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Shoftim (5767) – On The Limits of Power


THERE IS NO SUBJECT ON WHICH THE TORAH IS MORE AMBIVALENT than the issue of monarchy in particular, and politics in general. The starting point of any discussion of the subject is in today’s sedra:

When you enter the land the Lord your G-d is giving you and have taken possession of it, and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us”, be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your G-d chooses.

This apparently simple instruction led to an extraordinary difference of opinion between the medieval Torah commentators. Maimonides understood it as a command. Ibn Ezra read it as a permission. Abarbanel – who lived closer to the heart of politics than any other Jew of the Middle Ages – regarded it as a mere concession to human weakness. Abarbanel had an extraordinarily eventful career, holding high diplomatic office in Portugal, Castile, Naples and Venice. In 1483 he was falsely accused of conspiracy; in 1492 he tried, but failed, to have the Spanish expulsion decree revoked. Having lived through the intrigues and duplicities of several royal courts he was convinced that political enterprise was corrupting. He argued in favour of democratically elected councils, but was at heart a utopian anarchist. In an ideal world, he believed, there would be no rulers and no ruled. The passage relating to a king was therefore no more than the Torah’s sad acknowledgement that humanity was not yet ready to liberate itself from the necessity of politics.

The tone of unease is evident in the very wording of the biblical passage, in three ways. First is the unique prologue which foresees that the Israelites would ask for a king in order to be “like all the nations around us” – as indeed they did in the days of Samuel (I Samuel 8:5). Elsewhere the purpose of the commands is to make Israel different, distinctive, “holy”. There is more than a hint here that politics is ultimately alien to the spirit of the Torah. Indeed, Israel’s first system of governance (heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens; Exodus 18) was suggested not by G-d but by Moses’ father-in-law, the Midianite high priest Yitro.

Second is the list of caveats with which the king is to be charged: not to multiply horses, or wives, or wealth (Dev. 17: 16-17). As we know, it was precisely these cautions that King Solomon ignored, and it led to his downfall. In an exceptionally pointed passage the Talmud states:

Why were the reasons of the Torah’s laws not revealed? Because in two cases reasons were revealed, and they caused the greatest man in the world (Solomon) to stumble. It is written, He shall not take many wives lest his heart be led astray. Solomon said, I will take many wives but my heart will not be led astray. Yet we read, When Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart astray (I Kings 11:4). Again it is written, He must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself lest he make the people return to Egypt. Solomon said, I will acquire many horses but I will not make the people return to Egypt. Yet we read, They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels (I Kings 10: 29).

Solomon thought himself incorruptible. His life proved otherwise.

Third is the strange fact that when the Israelites did eventually ask for a king, Samuel was greatly distressed, feeling that they had rejected him. G-d tells him that their offence is far worse:

The Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you. It is not you they have rejected as their king, but Me.”

In what sense did their request for a king – mandated by the Torah itself – constitute a rejection of G-d? For Maimonides, for whom monarchy was a positive command, their offence was that they asked improperly. What was wrong was not the request itself but the manner in which they made it. From a different perspective, however, there is a deeper concern.

NOWHERE IS THIS MORE POIGNANTLY SPELLED OUT than in the Book of Judges, which spans the period between the death of Joshua and the inception of monarchy. The “judges” referred to were not mere judges in the contemporary sense. They were military leaders who emerged from time to time when the Israelites – then a loose confederation of tribes rather than a nation – came under attack from enemy forces. One of the most successful was Gideon, who led the people to victory against the Midianites. So impressive was his campaign that the people asked him to become their king. He replied, in words that go to the heart of the matter, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8: 23).

That is what is at stake in the Torah’s reservations about monarchy, and politics generally. It is not merely that, as Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is rather that Judaism is a sustained meditation about freedom and what it implies in terms of sovereignty and political structures.

More than any other religious literature the Torah is predicated on human choice, freedom and moral responsibility. Almost at the outset of the human story, G-d tells Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must master it.” We are free. There may be many influences on our conduct – genetic, environmental, cultural, economic – but nothing that forces us to act one way rather than another. Viktor Frankl, the remarkable man who survived Auschwitz and went on to found a new school of psychotherapy, Logotherapy, on the basis of his experiences, built his whole system on the discovery he made, that when every other freedom has been taken away, one remains: the freedom to decide how to react. It is this more than anything else that constitutes our unique human dignity as the “image and likeness” of G-d himself.

Individual freedom, though, is one thing; a free society, another. In virtually every society known to history, the strong have attempted to use their power against the weak. The biblical paradigm for this was ancient Egypt, which turned the Israelites into slaves. It is no coincidence that the formative experience of Israel was that of G-d, the supreme power, rescuing the powerless and leading them across the desert to freedom. The task he set them was to create a society built on the rule of law, together with social welfare and practical compassion, in which no one’s freedom would be purchased at the cost of others being reduced to servitude or humiliating poverty and dependence.

