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

Nietzschean lingo imported from the social sciences. The problem is clearest in his treatment of God's revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. He interprets God's utterance--"I am that I am"--as meaning that Moses' "desire to over-identify with God must be continually circumscribed" because God cannot be limited. The need to curb Moses' hubris may be one lesson. But isn't the larger question about whether and to what extent revelation can ever become a fixed political authority, given that God is beyond all natural constraints?

This difficulty is even more disturbingly evoked by the binding of Isaac, which may be God's reminder that He is never to be understood as constrained by his own covenant with man (in this case, the prohibition against human sacrifice). As the source of the gift of the law, God can never be subordinated to the law he creates. Whereas Wildavsky wishes to separate the mystery of God from the demands of political leadership, the possibility that they may conflict on the level of man's encounter with the divine is arguably the political wisdom of the Torah. But because Wildavsky is in thrall to the lingo of the social sciences, revelation comes perilously close to being an ideology to justify Moses' "struggle for identity" and "dynamic view of history."

His language is straight out of Machiavelli: "Moses re-creates a past on which to base a future for his people . . . history is re-written by selective attention."

What it comes down to, in the end, is: Do we admire Moses because he was a brilliant example of leadership? Or do we venerate him because he was God's chosen, and for this reason a brilliant leader? Wildavsky clearly embraces the first alternative, not so clearly the second. And yet it would seem as if the Torah maintains an inscrutable and even terrifying disjunction between God's call to his people's faith and how that call must be translated into the hard exigencies Moses faces in his struggle toward the Promised Land. The silent aleph that opens God's revelation may have contained the entire Torah, or the Ten Commandments--or not. There is no scriptural proof for either tradition. The divine/human conversation remains a mystery. What did God and Moses each bring to the conversation? Was God's communication silent? Of these awful and inspiring questions Wildavsky's book has little to tell us.

At bottom, Wildavsky is not really attempting to restore revelation as an alternative, or even superior, source of political reflection but is, instead, returning to an earlier, more robust and realistic modern and, indeed, secular account of leadership. Although Machiavelli and Spinoza are not mentioned, Wildavsky is returning behind the veil of more recent delusions about world peace and the nastiness of thinking about political power to their accounts of Moses, which do exactly what Wildavsky claims: By stripping Moses of his "sacerdotal" aspect, they bring to the fore his courage, prudence, and ingenuity as a ruler.

Like Machiavelli, whose wisdom he explicitly acknowledges, Spinoza gives a pragmatic, this-worldly account of Moses in order to deflate the claims of revelation. Wildavsky is entirely justified in returning to this early modern realism to combat the squeamishness of today's social sciences with regard to great leaders. But instead of, as he imagines, restoring the perspective of revelation, he is aiding Machiavelli and Spinoza in deflating it. The aim of the early modern thinkers in presenting the realistic Moses (the "armed prophet," as Machiavelli calls him) was to tame the politics of the Torah by separating them from the nonnegotiable zeal and righteousness sustained by a faith in God and God's justice.

The problem is not that our failure to appreciate Moses as a "leader" blinds us to the wisdom of revelation as a guide for just politics. The problem is that reducing Moses to a "leader" blinds us to the wisdom of revelation as a guide for politics and everything else. It takes nothing away from the considerable merits of Moses as Political Leader to conclude that it returns us to the cusp of this ongoing problem.

Waller R. Newell is professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa.