aware and penned their prescient warning.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman




[1] See Jane M. Howell and Bruce J. Avolio, “The ethics of charismatic leadership,” Academy of Management Executives, 1992, Vol. 6 No.2; and Daniel Sankowsky, “The Charismatic Leader as Narcissist,” Organizational Dynamics, Spring 1995, Vol. 23, No. 4.
[2] http://hirr.hartsem.edu/ency/charisma.htm.
[3] Avodah Zarah 17b. As an aside: I recently attended a wonderful family event in Los Angeles where my family took a walking tour of downtown LA. I noticed that the public library has quotes concerning books and reading cut into sheets of decorative metal outside the library. I further noticed that one was in Hebrew, so I cross the street to take a closer look. I hardly knew what to make of what I read: Gevilin nisrafin v’ha-otiyot porkhot ba’avir (“The scrolls are burning but the letters are escaping to heaven.”) These are the words Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradyon is said to have uttered when the Romans wrapped a scroll of Torah around him and lit it on fire. Very unsettling.
[4] R. Wallis, "Charisma and Explanation," Secularism, Rationalism and Sectarianism , ed. E. Barker et al. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993): 167-179.
[5] D. P. Johnson, "Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership," Sociological Analysis 40(1979):315-323.

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