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Power and Its Discontents

Laura Janner-KlausnerFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

Like other religious leaders, being a religious and communal leader has given me power over certain aspects of people's lives. I strongly believe in inverting the power pyramid so that everyone claims their opportunity to play their part in decisions that affect themselves and their communities. In this talk, I look at how Jewish values and teachings can help us use our power responsibly and prevent its abuse.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is the Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK. Laura moved to Israel in 1985, where she worked as an informal Jewish educator and was active in facilitating Palestinian-Israeli dialogue. She then returned to London and spent eight years as a communal rabbi at Alyth Synagogue. Laura is a regular television and radio broadcaster on issues of faith and ethics and is passionate about youth empowerment, values-driven education, and individual and communal egalitarianism.

As a rabbi I accompany people through both routine events and times of extremes. When you take the most potent moments of joy or raw mourning and you amplify them with rituals in an emotional community, everything is magnified. And in these moments we are vulnerable, we are open to manipulation and exploitation in our joy or in our pain. Oh, and add the final turbo charged ingredient, an assumption of proximity to the divine and it’s a recipe for too much power. This power of Rabbis or of all clergy can be a force for fantastic life affirming change, but for some, it can also be a gift for power abuse. So what’s power? Well, I like the definition that we use in community organizing. Power is the ability to act and power is a good thing, it’s a great thing. As Jews we know that power is crucial, we’ve had far too many experiences of powerlessness and I relish the revolution of the past 65 years, the power and challenge of a Jewish sovereign state, Israel, with the ability to act and react – independence, self-determination it’s wonderful. We need and want the ability to act and we deserve it, as long as we use our power with integrity, with care, with trepidation. I believe that power doesn’t corrupt but that power reveals. Power reveals who you really are. So how can we use our Jewish values that we love to reveal how we should use our power? Well, you might be familiar with the teaching of Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa, that we should carry two slips of paper in two pockets, containing two very different messages, for life. Here am going to name them power pockets, and these power pockets hold the antidote to power abuse. When we are in a position of greater power we want to use it with integrity, we should reach into our greater power pocket, take out the slip of paper and say to ourselves,‘I am but dust and ashes ‘anochia afa v’efer, this challenges our idea of entitlement that we really are our role, our role as ourselves, our essence – I am just Laura a very lucky woman with an interesting job. Power belongs to the self not to a role, which is often a mirage. We are all dust and ashes, flesh and blood, created in the image of God, all equal, completely equal, regardless of gender or sexuality or wealth or background or title, all equal, in the image of God. So what about when we have less power? What’s our antidote? You reach into your less power pocket. What does it say? The world was created for me ‘Bishvili nivra h’olam’. I am also entitled, I am also strong. So how do you measure if your power relations are healthy or unhealthy? You feel it. If there’s something wrong, your pulse races and I imagine this as a power pulse monitor and start measuring a power pulse rate and it’s based, like most good things, on emotion, it’s a fear pulse and instead of taking your pulse on your hand, you may put your hand on your chest where you feel fear or maybe on your stomach where you feel fear, you ask yourself “Am I anxious? Am I scared?” The power pulse monitor works by setting a diagnostic question. If I have less power at a particular moment, what question reveals the truth? The less power question is ‘can I say no?’. Can I say, no, no? When the person who has more power asks me to do something do I feel fear, can I say no? And when I am in position of greater power and I want to use it properly, what question can I ask myself? Can they say no? Am I giving them any choice? Now there is one more presence in this relationship, and that is the bystander, what’s their power pulse question? Can they say anything? If I see that those with less power in an interaction and they can speak for themselves they don’t need me. But if not I need to ask can I help? Are you ok? It’s a risk, it makes you vulnerable, and it might be frightening . You may need to think about how to protect yourselves before getting involved but Judaism is clear ‘hocheiach tochiah at amitecha’, ‘you have to rebuke your neighbor’. And the good news? Sometimes it takes one person, a Rosa Parks, a Gandhi and of course a Mandela, Madiba Zl. Why do we have to speak out, whether we are the person with less power or the bystander? The answer is in the next part of the Torah verse ‘v’lo tisa ulav chet’, ‘and not be held responsible for their sin’. If we don’t speak out we are guilty too. Not being a silent bystander involves a risk of rejection, alienation or derision, rebuking may seem belligerent or cantankerous, but is one of Judaism’s most profoundly optimistic Mitzvot, as we believe that people can always change are open to persuasions and new ideas. It may be intimidating, you may not want to challenge others but the risk will pay off if someone’s willing to listen. Now, people are going to try and dissuade you from challenging power with famous fob offs and here are a few of my favourites. ‘She’s only joking’, ‘oh it’s just banter’ ,‘it’s a personality clash’ between you, and that actually blames you… ‘don’t make a fuss’, ‘Oh! (I love this one, I always get this one)you’re too sensitive’. I’m paid to be sensitive. ‘Don’t be divisive’. But, we may not need anyone else to silence us or to fob us off because sometimes we can just silence ourselves: ‘No one will listen anyway’, ‘they’re much cleverer than me’, ‘they know better that’s why they have the job, obviously’ ‘it’ll get me into trouble’ ‘Oh, we mustn’t make the Movement or family or shul look bad’. Don’t be fobbed off by others or silenced by yourself. And finally, here are my two top tips that we can use to strengthen ourselves when we think those with more power might be misusing it. Number one, the golden bullet, is to write it down. Tell your story, write it down what you think is happening, document your concerns, and this helps process our experience, clarify what we think happened, but vitally it holds others to account. Don’t just tell someone. Don’t just tell someone; words particularly without a witness are too ephemeral, they may disappear into midair, ignored by those who it serves to ignore them. Number two get others to help, we do not have to do this alone, you don’t have to be alone, we don’t have to challenge on our own. Chazak chazak vnitchazek, be strong, be strong and we’ll strengthen each other. We don’t have to challenge on our own. Ask for help. As a Rabbi I might have too much power, but I believe we all have far more potential power than we may think. We just need to identify it, to act on it, and yes to be brave, chazak chazak vnitchazek.

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