Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
THAT GOVERNMENT IS BEST WHICH GOVERNS!
Rabbi David Walk
With apologies to my fellow Bostonian, Henry David Thoreau, I like my title. He famously wrote, 'That government is best which governs least (Civil Disobedience, 1849).' There's a lot to be said for government staying out of my private life, and I'm strongly against governments controlling morality, ethics, religion or my personal life at all. However, governments are necessary for national defense, environmental issues, education, public transportation and many other practical functions.
Even though I maintain that the ruling power shouldn't be in charge of ethics. On the other hand, the government itself must be ethical. Yishayahu said it beautifully in the haftorah three weeks ago, 'Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah!...Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow (Yishayahu 1:10 &17).' In modern times, Hubert Horatio Humphrey (1911-1978) said in his last speech, 'the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.' The issue of good government, of course, appears in this week's Torah reading.
As Moshe Rabbeinu continues listing the mitzvot the Jewish people will need upon settling in Eretz Yisrael, this week he teaches certain requirements of government. These rules of governance begin with, 'You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. Justice, justice shall you pursue (Devarim 16:18-20).' After describing this local judicial system, the Torah requires a national supreme court, 'matters of dispute in your courts shall be brought up to the place which your God shall choose (17:8).' Then comes the confusion.
Next Moshe presents the national executive branch, 'When you come to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you possess it and live there, and you say, I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me, you shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall surely (SAM TASIM) set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother (17:14-15).' Maimonides provides the most famous understanding of this verse: Israel was commanded to fulfill three mitzvot upon entering the Promised Land: appoint a king, destroy Amalek, build God's Chosen Home (Laws of kings, 1:1). But not everyone agrees.
The first disputant with the Rambam seems to be the prophet Shmuel. In chapter 8 of his book, he chastises the Jews for wanting a king. So, maybe appointing a king isn't an obligation and, indeed, this argument appears in the Talmud. R. Yehuda is verbatim the source for the Rambam. However, then we have: R. Nehorai said: This section of appointing a king was given only in response to their murmurings, as it is written (17:14), 'And you shall say, 'Let us appoint over ourselves a king like all the nations around us (Sanhedrin 20a).' So, this precept may be volitional (RESHUT) rather than obligatory (CHIYUV).
The famous Italian commentary Reb Ovadya Sforno (1475-1550) weighs in with the following anti-king position: They were commanded regarding the appointment of a non-hereditary judge (SHOFET) upon their entry into the land, as it says (Bemidbar 27:17), 'So that God's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.' True, a king like the kings of the gentiles - who hold kingship for themselves and their offspring - is despicable to God. However, God commanded that when they insist upon setting up a king over themselves in this manner, they should select only a deserving person whom God chooses.'
So, basically, we have a variety of opinions based upon whether verse 14 (appointing a king is conditional) or 15 (it's obligatory) is the dominant expression of God's will. A fascinating attempt to reconcile the two verses was made by the Netziv (Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) in the late 19th century. He wrote: It is well known in the words of our Sages that there does exist a mitzva to appoint a king. If so, then why is the mitzva written like this? It seems this is because national leadership changes whether it is controlled by the will of the monarchy or by the desire of the population and their elected officials. Some nations cannot tolerate royal authority, and other nations are like a ship without a captain when they do not have a king.
The Netziv is introducing a sociological factor. We must have a government, and that idea is expressed in Pirkei Avot: Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive (3:2). However, there's a certain flexibility about its character and make up. The Torah's Poli Sci 1.0 demands a government which protects the flock, but must provide for the humane character of the enterprise. The people can decide the format but not the function of government. Yeshayahu already described that; be righteous and compassionate or be Sodom and Gomorrah.
In conclusion I must disagree with another Bostonian, John F. Kennedy. In his moving inaugural address, he declared: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. I disagree. We have every right to make demands upon our country and government. Countries exist to serve their people. And demand number one is: Be moral!
Monday, August 13, 2018
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