SHOFTIM

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - RABBI DANIEL ROWE

“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.

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