Parashat Shoftim: A king under God

How does our Jewish tradition view the function and powers of the Chief Executive - the king of Israel, or of any country, for that matter?

September 17, 2005 04:22


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Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 How does our Jewish tradition view the function and powers of the Chief Executive - the king of Israel, or of any country, for that matter? Much of the world into the 18th century believed in the "divine right of the monarchy" - that the word of a king is tantamount to the word of God. Our neighbors in the Middle East are all ruled by despotic tyrants, with some attempting to bestow a modicum of benefits on their subjects, but most totally insensitive to any needs other than those of their own family. Many political theorists would argue for an absolute and corrupt ruler rather than anarchy, because at least with such a king "the subjects will not swallow each other alive" (witness Hobbes' Leviathan). What would Jewish tradition say? Jewish tradition is ambiguous as to whether or not there is a biblical commandment to appoint a king; the language in our Torah portion can be interpreted either way, suggesting that kingship is voluntary at best and a response to public demand. And yet the subsequent verse, "You shall appoint, yes, appoint upon yourselves a king whom the Lord your God has chosen" (ibid. 15) indicates a divine command, and even implies rule by divine right! Hence the issue is debated in the Talmud (B.T. Sanhedrin 20b) between Rabbi Yehuda, who maintains that the biblical verse is a divine command, and Rabbi Nehorai, who sees it as a shameful response to an illegitimate request. The biblical commentaries and halachic jurists continue the debate, with Maimonides teaching (in the beginning of his Laws of Kings) that we are commanded to appoint a king upon entering Israel, and the Abarbanel (in his commentary, ad loc) arguing that the very request emanates from a national "evil urge," similar to the request of a soldier to marry a captive gentile. He maintains that the Bible is telling us not what ought to happen but rather what will happen. Indeed, we see that Gideon the judge refused the offer of kingship, insisting that God rules over Israel (Judges 8:23), and Samuel considered the very request for a king - who will only drain the peoples' wealth and violate their rights - to be a rejection of God (Samuel 1,8). Despite all this, however, the normative form of rule in Israel for both commonwealths was a monarchy! The one issue about which there is no argument is the precise function of a king, and herein lies a tale which has crucial ramifications for our understanding of the sanctity of Jerusalem. Maimonides maintains that the sanctity of Jerusalem is eternal - since "the sanctity of Jerusalem is the sanctity of the Divine Presence (Shechina), and the Divine Presence can never be nullified." (Laws of the Chosen Temple, 6, 15). Does this mean that the essence of the Divine Presence is "situated" in Jerusalem, in the Temple Mount? That is certainly impossible. After all, is it not Maimonides who teaches that the divine is not anthropomorphic, that God is not at all physical, and that He can therefore never be limited to any one location? Indeed, Maimonides says that anyone who believes God is in any way corporeal is a heretic (Laws of Repentance 3, 7)! Our daily prayers would seem to buttress the words of Maimonides concerning the special sanctity of Jerusalem: "To Jerusalem Your city shall You [God] return in compassion, and You [God] shall dwell in its midst as You have said, and may You build it soon, in our days, as an eternal building. And the throne of David shall You prepare within it speedily. Blessed are You, O God, builder of Jerusalem." Doesn't that prayer state that God dwells (or must dwell) in Jerusalem? This paragraph, however, includes a second theme which seems inconsistent with the main idea: "the throne of David shall You [God] prepare within it..." What is the relationship between God's presence and Jewish sovereignty? Let us return to the biblical portion which discusses the king of Israel: "He may not have too many horses... he may not have too many wives... he may not have too much silver and gold..." (Deuteronomy 17:16,17). What may he have? "He must write a Torah scroll which will be with him, and from which he must read all the days of his life in order that he learn to fear God... and not exalt himself above his brothers..." (ibid.18-20). A Jewish king must first and foremost know and express the word of God. God does not bestow divine right on Israeli kings; rather, Israeli kings must teach the divine law to their people! Jerusalem is the seat of the kingship of Israel. Jerusalem is also the city from whence the message of a God of peace, justice and compassion will spread to the world. Hence Jerusalem means the City of Peace (jeru is city in ancient Semitic languages, and shalem is peace), and the Temple Mount is the place from which humanity will learn not to learn war anymore, and to beat swords into plowshares; from Zion will come Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). I believe this is precisely what Maimonides means when he says the Sanctity of Jerusalem is the sanctity of the Divine Presence; it is the sanctity not of any physical presence, but rather of the divine word, the divine message of world peace. It is that word or message which can never be destroyed or nullified. And it is the king's function to symbolize the King of Kings, to express His message to Israel and the world from his throne in Jerusalem. He must be a king of peace; a messenger of justice and compassion. Is there a commandment to have such a king? Ultimately there is, with the King/Messiah at the time of universal redemption! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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