In Hebrew, the name of the United States is not a translation of “United States of America.” If it were, it would be something like Medinot HaIchud shel Amerika. Instead, our nation is described in Hebrew as Artzot HaBrit, “Lands of the Covenant.”
While not a direct translation, this name expresses an aspect of our nation that is particularly valued in our Jewish tradition. What is the covenant of which Artzot HaBrit speaks? It is the Constitution of the United States of America, the supreme law of the land.
This concept appeals to us because we are the first people in the history of the world to have a document that functions as the supreme law. Of course, it is the Torah.
Having a written brit, or covenant, at center of national identity is not the only similarity between Judaism and the United States. Both polities imagine some of the same qualities in the ideal leader.
The Declaration of Independence, after establishing the fundamental human rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” along with the rights of people to reject a government that fails to ensure those rights, lists a number of grievances against the King of Great Britain.
In establishing the Republic, the Founding Fathers wanted to draw clear distinctions between the monarchy that they had rebelled against and the democracy that they were establishing. They understood the need to have a unitary executive, but they were fearful of the abuses that could ensue if power was left unchecked.
In creating the office of President, the Founding Fathers limited his powers and ensured that he would have to serve the Constitution, rather than the other way around. That is why, when the President is sworn into office, he promises to “Preserve, Protect, and Defend the Constitution of the United States – so help me God!”
The Federalist Papers were published in the years 1787 – 1788 under the psuedonym Publius. They were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the Constitution by each of the States.
In Federalist Paper number 69, Alexander Hamilton enumerates some of the differences in power between the President of the United States and the King of England. He notes that the President is limited to a four year term, while the King serves for life. The President can be impeached and removed from office, while the King is personally sacred and inviolable. The President has veto power, but he can be overruled, while the King’s veto is absolute. Both are the supreme commanders of the military, but the President cannot independently declare war, sign treaties, or raise armies, while the King can do all three. The President does not have unlimited power to appoint officials, and the King does. And finally, the President has “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” while the King is the “supreme head and governor of the national church.”
At the time, these kinds of restrictions on the power of a national leader were unique in the world. But the idea of subjecting the leader to a written covenant, limiting his warmaking powers, and otherwise preventing him from self-aggrandizement was not unheard of. In fact, it bears striking similarities to the Torah’s vision of the ideal king, as presented in the Book of Deuteronomy.
I do not suggest that the Founding Fathers explicitly modeled the Presidency on Deuteronomy’s laws of kings. but there certainly seem to be similarities. How did this come to be?
In the 18th century, a complete education included learning classical languages like Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as acquiring extensive knowledge and mastery of the Hebrew Bible. Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth have Hebrew inscriptions on their university seals, and until 1817, Harvard graduation ceremonies included a Hebrew oration.
For Puritan colonialists, what for them was the Old Testament had great significance. I think it is safe to say that the Founding Fathers’ critiques of the overreaching of King George and their imposition of limits on the power of the President were influenced, at least in spirit, by the Torah.
This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, teaches us much about leadership. It commands that judges and officials administer the law justly and impartially. It mandates the establishment of a higher court that will issue rulings on cases that are too baffling for local leaders. (The Rabbis understand this as the basis for the Sanhedrin, the court of 71 rabbis, judges, and priests who function as the High Court of the land, with added legislative and executive powers.)
The Torah portion also deals with kings, albeit with ambivalence. Unlike its treatment of judges, officials, and the High Court, the Torah does not command the appointment of a King. It is optional. “If,” Moses tells the Israelites,
after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, asima alai melekh – “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself… (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)
So what powers does a King have? If we go exclusively by what is written in the Torah, absolutely none. The King only has limitations. Listen to these restrictions on the power of the monarchy. Does this fit your image of a King?
• He is not allowed to accumulate too many horses, or send people down to Egypt to get more horses.
• He is not allowed to acquire too many wives.
• He is not allowed to amass too much gold and silver.
• He must have a copy of the Torah, written by the Priests, always at his side. He must read it constantly so that he will learn to revere God and follow its laws.
• He may not act with haughtiness towards other people.
Nowhere in the Torah are the people actually commanded to follow the king and do what he says. In the relationship between king and subjects, the responsibility is unidirectional – it is the king who serves the people.
When we think about royalty in pre-modern times, we usually think about the unlimited exercise of power. The king’s word is law. He rules by divine right. The people owe him their total obedience and respect. He can impose taxes and raise armies. He gets to live a life of extravagance and pleasure. As a famous monarch once said, “It’s good to be the king!”
Parashat Shoftim’s model is that of an anti-king.
