The Magazine

Moses Revealed

He was more than a successful manager.

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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Moses as Political Leader

by Aaron Wildavsky

Shalem, 325 pp., $16.95

THE RE-PUBLICATION OF Aaron Wildavsky's Moses as Political Leader, first published in 1984, is a welcome event. It is a vigorous effort to reclaim for the social sciences an understanding of statesmanship and its connection to a particular regime.

Since its first appearance, the social sciences have grown even more oblivious to these themes, and so the book is more timely than ever. But, more important, it is also an attempt to restore revelation, and specifically Jewish revelation, as a source of profound reflection on statecraft. Does Wildavsky succeed in doing both? Admirable as the book is in many ways, I cannot determine whether the author is using social science to illuminate revelation or revelation to illuminate social science.

Wildavsky's main premise is compelling. Different kinds of regimes require different kinds of statesmanship. Moses' career from the Exodus to the edge of the Promised Land is a "primer" in government because it spans four major regimes in succession, and shows what kind of statesmanship is appropriate to each.

Beginning with the negative example of the Pharaoh's absolute monarchy, Moses' leadership evolves from anarchy (the initial phase in the Wilderness) to equity (an egalitarian republic) to a prudent blend of equity and hierarchy, which Wildavsky regards as the Biblical antecedent of modern social democracy. Because these archetypes evolve in response to the challenges faced by Moses under radically shifting conditions of hardship, hope, success, and demoralization, "the Bible presents as wide a panorama as can be found" of the "extent and limits of leadership under different types of rule."

This review could stop here if this were only a book about leadership. But Wildavsky has a much broader aim: to restore revelation as a source of political wisdom. His approach to Moses, however, undermines this aim. It is Wildavsky himself who insists that the "sacerdotal" aspects of Moses' leadership be separated from his strictly pragmatic success: "This is not a book about religion, except insofar as it is necessary to illuminate the cultural context within which Moses acted."

Moreover, his treatment is drenched in the language of modern, value-free social science. Wildavsky's own treatment, therefore, calls into question whether the Torah as revelation is valuable as a study in leadership, and whether, conversely, studying Moses' pragmatic successes and failures as a leader does much to deepen our understanding of his place in revelation.

Maimonides called Moses the greatest of all the prophets. But throughout his book, Wildavsky sacrifices Moses' status as a prophet to his role as a model for leadership theory. Moses emerges as a secular leader in exactly the way he is presented by early modern critics of revelation, like Machiavelli and Spinoza: a great founder who, like Cyrus the Great or Romulus, used force judiciously and rewrote history (including religious revelation) to unite his people and legitimize his own actions retroactively.

According to Wildavsky, leaders "have no way of maintaining the support of their followers except by claiming divine inspiration." But this is as true of Augustus Caesar or Constantine as it is of Moses. Leadership "must be charismatic, touched by the divine spirit." But this Weberian term was coined to explain usurpers like Oedipus, who have a special need for divine propaganda to overcome their lack of hereditary legitimacy.

Moses was "making history," writes Wildavsky. Moses stops short of the Promised Land so that the Hebrews can be free of his overwhelming prestige and therefore "make their own history." One must wonder whether this existentialist language, which attributes to mortal human beings the god-like capacity to "make" events, has any place in a discussion of Moses. It was often claimed on behalf of Napoleon and Stalin that they were "making history." Just as Spinoza, in his interpretation of Moses, reduced the ceremonial laws to mechanisms of social unity and control, Wildavsky says a leader must "create" a "culture" based on "perceptions of purity" so as to "enforce" good conduct. But did Moses "create" the ceremonial laws on the basis of his own will? And were they based on mere "perceptions" of purity, as if all that matters is that a certain code be widely accepted regardless of whether it is true?

What Wildavsky says of Moses could as readily be said of any successful conqueror and ruler from Caesar to Napoleon.

Wildavsky's attempt to do justice to Moses as a statesman is undermined by this relativistic, watered-down