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In his bestselling book, Bowling Alone (2000), Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam noted a seismic shift from the 1960s to the 1990s in how Americans viewed the government. In the 1960s, three out of four people believed that you could “trust the government in Washington to do what is right all or most of the time,” while in the 1990s three out of four did not trust the government to do what is right most of the time. What government characteristics influence whether people trust them? In a seminal article entitled “Political Trust and Trustworthiness,” Levi and Stoker (2000) identified the following: “the capacities to make credible commitments, to design and implement policies nonarbitrarily, and to demonstrate competence” (p. 484).

Exploring the psychological underpinnings of trust in government, Hamm, Smidt, and Mayer (2019) turned to a general model of interpersonal trust that identified three important dimensions of trustworthiness: ability, benevolence, and integrity. Ability refers to the competence of the person or entity being trusted as concerns the tasks it is supposed to accomplish. Benevolence addresses “the extent to which the trustor believes the trustee cares about and would expend effort to protect the trustor’s well-being, especially when contrasted with the trustee’s own self-interest” (p. 2). Finally, integrity relates to whether the trustee follows internalized values deemed important to the trustor. Ideally, government should act in ways that demonstrates its ability, benevolence, and integrity, earning the trust of the citizens and leading to a well-functioning state.

Political trust, or the lack thereof, has important ramifications for many fundamental aspects of life. In one recent and pertinent example related to COVID-19, Han and colleagues (2021) utilized a global survey of 23,733 participants and found that whether or not a person trusted the government was significantly associated with whether one adopted preventative health behaviors (handwashing, social distancing) as well as prosocial behavior (how willing one is willing to help others).

As is evident from Rabban Gamliel’s message in this Mishna (2:3), concern with whether one should trust the government was an important concept to consider for the Sages as well: “Be careful with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress.” While the main message of the Mishna seems relatively straightforward, commentaries differ as to the level of circumspection we should have towards the government as well as to the exact practical takeaways from the Mishna.

Rabbeinu Yonah is highly troubled by the indications of the straightforward reading of the Mishna which denigrates the government. He emphatically contends that this reading is untenable (“chalila, chalila lo ye-hiye ha-davar ve-lo yakum”). After all, it is due to the government that society functions; it ensures that laws are upheld. Rather, he suggests that the Mishna teaches that whether or not the king helps or harms is not within his power, but rather is a reflection of God’s Will. As such, Rabban Gamliel urges us to respect and revere the government, but with the knowledge that everything is really in God’s power.

A more nuanced understanding can be gained by juxtaposing this Mishna with a previous one. We have already seen an admonitory message related to government when Shemayah exhorts us “do not draw near to the ruling authority” (Avot 1:10). Rabbi Mattityahu HaYitzari points to a difference between the two presentations. Shemayah says to stay away, while Rabban Gamliel emphasizes caution, not disengagement. Despite the cautionary caveat, Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (Tashbatz) notes that our tradition encourages interacting with the government for the sake of the welfare of others. Indeed, we have Biblical precedent with Mordechai, and even Rabbinic precedent with Rabban Gamliel’s own father, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasai, who the Talmud tells us had a close relationship with the Roman emperor Antoninus (Avoda Zara 10b).

What accounts for the differences between Shemaiah (avoid contact), Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (active contact), and Rabban Gamliel (cautionary contact)? In short, context. Though Pirkei Avot’s lessons have timeless relevance, their particular application can be context dependent. After analyzing Rabban Gamliel’s statement, Meiri notes that the Sages generally dispense advice based on what they observe in their generation. Thus, the advice could change in a different setting. Building on the ideas of Rabbi Moshe Leiter in his Mussar Avot, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau points to historical circumstances to explain the difference between Shemayah and Rabban Gamliel’s advice. He writes that:

When Shemayah stated that one should avoid the government altogether, he was speaking in an era when Hyrcanus and Aristobulus had appealed to Pompey, the military governor in Antiochus, Syria, to solve a bitter dispute, which led to Pompey's military entry into the land of Israel. It was on the background of Hyrcanus and Aristobulus’s reckless behavior that Shemayah delivered the admonishment to keep out of sight of the gentile government. Circumstances were entirely different in the days of Rabban Gamliel. The Jews were vassals of the Roman government, and Jewish leaders sought to be in constant contact with Roman officials, in order to ameliorate any attempts to persecute the Jews. Rabban Gamliel cautions these leaders to exercise great caution in their dealings with the ruling class.

Rabbi Leiter further argues that the difference between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s more positive attitude towards government and his son’s more cautionary one also has to do with the particular leaders and governments they each encountered. As Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau notes in his work The Sages: Character, Context, and Creativity, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lived during a long stretch of economic security and political calm. He enjoyed positive relationships with the Roman government, and this overall setting was a critical factor in impacting the successful compilation of the Mishna.

However, this pocket of prosperity was followed by what Rabbi Dr. Lau calls the Anarchic Period. About this time, historian Yisrael Levine writes:

The third century was primarily a period of crisis. There was an atmosphere of constant warfare, instead of the tranquility that had previously prevailed. Poverty and uncertainty replaced the prosperity and security of the second century, and there were constant rebellions within the imperial ranks as well as threats from abroad. A sense of crisis was also precipitated by rampant inflation, accompanied by a heavy tax burden. The fact that all the Caesars died unnatural deaths and that they reigned for an average of just two years each after the year 235 is symptomatic of this situation and contributed to the instability of the emperor's position. At the same time, the Barbarians gained force along the Rhine and the Danube, and the Sasanians mobilized in the east, resulting in a series of attacks and defeats along the various borders. These incursions led to widespread death and destruction, and the land was laid waste (translation from The Sages, vol. 4, pp 5-6).

Perhaps this more chaotic political context accounts for Rabban Gamliel’s warning not to be too trusting of the government.

There is no question that in most contexts throughout Jewish history the advice to be suspicious of governmental authorities was sound and perhaps even life-saving advice. Yet, the indication of a historical reading is that this is not inherently true in all circumstances. If—as what seems to have been the case in the time of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi—a government and its officials demonstrate their ability, benevolence, and integrity, an ultimately healthy and flourishing society can be created, allowing its citizens to flourish economically and spiritually.


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