The Difference Between Power and Authority

A little background. A little more than 20 years ago or so, in 1991, I had to drop out of my studies at San Francisco State University because the money ran out. Things got very difficult for Jennifer and me for a while, but eventually there was work — in Southern California. After a bit, I got hired by Dr. Joel Dreyer, a psychiatrist, to help process medical reports for his worker’s comp clinic.

I don’t know how to describe Joel Dreyer. Perhaps beguiling and very charming rogue would be the best way to do do. (He’s a “bad boy,” and I think even he would admit to that.) I could tell many stories, and to some of you I have. But not today. Those need to wait for another time. He’s also a larger-than-life personality, and he fills a room. He truly does.

I worked for Dreyer for a year. In that time, because I was responsible for transcribing and editing psychiatric reports filed with the state of California, I became somewhat familiar with the terminology in the then DSM-IIIR. Jennifer and I became fascinated. (Yes, we bought our own copy, even.) But things were changing at Jade Psychiatric, typing reports was no career, and within a year, my finances had gotten secure enough to resume school. At Ohio State. Which I did.

But I’d often wondered what had happened to Joel Dreyer. Well, it turns out, he’d been arrested by the DEA in 2007 or 2008, I think, and eventually pled guilty to dealing prescription drugs illegally. And at the ripe old age of 73, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. Which is where Dreyer is today.

I started corresponding with my former employer, and that’s been going on for a while now. Almost two years, actually. He’s often times remarked that he is the only Jew in whatever institution he is doing time in, and he started passing on the weekly shabbos e-mails he gets from The Aleph Institute, a Jewish charity which specializes in military and prison chaplaincy and proving services to Jewish families. They also appear to have a Chavod Lubavicher orientation, or that just may be the leanings of the rabbi who sends out the emails.

They are fascinating e-mails to read. This is from last week, and it comes as part of discussion of the difference between how Moses handles the prophetic utterances of Eldad and Medad (recorded in Numbers 11) and Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16):

There are two forms or dimensions of leadership. One is power; the other, influence. Often we confuse the two. After all, those who have power often have influence, and those who have influence have a certain kind of power. In fact, however, the two are quite different, even opposites. 

We can see this by a simple thought experiment. Imagine you have total power, and then you decide to share it with nine others. You now have one-tenth of the power with which you began. Imagine, by contrast, that you have a certain measure of influence, and now you share it with nine others. How much do you have left? Not less. In fact, more. Initially there was only one of you; now there are ten. Your influence has spread. Power operates by division, influence by multiplication. With power, the more we share, the less we have. With influence, the more we share, the more we have. 

So deep is the difference that the Torah allocates them to two distinct leadership roles: king and prophet. Kings had power. They could levy taxes, conscript people to serve in the army, and decide when and against whom to wage war. They could impose non-judicial punishments to preserve social order. Hobbes famously called kingship a “Leviathan” and defined it in terms of power. The very nature of the social contract, he argued, was the transfer of power from individuals to a central authority. Without this, there could be no government, no defense of a country, and no safeguard against lawlessness and anarchy. 

Prophets, by contrast, had no power at all. They commanded no armies. They levied no taxes. They spoke G-d’s word, but had no means of enforcing it. All they had was influence but what influence! To this day, Elijah’s fight against corruption, Amos’ call to social justice, Isaiah’s vision of the end of days, are still capable of moving us by the sheer force of their inspiration. Who, today, is swayed by the lives of Ahab or Jehoshaphat or Jehu? When a king dies, his power ends. When a prophet dies, his influence begins.

This is an important thing. It’s something I especially need to remember, in my concern about power, in my fear of temporal — particularly state — power. I don’t give influence enough credit for accomplishing very much, mostly because I don’t see “power” if there isn’t coercion or brute force. But the rabbi is right, that prophets are a far stronger force, they have more “power,” because their words mean and do far more than any king’s commands or deeds ever will.