The ideal society, as the Torah conceives it, is one in which no one rules or exercises power over anyone else, other than G-d himself. To be sure, that could not be achieved overnight. The struggle has taken over three thousand years and is not over yet. Its closest approximation is Shabbat – a world experienced one day in seven in which no one can force anyone else (not a servant or an employee or even a domestic animal) to work for them. The idea of one human being ruling over another is anathema to the Jewish mind. Only one being is entitled to sovereign powers, and that is G-d. That is what Gideon means when he says, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.”

However, the Book of Judges also faithfully records the countervailing pressures of reality. Time and again it states: “In those days Israel had no king. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” In a less than perfect world, the absence of government spells anarchy: the breakdown of law and order, the inability of a people to defend itself, and lapses into idolatry which individuals are powerless to prevent.

In the end, the Israelites discovered that a confederation of tribes led by ad hoc “judges” was not strong enough to meet the pressures of sustaining a society surrounded by enemies without, and riven by factionalism within. That is when G-d told Samuel that the people were within their rights to ask for a king, so long as they knew in advance the dangers – namely that they would be handing away many of their liberties. The king would seize people for his army and court, and would confiscate their property to maintain the various royal offices.

The tension between Gideon’s “I will not rule over you . . . The Lord will rule over you” on the one hand, and “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” is the defining problem of Jewish politics. Every form of politics is, to a greater or lesser degree, a compromise of Israel’s ideal that G-d alone would rule over them (this is not, incidentally, “theocracy” in the modern sense, i.e. rule by clerics; it isn’t a form of rule at all). Yet in the real world, Israel discovered that conflict can only be resolved by the use of power; and the organised, principled use of power can only occur within a political system. The Jewish people has experienced many forms of self-government – by elders, judges, kings, scribes, sages, town councils, and since 1948, representative democracy. The biblical ideal – in ancient times and in the messianic future – is constitutional monarchy: hence the command in this week’s sedra. But even the greatest king is less than the direct rule of G-d.

THE RESULTS OF THIS TENSION were, however, extraordinary. The first was the coming into being of a new type of religious personality, the prophet, who heard the call of G-d in history and who continually challenged the corruptions of power on the one hand, and of the people on the other. The prophets were the world’s first and greatest social critics. They owe their very existence to the fact that though G-d was willing to delegate some of his sovereignty to a human king, he is never willing to compromise on his demands of mankind, namely, justice and the rule of law, compassion and the demands of welfare.

Second, the Torah devotes extraordinary attention to the non-political aspects of society-formation and maintenance. It speaks of education, of tzedakah, and the duty to give part of the nation’s produce to the poor. It ordains laws, courts and the administration of justice. It talks of the virtues and self-restraints to be practiced by every Jew. It has a different political philosophy to any other nation yet conceived. The entire focus of politics in the West since Plato and Aristotle has been on the state. In Judaism, the interest in the state (brought into being when Samuel appointed Saul as Israel’s first king) is secondary. Its primary interest is in society (brought into being at Mount Sinai by the giving of the Torah). As I put it in one of my books, The Politics of Hope, what makes Judaism unique is its dual theory of social contract (which creates a state) and social covenant (which creates a society). It sees more clearly than any other system known to me, that politics – the principled use of power – is only part, and a relatively small part, of what creates a gracious society dedicated to the common good.

Thirdly, the cumulative effect of these principles led to a phenomenon unique in history, whose extraordinariness is still not fully appreciated. The Jewish people, having suffered defeat and exile, was able to sustain itself for two thousand years as a society (or series of communities) without a state. This would have been impossible if statehood, power and kingship were at the heart of Jewish values. Those who thought otherwise (the Sadducees in Second Temple times) simply disappeared. Judaism survived the loss of power because it did not, and does not, believe in the ultimate value of power. The symbol and reality of power in biblical times was the king. Maimonides is therefore right to see the appointment of a king as a command, but Abarbanel is no less right to see it as a concession to a less-than-perfect world.

THESE PRINCIPLES ARE INTENSELY RELEVANT to the State of Israel today, for the rebirth of the state was, among other things, a return to the conditions of existence Israel had in biblical times. Israel now, as then, faces many external enemies. Now as then, it pursues peace but often fails to find it. Jews, having been politically powerless for two millennia, find themselves once again confronting the dilemmas of power.

But one of its most important challenges has been not external but internal. How does one create a society of justice and compassion, freedom and moral purpose, sustained by a vision of the dignity of all under the sovereignty of G-d? Israel has achieved great things in the brief years of its existence – more surely than any other country of comparable age and size. It has created an open and democratic society, with free speech, a free press and an independent judiciary, in a region where these things have been almost unknown, and under stresses of war and terror that might have defeated any other nation. It has integrated immigrants from more than a hundred countries and given new life to Israel as a people.

It is a secular state, but as a society it has been deeply influenced by the values of Torah – values engraved by four thousand years of history into the Jewish heart. The building of a body politic is, the Torah warns, fraught with conflict, but out of this conflict great things come. The command to appoint a king tells us that power is much but not all. You need it to create a state. You need something else altogether to build a society that honours the image of G-d that is mankind. That is Israel’s ongoing task – and we are privileged to have witnessed the ancient story come to life again in our time.