Why Doesn’t Christmas Violate the Separation of Church and State? – Vayiggash 5775

I hope everyone had a wonderful time on the national holiday of the Twenty-Fifth of December.  I sure did.  It’s one of my favorite days of the year.  The shul is closed.  The streets are empty.  No responsibilities.  I get to sleep in.  We usually go on a family hike.  This year, it was a beautiful crisp, sunny day.

Growing up, I was always pretty sensitive this time of year.  When I was in first grade attending public school in Atlanta, our music teacher had us singing gospel songs that were certainly of a religious nature.  I told my parents, and my dad was on the phone with the principal that night.  The next day in music class, the gospel songs were gone, and a token Chanukah song had been added to our repertoire.  So yes, I was the Jewish kid who destroyed Christmas.

I think this was a pretty common experience for Jewish kids growing up in a largely Christian society.

We are fortunate to live in a time when there is a great deal more sensitivity to these kinds of issues, and in a part of the country that is especially diverse.

But the dominance of Christmas is still inescapable.  How is it possible that in a country like the United States, which prides itself on having a separation between church and state, one of our national holidays can be Christmas?

Let’s take a look at the First Amendment.  It begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The separation of church and state is understood to have two clauses.  The first is the anti-establishment clause, which is summarized quite well by Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in the 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education.

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another … in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State’ … That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

Simply put, the government cannot establish or favor any particular religion, or even religion in general.

The other aspect of the First Amendment is known as the free exercise clause.  The government is not allowed to curtail the beliefs of any individual or group, nor can it restrict a person’s religious actions unless those actions are “subversive of good order.”

How is it possible that Christmas could be a federal holiday?  Is not this a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Probably not.  But maybe.

When did Christmas become a national holiday?

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill passed by Congress creating the first federal holidays in the United States.  Most of the states had already established state holidays, but this was a first for the national government.  Initially, it only applied to employees of the federal government in Washington, D. C.  Several years later, it was expanded to include all federal employees.  There were five days.  The bill’s title was:

An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays, within the District of Columbia.

It went like this:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the following days, to wit: The first day of January, commonly called New Year’s day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia…

Notice a couple of things.  First, the title of the bill does not mention the word “Christmas.”  It says “the twenty-fifth day of December.”  The bill itself also uses that expression, adding, almost as a sidebar, that the day is “commonly called Christmas Day.”

In 1870, just five years after the end of the Civil War, there were still deep divisions between the North and the South.  Northerners tended to get really excited about Thanksgiving, while Southerners made a big deal about Christmas.  One impetus behind the federal holidays bill was to create national unity.

As you can imagine, there have been cases brought to the courts, usually regarding Christmas displays on public property.  The courts have basically drawn a line between what they see as secular symbols and what they define as religious symbols.  For example, a nativity scene in which an angel is holding a banner with “Glory to God in the Highest” written in Latin was seen as religious.  Images like Santa Claus, reindeer, a Christmas tree, or a menorah, for that matter, are typically seen as secular.  In a court case involving Jersey City’s public holiday display, the presence of symbols from different traditions like a Christmas tree, Kwanza symbols, a Menorah, Frosty the Snowman, and a sign expressing the city’s intention to “celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its people” was accepted by the 3rd Circuit in 1999.  As long as minority traditions are also included with the majority, the courts tend to permit it.

As a people, we have had to deal with being a minority in the midst of a dominant culture for most of our existence.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Joseph is finally reunited with his family.  He invites them to join him in Egypt, where they will thrive under his protection and favored status, but it is clear from the beginning that they do not in.  Joseph instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh that they are breeders of livestock, because that is a profession which is abhorrent to Egyptians.  By telling this to Pharaoh, Joseph’s family receives rights to settle in the fertile land of Goshen, and to receive a special commission to care for the royal flocks.

On their way down, God appears to Jacob with a message of assurance:  “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.  I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back…”  The commentator Ha-emek Davar explains that God is reassuring Jacob that his descendants will not forget who they are.  They will maintain their distinctiveness first as a family, and eventually as a nation.

