Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            The confirmation process of Elana Kagan went remarkably smoothly, and Mazal Tov to her on her swearing in.  So, that this fall we'll have three Jews sitting on the Supreme Court simultaneously, which is in itself remarkable.  I'm not going to discuss her relative merits or whether or not she'll be a memorable Associate Justice.  Before I do make my point, I do want to remark on how impressed I was by one comment made by Senator Lindsey Graham (R., South Carolina).  He explained that he was voting in favor of her nomination, not because she would have been his choice for the vacancy, but because she had the credentials to be a credit to the office.  Wow, we can disagree respectfully!  How novel for Washington. However, now to the point I really want to make.  At the beginning of her Senate hearings there was discussion about her connections and admiration for Thurgood Marshall, America's first black Supreme Court justice, and quite a character.  There was concern among conservatives in the Senate about her taking his activist approach to the bench.  But the central point philosophically was a speech by Justice Marshall back in 1987 in which he stated that the United States Constitution as originally conceived and drafted was a defective document.  It's hard for anyone to disagree that the Constitution wasn't perfect because we have amended it twenty-seven times.  But what does it mean to say that it's defective, and what effect does that have on the legitimacy and functioning of our government?  To get some traction on that issue I'd like to discuss an idea from this week's Torah reading.

            In this week's installment of the Torah, we have Judaism's version of Poli Sci 101.  And this presentation is truly revolutionary and enduring.  The verses relate the world's first attempt at constitutional monarchy.  The highest political power in the land, the king, must heed the Torah.  There are numerous laws which specifically refer to the king.  Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself, so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses (Deuteronomy 17:16).  And, he shall not take many wives for himself, and his heart must not turn away, and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself (verse 17).  However, the strongest manifestation of our rejection of the rule of absolute monarchs is the directive that he must have written two Torah scrolls and have them with him at all times.  Furthermore he is required to read from this text everyday.  The result of this Torah study should be that he will govern from a Torah perspective, and not by cavalier caprice.

            This is great!  We are guaranteed a perfect government with a philosopher king, just like Plato wanted.  Alas, there are two flies in the ointment (see King James translation Ecclesiastes 10:1).  First of all, it didn't work out that way.  Many Jewish kings were nasty pieces of work.  Read the book of Kings, I and II.  And even one of the great ones, King Solomon, broke the rules about wives and horses.  And secondly the prophet Shmuel resisted giving the Jews a king when they asked for one (Samuel I 8:11-18).  Our verses here sound like we're supposed to appoint for ourselves a King.  So, why was Shmuel recalcitrant?  Let's set aside the argument in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b), over whether this mitzvah was an obligation to accept a king upon entry into Israel, or just permission to establish a monarchy if the body politic so desired.  The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550 – 1619) brings up a very interesting observation.  From a careful reading of the Jews' request in the book of Samuel (9:16), he notes that this attempt at good governance would fail because of the way they asked for it, and that's what bothered Samuel  The verse here in Deuteronomy says that we take on a king when the Jews ask for one over us.  But, in fact, the Jews demanded a king for us.  They didn't desire to relinquish sovereignty to this king.  They expected him to serve at their pleasure, ready to be removed by popular whim.  Kings, and Presidents for that matter, have to lead by taking charge, not pandering to the mob.  Great political leaders often buck popular trends to achieve their greatness, like in Profiles in Courage (attributed to John F. Kennedy).  Hence Shmuel's great apprehension, which was borne out by events.

            Assuming that this explanation is valid, and our kings view themselves as over the people, what prevents these kings from becoming arrogant despots?  In the United States the solution to this conundrum is evident from the oath an incoming president must declare: I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.   The President may be above the people but he is under the Constitution.  As long as the president remains loyal to this document the republic is safe.  So, what makes our great democracy work is the loyalty and adherence to that great document, the United States Constitution.  It may not be perfect, but it remains the bulwark of our nation.

            Rather than taking an oath of office to keep the fundamental text of governmental authority, our kings were required to carry the actual document which contained their instructions with them at all times.  Plus, they were required to read from it daily.  So, these two systems of government have a major component in common, namely strict loyalty to the basic document of government.  When the powers that be see themselves in this light and context we get good government, and when they don't we get chaos.  It's appropriate that ever Shabbat here in the United States we pray that the American form of government should receive God's blessing and long rule justly, and we also pray that the Torah's form of government should soon be installed in our Homeland.  Amen!                    

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