“If you say ‘I will set a king over myself like all the nations that are around me’, you shall surely set over yourself a king”
THE Torah broke with all ancient codes in limiting the power of human authority. To the regional superpowers in Egypt and Mesapotamia, rulers and priests were interfaces with the gods; they controlled the land and the people.
In the Torah, land was owned by private citizens, with every citizen given the same amount. Priests could own no land at all. Kings were severely limited in wealth and power. The wealthy had to redistribute land every 50 years. All were subject to the same law and could be taken to the supreme Court, an institution which antedates its liberal democratic equivalent by 3,000 years.
In making God sovereign, Torah weakened the hold of man on man. Throughout western history its ideals were used to challenge the over-extension of power on the part of both church and state.
But the Torah’s explicit statements of political theory are sparse and brief. For Maimonides, benevolent monarchy is a biblical ideal. For Abarbanel, it is an evil that the Torah permits should the people want it. The basis of their dispute is the ambivalence in the Torah’s own instruction. “If you say ‘I want a king’” implies a concession to social demand; “surely appoint a king” connotes an imperative. Could the Torah not have made its view clearer?
Unless the ambiguity is deliberate. Political philosophy is secondary. In contrast, the Torah offers a vast social vision. Its message is that you cannot solve the plight of the weak or poor through political and economic laws. The solution lies within the strength of families, communities and societies. No amount of political patching over will heal the wounds of broken homes and societies. Make the latter Godly, and healing will come of its own.