Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Subsidiarity, Parashat Yitro

More than twenty years ago, when I was the Hillel Director at the University of Virginia, I was asked to travel to Princeton, NJ with two members of what was then B'nai Brith Hillel's national staff (the Hillel national office is in DC) for a meeting. The University of Virginia is in Charlottesville, about two and a half hours from the District, and rather than driving to Washington to meet my traveling companions I wanted to take a commuter flight to National and then ride with them the rest of the way. The person who had invited me to the meeting was the Associate International Director of Hillel and he agreed that it made sense for me to fly to Washington rather than drive, but he told me that he himself could not authorize the expenditure (which at the time was probably around $150) so we would have to wait for the International Director to decide if the money could be spent.

I knew then that B'nai Brith Hillel was in trouble if the only person authorized to approve an expenditure of $150 was the International Director. And not long after, the B'nai Brith Hillel Foundations were indeed no more. Hillel spun off from B'nai Brith and is now simply Hillel rather than "B'nai Brith Hillel". B'nai Brith Women is now Jewish Women International and B'nai Brith Youth Organization (still known as BBYO) is also no longer part of B'nai Brith. The Anti-Defamation League has long since ceased to be an agency of B'nai Brith and you will search long and hard for even a mention of B'nai Brith on the website.

At the beginning of this week's Parasha, Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew) sees his son-in-law Moses sitting all day while a long line of people wait out in the hot sun for a few minutes of his time. Moses explains that he must sit all day long, every day, to judge the people. Whoever has a dispute brings it to Moses for a ruling. Jethro tells Moses that this concentration of power and responsibility is not good -- it's not good for Moses and it's not good for the people. Moses will burn out from overwork, while the people also get worn out by the frustration of having to wait so long to have their cases heard. Jethro tells Moses to appoint judges under him for every clan and tribe. They will hear the routine cases and only the more difficult will be brought to him for resolution -- and Moses does so.

In Roman Catholic thought, this idea is known as the Principle of Subsidiarity -- matters ought to be handled by the lowest competent authority. This principle was carried over into the Treaty of Maastricht which established the European Union, which can only act if the action of individual countries is insufficient to deal with the problem.

It's interesting that the Torah portion which contains the Ten Commandments begins with a much more prosaic lesson. Concentration of power is bad -- bad for the person who holds all the power and bad for the group as a whole. If any social group -- a nation, a town, a corporation, a religious congregation -- is to flourish, power needs to be spread as widely as possible. Having one leader who is responsible for all decision-making is a recipe for disaster.


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