With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

While Spider-Man seems capable of handling the (great) power he is given, oftentimes we seem to fail most when power is in our hands.  On this day, when democratic elections for the 19th Knesset of the Modern State of Israel will be tallied in the coming hours, I think it is appropriate to reflect on the Jewish People’s modern experiment with a great amount of power.

When the amount of time since Jews last had sovereignty on the scale that we do now is measured in millennia, one might think that the traditional sources of our tradition would be of little value.  And while those sources do not talk about nuclear weapons, or democratic leadership, I think that Torah can still assist us in understanding the innate need for, and the dangers inherent in, accepting (voluntarily or otherwise) such power.

In Dvarim/Deuteronomy 17:14-15, Torah teaches us:

“When you come to the Land that Hashem your God is giving you, and you inherit and settle it, and you say ‘I will place a King over me like all the other nations that surround me.’  You may surely place a King over you, that Hashem your God will choose from amongst your brethren, Hashem will place a King…” (all translations mine)

What is interesting for me is that, while I think much can be gained by looking at this text, and the connected text detailing the first time such a king is appointed (see below), an insight of a different kind emerges when one considers the Medieval commentators on this passage.  The majority seem to read this as a mitzvah, as a commandment that will fall on the Israelites once they enter the land (the Rambam/Maimonides encodes it in his Mishne Torah as one of the three commandments the Israelites must fulfill upon entering Cana’an, quoting Sanhedrin 20b).  However, I see this passage as being a purely conditional statement.  In other words, Hashem is saying that if the Israelites want to appoint a king, they can (rather than must).  This view is corroborated by the passage in Shmuel I 8, where the people come before the prophet Shmuel and ask for a king.  The text explains:

“And the matter was evil in the eyes of Shmuel, their saying ‘give us a king to rule us,’ and Shmuel prayed to Hashem.  And Hashem said to Shmuel: listen to the voice of the people, to everything they say, because it is not you they despise, it is Me they despise from ruling over them” (8:6-7)

This is not the picture of a text in Nevi’im/ The Prophets fulfilling a commandment given in the TorahShmuel has a bad feeling, and Hashem is sure that the people wish to replace Hashem with a human ruler — something must be wrong.  The Kli Yakar notices this, and while he still sticks to his theory that this is a positive commandment, he makes an interesting distinction.  He argues that the purpose of the king, in large part, ought to be striking a sense of awe or fear into the hearts of the people, which is highlighted by the word Aleinu/Upon us (Dvarim 17:14).  Thus, the mistake made by the people in asking for a king in the time of Shmuel is that they do not wish to have such a ruler, which can be seen (the Kli Yakar argues, in his commentary to Dvarim 17:15) from their use of the word T’nah/Place [upon us] (Shmuel I 8:6).  The resulting king would be at the mercy of the people, constantly needing to please them to stay in power, which is negating the purpose of the king, and represents a divergence from the mode of rule Shmuel established, which was very similar to the ideal purpose of a king.

Another interesting aspect of the original verses in Dvarim is the reasoning given for wanting a king in the first (hypothetical) place.  Seemingly, the natural reason for wanting a king at that time would be to fit in with the neighbouring countries, who all had kings.  How striking, then, that the Modern State of Israel repeatedly negates this motivation by declaring, loudly and proudly, that they are the only democracy in the Middle East (a claim that is becoming harder to stand behind after the Arab Spring).

While this is one of many ways in which the current manifestation of Jewish power is so different from all previous ones, I think that the first texts discussing such power in the Jewish tradition still do have much to say to us, living today with the benefits and the drawbacks of Jewish sovereignty.  The text from Dvarim continues to elaborate all the ways in which — contrary to the perceived future wish of the people — the Jewish king will not be like the other kings surrounding the Israelites (17:16-20).  I think this is what the discussion (when there even is one) about Jewish sovereignty over Israel breaks down around so often.  What ought to be curtailing Jewish power?  What legislative and moral imperatives can we put in place to best ensure that this power is not corrupting?  I think one way to see the schisms surrounding these issues that have wracked the Jewish people, in Israel and abroad, since (at least) the Six Day War, is as an argument between those who fear that not enough checks and balances were placed on a specifically Jewish power structure, and those who feel that Israel, like all democracies, is doing the best she can in a broken world.

I think that one way to make this discussion less tense in the Jewish community is to take a step back, and try to offer a midrashic (exegetical) list of interpretations for the following verse, a verse calling for constant humility in leadership:

“And it [the Torah] will be with him [the King], and he will read from it all the days of his life so that he will learn to fear Hashem his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and to follow her statutes” (Dvarim 17:19)

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