Yitzhak Rabin & The Ethic of Jewish Power

Lessons learned from the assassination

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6) To take on power is to take on guilt. Those who care, take on guilt. Those who refuse to act because they do not want to dirty their hands are morally irresponsible; in their hands, the ideal becomes the enemy of the good.

However, caveat actor. Those who do exercise power may be corrupted cumulatively, even totally. People on both sides of the issues must learn to articulate the nature and extent of the guilt. The joint goal is to check the inevitable coarsening of the moral fiber without ripping out the fabric of exercising power.

7) Being Jewish is not a moral guarantee. However, by tradition and self-definition, Jews are committed to strive for a higher standard of behav­ior. Risk-taking to achieve the goal is worthy behavior--but excessive risks are reckless and immoral.

8) Perfection is impossible to attain but a people that consistently achieves a higher moral living standard is being faithful to its Jewishness. Behav­ing five to ten percent more ethically than current norms of practice constitutes being "a light unto the nations." But it is incredibly difficult to achieve this level over the long haul.


The assassination evokes another train of thought: it may be that continuously engaging in the comparison misdirects Jews by subtly convinc­ing them that they are intrinsically better. Instead, Jews need to build in a constantly challenging moral dynamic: how can we, as Jews, do 5% better in this situation than we did in the previous one? Israel has begun this process in the telescoped time of one generation. Strikingly, the internal policy of the 1950s vis-a-vis Israeli-Arabs was no longer acceptable by the 70s and 80s. The Lebanon war was checked by Arab resistance--and national revulsion--within months. The beatings policy to deal with the intifada--initially declared appropri­ate by Rabin--was overridden by the negative reaction of the Israeli soldiers and the media attention.

In the final analysis, no moral achievement in the exercise of power is permanent. Each situation brings with it moral costs and creates a new level of ethical risk. Here the emerging ethic of Jewish power closes the circle with the classic tradition. In the Bible, the meaning of the name Israel is: "the one who wrestles [continually] with God and humans [standards] and overcomes." (Genesis 33 :29).

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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).