Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Shoftim 5775
Democracy, Theocracy and Monarchy
Running any enterprise, whether it is a home, a business, or a country, is complex. As in so many other aspects of life, a delicate balance must be struck between competing considerations.
In Parashat Shoftim, the Israelites’ time in the desert nears its end, and a new reality awaits them on the other side of the Jordan River. As they begin the next phase of their life as a nation in their homeland, Israel will face the dilemma of competing considerations, and much of Parashat Shoftim is taken up with issues that must be resolved in order for the new commonwealth to thrive.
In the desert, Moshe is the supreme leader. In a certain sense, he has the authority and status of king, despite what seems an almost conscious avoidance of the trappings of monarchy on his part. He is also the supreme religious leader. As it is clear that Moshe will not be crossing the Jordan with them, a new tension arises: How will their new country be governed? What is to be the form of authority? Will their nation-state be a monarchy or a theocracy? Which of the roles filled by Moshe will take precedence, and how will the polity be structured?
The concept of kingship is introduced in this Parashah, but, surprisingly, not as a command but as a possibility. It appears that the king described in the Torah is appointed, if not elected, by the people: Should they choose to appoint a monarch, he is to be invested with substantial, but not absolute, authority and power.
On the other hand, this same Parashah introduces the court system, which has both judicial and legislative powers. This system of courts is deemed the final arbiter in all instances of interpersonal conflict or religious issues. Whenever a clarification of law or a decision regarding its application is required, we are instructed to turn to the courts, and not to the king, for a decision. (Dvarim 17:8-13) The court of which the Torah speaks is what we might call a “religious court,” and it stands as a counter-balance to the monarchy.
The era of the “one man show,” in which Moshe stood at the top of both the political and the judicial/religious systems, would now come to an end. Instead, two competing arms of government would be established: a democratically appointed monarch, and a legal system based on the principle of majority.
Let us consider this first institution, the seemingly oxymoronic “democratically selected monarch.” A careful reading of Maimonides’ Law of Kings is instructive:
Once a king is anointed, he and his descendants are granted the monarchy for eternity, for the monarchy is passed down by inheritance, as Devarim 17:20 states: 'Thus, the king and his descendants will prolong their reign in the midst of Israel.'…This applies if the knowledge and the fear of God of the son is equivalent to that of his ancestors. If his fear of God is equivalent to theirs but not his knowledge, he should be granted his father's position and given instruction. However, under no circumstance should a person who lacks fear of God be appointed to any position in Israel, even though he possesses much knowledge. (Laws of Kings 1:7)
Surprising as this may seem, despite the creation of a monarchy which is passed down from generation to generation through a chosen family line, the chain of inheritance is not guaranteed. A determination must be made that the heir to the throne is in fact a worthy successor. The question is, who decides? Who determines whether the king is fit, and whether or not his descendants are worthy? Apparently, this power is in the hands of the people (perhaps through the agency of their representatives on the Great Court, the Sanhedrin HaGadol). The process through which this power is exercised creates the contours of a unique type of democracy.
The power of the monarch is subject to even more stringent limits from another quarter: Aside from the role of the people in choosing to appoint a king and approving the chain of inheritance of the monarchy, the king is subject to the laws of the Torah as they are interpreted and applied by the Great Court. The judicial-legislative arm of government stands above the monarchy; the political arm of government is secondary to the theological arm of government. We may say, then, that the system of governance prescribed in Parashat Shoftim is a democratically conceived monarchy ruled by theocracy. Modern Western sensibilities might cringe at this sort of hybrid, and we might imagine the impossible tension that this system would create. However, the force intended to ameliorate this tension is part and parcel of the mandate of the king:
When [the king] is established on his royal throne, he must write a copy of this Torah… [which] must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life. He will then learn to be in awe of God his Lord, and carefully keep every word of this Torah and these rules. (Devarim 17:18,19)
With one elegant stroke, the Torah establishes the dialectic, the mechanism that will maintain the delicate balance: The king, despite his power and authority, must remain in a constant state of attentiveness to the Torah and its laws. He must never forget the true nature of the mandate with which he has been entrusted, and must remain mindful of the true source of his authority - and its limits. Keeping the Torah close to his heart and mind at all times will help him stay in touch, stay grounded, and remain accountable to those below him, parallel with him, and, most particularly, to the One above.
The ideal Jewish polity described in this Parashah is based on a system of checks and balances: a judicial system comprised of the wisest and most honest religious leaders, combined with a king selected by the people, all of whom are bound by the Torah, the immutable word of God. While this combination does not guarantee success, its very structure reminds us where our priorities should lie. In fact, we may say that the system of governance described in Parashat Shoftim is, in and of itself, a brief mission statement for the Jewish nation-state.
For a more in-depth analysis see:
Echoes of Eden