The Power – and Curse – of Charisma
It just never seems to end. The press publicizes yet another case of a rabbi and teacher guilty of abusing his position in a sexual way. The roll call in recent years is a depressing one. Twenty names come immediately to mind, this year alone, of very Orthodox men convicted of sexual abuse of women or children. And these are just the cases that have hit the headlines.
A similar roll call can be found of ultra-Orthodox, Charedi, Kabbalistic felons convicted of financial crimes, bribery, and cheating the government and their own. These crimes are not confined to America or Israel but have happened throughout the Jewish world, including such holy cities as Antwerp, London, Manchester, Sydney, and Melbourne. Despite public condemnation from what we might call centrist Orthodoxy, too often the Charedi world closes ranks and remains silent.
I know, of course, that our rate of criminality in these areas is no different than any other group, but that’s cold comfort. It is not my problem if priests abuse their charges. But it is my problem if Orthodox rabbis do. And it is part of our tradition to accept moral responsibility for crimes carried out in our communities. If our charges fail, we have failed. If our shepherds are filthy, to quote Chaucer, how can we be clean sheep?
Every human being makes mistakes. That’s what King Solomon said, and he should know. Every time I reflect on how I should have done better, I feel a deep sense of regret. Thankfully, my regret is for none of the above. But what is it that seems to infect people in positions of power over others? Is it just that, the power? Is that why parents are also often convicted of harming their own children? Perhaps that is what the rabbis of the Talmud meant when they said that “he who has more power than other men has a much stronger evil inclination” (Talmud Sukah 52a).
But there is, in my opinion, another issue—that of charisma. It usually means having the power to inspire people. It’s a word I cannot find a Biblical Hebrew equivalent for, and I suspect that’s for good reason. The Bible is very suspicious of people with such power. They become demagogues. They get carried away with their own egos. They end up feeling they can do anything, be above the law. This is precisely why Moses is described as someone unable to use language to inspire. It is why the prophets, for all the beauty of their written texts, seemed in the main unable to win people over. Charisma is a gift that is too easily misused and abused.
Why do people fall for charisma so often? The weak, the halt, and the lame all need someone to look up to, to raise them up from their depression. Charisma is attractive, and it is the basis of much of our modern cultural life. From actors and musicians to politicians and religious leaders, those who succeed in attracting attention and mass popular followings invariably have charisma. In a world where intellectual achievement and expertise require hard, consistent work to be rewarded, having charisma, along with notoriety, is a much easier route to success.
Emotional intelligence, the ability to get on with people, to make oneself popular and wanted, is something that usually comes naturally, like good looks and a commanding presence. It can be learned too, up to a point. Consider Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and the thousands of similar books that have followed. The ability to please, to win people over, is a dangerous gift or skill. It is dangerous in that it tends to be delusive, to give those fortunate enough to have it an exaggerated sense of their own capacities and capabilities. It is a trap lying in wait that too many people fall into, from great teachers to great dictators.
I have always noticed that those, whom the Almighty overendows in one area, are often sadly underendowed in others. This goes for charisma, and the same also goes for intellectual brilliance. A mind or a memory overendowed is usually counterbalanced by deficiencies elsewhere. This is why so often great scholars may have the information but lack the sensitivity. And it is why great minds or capacities often disappoint.
Charisma is an increasingly marketable quality in western society. The media loves charisma. Religions too. It is in demand and it is rewarded. Like fame, it is deceptive and it is dangerous. He who lives by the media will be destroyed by it. Modesty, Moishe Rabbeynu’s prime characteristic, does not go down well on television.
Which is why I believe in Moishe Maimonides’s Golden Mean. Yes, I know the idea started long before, in Greece. But Maimonides was the one who articulated it in a positive way for Judaism in his “Eight Chapters”. Whenever one has a quality or a fault that is problematic, the way to counteract it is, for a while, to go to the other extreme. It’s the pendulum theory. Swing from one extreme to the other so that the clock keeps time in the middle.
If you are too popular, try some unpopularity for a while. Too successful, live a more modest life. Too generous, too mean, too proud, too modest, even too religious, too pious, anything to extreme is dangerous. I believe that too many in positions of religious leadership have become too pious, too demanding, too restrictive. They were right to go down that path at one stage. That was what we needed to repair the losses, the disasters of exile and oppression. That was needed in Judaism itself to prevent the slide towards apathy and assimilation. But what was needed once is not what is needed now. We have swung too far towards obscurantism and oppression, ourselves. We have allowed charisma to blind us to faults, to ignore deficiencies. Beware of people who think they are above the law. If the Bible says this of kings, I say this of rabbis.
We need to get back to that balance, that golden mean.