Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


Long Live the King?


King David (1957) hand-colored etching by Marc Chagall Courtesy Haggerty Museum of Art, Gift of Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Marc Chagall © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

While our Torah portion, Shofetim – Judges – is indeed about judges, and their responsibilities for maintaining judicial integrity in Ancient Israel, I’d like to focus for a moment on another type of leader in Ancient Israel mentioned in this portion. That is the king. We know that beginning around 1,000 B.C.E., kings did exist in Israel, beginning with King Saul, and moving subsequently to King David, King Solomon, and beyond. We read about the kings in the early Prophetic books of the Tanakh, Kings and Samuel particularly. But with the exception of this brief mention here in Deuteronomy Chapter 17, there is not a single word about an Israelite king anywhere in the Torah. There are leaders in the narrative, of course: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Miriam, and groups of people as well: judges, lawgivers, tribal heads, and the like. But no king. (No, no queen either.) Except here.

If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17.14-20)

A few things to note about this. First, the appointment of a king is not obligatory, but a matter of choice on the part of the Israelites. But if they were to go ahead and make this choice, then there were certain requirements that both they and the king had to fulfill.

1. They would have to choose a king from among the Israelite people. A foreign-born person was ineligible. (We in the United States have a similar Constitutional restriction on the Presidency.)
2. The king may not own many horses. How many is too many? We don’t exactly know. But the point is that many horses would lead to military might. This was something that a king should avoid, at least according to this narrative.
3. The king should not have too many wives. How many is too many? Later generations of Rabbis interpreted this to mean eighteen. Any more than eighteen wives would be too many wives for a king of Israel. What is particularly interesting about this is the consequences of the king’s reach. In the ancient world, international relationships were often effected through marriages. If the king was restricted in the number of marriages, he was also restricted in the number of potential international alliances that he could form. So there seems to be an attempt here to “keep it in the family” to a great extent.
4. The king should not amass too much silver and gold. One might venture a guess that this was to keep the king from becoming corrupt by an overabundance of wealth.
5. Perhaps the most remarkable? The king was obligated to have a copy of the Teaching of Moses (the Torah) written personally for him by the priests, and he was to study it throughout his life. So what was the king’s primary responsibility? To study Torah!

What should pop out at us immediately, given these restrictions, is the case of King Solomon. Not too much wealth? Not too many wives? Not too many horses? Uh-oh, looks pretty bad for Solomon! But as we remember, Solomon’s indulgences in all these areas ultimately led not only to his own downfall, but to the breakup of his kingdom, and the division of the Jewish people into two separate kingdoms within the Land of Israel, one in the north, and one in the south. Maybe the Deuteronomic author knew what he was talking about!

My teacher at The Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Micah Goodman, characterizes the restrictions here as a “paradox of power.” All these restrictions, Dr. Goodman deduces, were designed to prevent the kings of Israel from becoming too powerful. Because, as Goodman says, “only giving up your power enables you to stay in power. Only by giving up control can you remain in control.”

I will leave any suggestion of parallels to our current political leaders, and those who aspire at this particular moment, to you for just now. Nevertheless, for every one of us, it would seem that Dr. Goodman’s observation is important and relevant. We all walk a fine line, one that is often difficult to discern, between taking the reins of control, and building consensus; and at times, doing both at once. And for sure, the admonition of Deuteronomy that has steadied us as individuals and as a people throughout our history, and continues to this day, is our embrace and study of Torah. Our tradition has always centered us and helped us to understand the ethical framework within which we can build our lives in the best way possible. Ki hem chayeinu, v’orech yameinu, for they (the Torah’s teachings) are our life and the length of our days. We recite this verse in our evening prayers. May we remember it always.

Justice, Justice

Constitution_of_the_United_States_page_1-c-eOur Torah portion this week, Tetzaveh, deals with the construction and decoration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and the clothing and responsibilities of the Kohanim – the Priests – as divine intermediaries in the sacrificial rites.

This being said, I ask for a bit of indulgence for this particular week in referencing a completely different section of the Torah, because it has been echoing rather loudly since the extraordinary events of this past weekend. That is the portion in Deuteronomy known as Shofetim – Judges – which we usually read in its schedule at the end of the summer, as we are anticipating the Days of Awe.

Deut 16: (18) You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. (19) You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. (20) Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.

On Saturday afternoon, before the Last Rites of the Church were even administered to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, z”l, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a public statement saying that the Senate should not confirm a replacement for Justice Scalia until after the 2016 election. This was an act of direct defiance and rejection of President Obama’s authority as President, and in fact, his responsibility according to the Constitution that he swore to “protect, preserve and defend.” It was also a direct rebuke of the prescribed practice of giving serious consideration to each nominee on his or her individual merits.

The section in Deuteronomy that I quoted focuses on the establishment of government and domains of authority. The primary function of the civil government is adjudication. The Torah sets forth basic rules of adjudication, with the goal of achieving justice in the society. There are rules of judicial procedure, bringing evidence, capital punishment and lesser forms of punishment, the establishment of an appellate system, and provisions for each succeeding generation’s ability to interpret and reinterpret Torah law.

While United States law is not governed by Torah law, of course, nevertheless we can see forerunners of certain fundamentals of American governmental organization in the Torah, set forth with the goal of establishing justice in society. The Torah actually divides the civil sphere into three domains of governance, called ketarim – crowns. These were: Keter Torah – the Crown of Torah, Keter Kehunah – the Crown of Priesthood, and Keter Malkhut, the Crown of Kingship. As I said, they are not the same as our American notion of separation of powers into the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Nevertheless, the intent in Ancient Israel was to prevent any one entity from overtaking the entire society through the concentration and abuse of power.

While this is far from a comprehensive study of either Torah law or American law, it is clear that both systems were designed with the intent of preventing the concentration of power into a single human authority through the separation of powers structure. A number of legal scholars and public figures have repeated numerous times in the past few days that the United States Constitution clearly and undeniably states that when a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court, the President is obligated to put forth a nominee to the Congress, and the Congress is obligated to vet that nominee to the ultimate end of either accepting or rejecting him/her. We all understand what is at stake in the quagmire that Senator McConnell and his colleagues are seeking to create. We also know that this is contrary to the very American system of justice that our Constitution aspires to establish. Every effort should be made to block this quagmire so that we as a society can get on with the business of pursuing justice in our society.