What the Torah says about…abuse of power

By Rabbi Ariel Abel

Torah For TodayTeacher William Vahey drugged pupils around the world with sleeping pills and sexually abused them. Three of his victims, all in Saudi Arabia, have committed suicide.

So what does the Torah say about someone who abuses their position of power? Perhaps the most infamous case in the Bible of abuse of power is that of King David, who wooed the wife of Uriah into his bed.

Although the sages of the Talmud claim that Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, was divorced from her husband, this technicality did not release David morally. Gad the prophet reprimanded David severely for his actions, comparing him to a wealthy man who had abused his position of power over an impoverished neighbour.

According to Jewish tradition, David was afflicted with a painful condition in his private area for the rest of his life as a punishment for taking cruel advantage of his position. In Vahey’s case, the victims were minors who could not give their consent and were also unconscious, realising their horrific predicament only when they awoke to find themselves in their attacker’s bed.

The violent act against the victims was in itself evil and damaging, only exacerbated by the fact that a student should be able to trust a teacher and not find themselves compromised and even abused by a role model and person in loco parentis.

When Ahab stole the vineyard from Naboth, Elijah the prophet rebuked him for using an instrument of law to condemn Naboth to death, on false charges of blasphemy. Therefore, the prophet famously condemned the king with the words: “Have you murdered and also inherited?”

Any person in a position of power who abuses their position not only inflicts damages but also reaps illicit benefit with apparent impunity. It is noteworthy that justice in both David and Ahab’s case had to come from a personal emissary of God – the prophet, a moral authority.

No legal authority would have dared to challenge the king, who was the supreme appeal judge who oversaw and overruled any court in the land. It is crucial that rapists and child molesters are offered up by communities who shelter them in the name of “keeping low profile”, as the actions of all such criminals is akin to murder.

According to Torah law, a murderer must be taken “even from [the] altar” itself; there is no asylum for people who attack the vulnerable and defenceless.

• Rabbi Abel is consultant to For Life projects