Not only is he not allowed to build up the army, impose heavy taxation, and live the good life, he is also bound by a constitution – the Torah. His job is to promote and enforce the commandments, and lead the people in observing the terms of the covenant not with a human king, but with God, the King of Kings.
It is a utopian vision of leadership not so dissimilar to other systems that place a wise, benevolent executive in charge of leading a society in accordance with principals of justice, “the good,” or philosophy. Think Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and so on.
But is such a utopian vision realistic? Apparently not.
After the Israelites conquer the Promised Land under the leadship of Joshua, they split up into tribes. Various local and regional chiefs lead the people through one crisis after another. Order gradually breaks down over the next two hundred years, and the Israelites have finally had enough. They turn to the Prophet-Chief Samuel and ask him to appoint a King over them. T‘nah lanu melekh l‘shofteinu – “…appoint a king for us, to govern us…” (I Samuel 8:6)
Samuel is disappointed, but God reassures him and tells him to ascede to the people’s request. Samuel’s reaction is surprising, because the Torah already anticipated the Israelites’ future desire to be ruled by a human king. Had not Samuel read Parashat Shoftim?
The nineteenth century Polish Rabbi, Yehoshua Trunk from Kutna (1821-1893), points to a subtle distinction between what Deuteronomy allows, and what the people request. In Deuteronomy, when the people ask to set a king over them, they say asima alai melekh. Whereas in Samuel, the people say t’nah lanu melekh, give us a king. What is the difference between setting and giving?
Without going into the complexities, Rabbi Yehoshua from Kutna says that Deuteronomy’s vision of sima, setting a king, implies that he is going to be immersed in the people, and his job will be to guide them in the ways of God, influencing their thoughts and actions, and helping them to focus on the innermost realm of the heart.
When the Israelites in Samuel request n’tinah, to be given a king, they are asking to have a leader placed above them. What they want are the pomp and circumstance, the external trappings of power that characterize the leaders of all the other nations of the world.
But God does not want Israel to be like the other nations of the world, and certainly does not want its king to fall to the hubris that afflicts so many human leaders.
In telling Samuel to go along with the people’s request, God knows that they are not motivated by the lofty ideals of the Torah, but as the saying goes, “people get the leaders they deserve.”
Samuel warns the people what the king is going to do them. He will draft your sons into his army and your daughters as cooks and bakers. He will seize farmlands, vineyards, and orchards. He will tax you, and consign you to serfdom. Eventually, you will regret this decision.
But the people insist that they want someone to go out in front of them and lead them to victory in battle.
Things start to unravel almost immediately. The first king, Saul, turns out to be deeply flawed. David brings the nation to greatness, capturing Jerusalem and expanding the borders, but not without his share of trouble.
His son Solomon builds the Temple, but violates every single one of Deuteronomy’s laws about Kings, fulfilling Samuel’s warnings from just three generations ago. He imposes heavy taxes and forced labor to build the Temple. He buys horses and chariots from Egypt. He accumulates vast riches. Solomon marries seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, whom he allows to introduce their idolatrous foreign practices into the Holy Land.
When Solomon dies, the united monarchy ends as the northern kingdom of Israel breaks off from the southern kingdom of Judah. The righteous king, as described in Shoftim, is an ideal that turns out to be exceedingly difficult to implement.
The establishment of Israel in 1948 has reignited issues about Jewish power that have not been practical considerations for nearly two thousand years. Is Israel a nation like any other, or do Jewish history and values make it different? What should the role of Torah and Jewish law be in a country that is committed to freedom of religion and equal rights? Who is authorized to interpret Jewish law? How does Israel maintain itself as a Jewish state and a democracy? What does it even mean to be a Jewish state?
You might be surprised to know that Israel does not have a constitution. According to Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948, there was supposed to have been Constitution in place by October 1 of that year. But the above questions were so difficult to resolve, the question of an Israeli constitution was placed on the back burner.
Because of the international and domestic pressure cooker that Israel always finds itself in, these questions are being dealt with and tested on a daily basis. Israelis wrestle with the dilemma of creating a society based on the lofty ideals and values expressed in Jewish law and tradition while facing the very real and practical challenges that often are a question of survival.
One of the reasons that Israel is so important to Jews everywhere is because it creates powerful opportunities to put Jewish values into practice on a national level. That is a possibility that did not exist for nearly two thousand years. As we see on a daily basis, it is not easy.
We refer to the modern State of Israel in our prayers as reishit tz’michat geulateinu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. The question of whether that is true or not depends on how Israel the country and Israel the people deal with these challenges. I take it as a positive sign that Israelis, as well as Jews in the Diaspora, are actively engaged in wrestling with the question of how to exercise power in ways that embody the ethical principles of the Torah.