When the Feminist Movement began to argue that society was structured on the basis of male dominated values they pointed to the hierarchical model of organization as a prime example. They argued that the assumption that things need to run on the basis of a top-down
scheme with the power at the top of the pyramid to be effective is evil. It emerges from a male focus that esteems authority and enjoys accruing power.They claimed hierarchy invites competitiveness and all too often leads to abuse.
The better approach, and the one more in synch with the feminine in their view is an operational model based on collaboration. In a collaborative model no member of the organization is above the other, none assumes the place of authority. Rather each member shares equally in the organizational agenda albeit with separate functions.
The upshot of this thinking was to cause many of us in positions of authority to question our role and practice. We began to wonder if we were perhaps participating in a social structure that was inherently evil. The history of the world seemed to support much of the feminist position. So much of the evil we know both in the macro and micro setting, from the story of nations to the life of families, has its roots in an abuse of power. We came to question if indeed we need a new world order, one that eschews authority and blesses equality.
What does our faith tradition have to say about these issues? Where does Judaism stand on the issue of hierarchy or collaboration?
The issue came up for me as I explored the parsha of this week that of Yitro. Yitro has two distinct sections. In the first part of the reading, from which the portion gets its name, we read where Yitro the father-in-law of Moshe came from Midian to visit him in the wilderness. The Torah story includes the fact that Yitro saw Moshe judging the people all day long as the sole dispenser of justice and teaching. Yitro challenged Moshe to set up a more workable system where there would be judges appointed in a layered system, judges over the 10, the 50s, and over the 100s, and over the 1000s, in ascending competency. The judicial system would allow the more complex cases to go to the higher courts with the final say being Moshe himself. Yitro's approach gains the approval of G-d and indeed is implemented.
The second half of the reading tells the story of the giving of the Decalogue on Sinai as Israel accpepted their role as the Chosen
The question that begs asking is what does the first half of the reading have to do with the second? How are they connected? Yitro? the giving of the law? they seem totally unrelated.
I believe the connection of these two stories is meant to tell us something very important. The initial part of the reading, the story of Yitro, validates hierarchy as the model for cognitive learning. The whole gist of what Yitro suggested to Moshe and that which was later confirmed by G-d is that the giving over of the content of Torah is to be done top-down. The judges of the 10, the 50, the 100, and the 1000, were meant to teach and pass on the tradition assuring its purity and safeguarding its message. There can be no learning in the Torah ideal without authority. We are mandated to revere our teachers and learn from what they do as much as from what they say.
Parents and teachers are akin in Judaism, one gets you into this world the other into the next. Both cannot play down their roles as authorities if proper formation is to occur.
The later half of the reading teaches us something other. There, at Sinai, as Israel experienced the Divine and entered into the Covenant there was no room for authority. Each person needed to have the experience for him/herself.The experience of an rendezvous with G-d was the essence of Sinai. The content of the Decalogue was subordinate to the context of our wedding with our G-d. When it comes to experience we are arbitors for ourselves. Collaboration of equals yes, hierarchy and authority no! Moshe was told by Hashem exactly what to say to the Israelites. He could add nothing nor subtract from G-d's invitation to intimacy. It was not for Moshe to define, frame, or limit the experience of each Jew's encounter. He could not sell the package or make it more enticing. The experience was between Israel and G-d. Moshe was an agent but nothing more. The experience each Israelite had was immediate and personal. At Sinai we were all equal and unique.
The message here in poingant. Yes we need to have authorities and be authorities even if it feel at times uncomfortable. Parents need to have a hierarchical relationship with their children. That is true even if the parent grew up in the 60's and was a flower child disdaining authority. Our teachers cannot be one of us. They need the respect that comes from their elevated place in the social order.
But when it comes to experience we need to get out of the way. We need to let those we feel responsible for have their own encounter with its own meaning and uniqueness for them. We need to trust the other that what they need to experience they will and resist trying to control what others feel through our manipulation and handling. Too often the media not only reports on an event. They make the event. By dint of how they report and what they share they attempt to mold our experience to fit their agenda. We too, at times in wanting to influence others, attempt to shape their experience. We tell them what they should feel instead of letting them have the encounter for themselves. We have no business being an authority when we deal with the experiential. Every person needs to feel autonomous and validated in his/her sense of what transpires. We can't draft the meaning of an event for another. In the world of experience we are all equal and every experience counts. A community consists of a collaboration of people each with his or her sense of experience coming together to share and grow.
Hierarchy or collaboration? It's not either or, but rather both and. It depends on the context. There is no absolute good or bad here.
We need authority to teach us right from wrong. We need collaboration to build living communities based on experience and trust.