Initially at least, we see tolerance on the part of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  They permit this tribe, with its strange customs, to live in Egyptian society, and to maintain their cultural and religious practices.  In next week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dies, the Egyptian dignitaries participate with Joseph and his brothers in the mourning rituals as they bring their father’s body back to the ancestral burial site in the Land of Canaan.

Unfortunately, this tolerance does not last, and a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph, and who does not share his predecessor’s generosity and open-mindedness.  So we understand well how important it is to protect the religious freedoms of others.

I have always felt that, as a Jew, I had a greater awareness of the experiences of minorities than those who were in the dominant culture.  Being a minority prepares us to better respect religious diversity.

But what if Jews were in the majority?  How would we deal with issues of religious freedom then?

In 1948, Israel was established as the nation state of the Jewish people.  The Declaration of Independence, issued shortly after the United Nations Partition Plan passed, “declare[d] the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

It went on to declare certain freedoms which should sound familiar to us:  “…it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

So how can Israel, on the one hand, be “the Jewish State” while also ensuring equality and freedom for all, irrespective of religion?

To be fair, many, if not most of the world’s democracies have official state religions, or offer certain favorable status to one particular religion while still protecting religious freedom.  It is the United States which is unusual in not favoring any particular religion.

In building a new nation in 1948, Israel’s founders had some important decisions to make.  Most of them were fiercely secular Jews, yet they looked to Jewish history, traditions, and customs to determine some of the core aspects of the State.

One basic question they had to address was: when is the weekend?

In the U.S., the weekend was originally just Sunday.  The two day weekend developed over the course of the twentieth century.  Would Israel follow the example of the rest of the Western world and go with Sunday, or would it copy its Muslim neighbors and choose Friday?

Of course, you know the answer.  Shabbat has been the weekend of the Jewish people for thousands of years, not just in religious terms, but in national terms.

What about holidays?

Again, Israel’s founders looked to Jewish tradition and established the Yamim Tovim, the holidays on which work is religiously forbidden, as national holidays.

In the Ordinances of Law and Government, Section 18a, subsection 1, paragraph a, it states:

Shabbat and the Jewish holidays—the two days of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, the first day of Succot and Shmini Atzeret, the first and seventh days of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—are the fixed days of rest for the State of Israel.

What about non-Jews?  Israel’s founders were emphatic about ensuring equality and the right to freely practice religion.  This brings us to paragraph b.

For those who are not Jewish there is reserved the right to observe their days of rest in accordance with their Sabbath and holidays. These holidays will be set in accordance with each community by the government and published in the public records.

To summarize, the law states the following in subsection 2:

The laws of work hours and rest of 1951, which apply to weekly periods of rest, will apply:

a. To Jews—on their holidays

b. To non-Jews—on the Jewish holidays or on the holidays of their community, whatever is acceptable to them.

In other words, if you are Christian, you can take your weekend on Sunday, and celebrate all the Christian holidays when they occur.  If you are Muslim, you can take your weekend on Friday, and celebrate all the Muslim holidays when they occur.  And those are not considered to be vacation days, but rather national holidays.

While it can get kind of complicated in the workplace, and I imagine that it is a nightmare for Human Resources departments, this is practiced and taken very seriously in Israel to this day.  Every religion gets its own weekends and national holidays.

We had a taste of something like this when we lived in New York.  Ostensibly to keep the streets clean in the five boroughs, but really to discourage car ownership, the city imposes alternate side of the street parking rules.  Pretty much every day of the work week, car owners have to get in their cars and move them to the opposite side of the street to make room for the street cleaners.  Failure to do so results in a fairly hefty ticket.

But what if you are an observant Jew (and there are a few of those in New York) and it is Rosh Hashanah, when it is forbidden to drive a car?  To deal with that situation, there are holiday suspensions of the alternate side parking restrictions.

“Wait,” you say.  Isn’t that a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Not if you make the holiday suspensions available to everyone.  Here are just a few examples of holidays on which alternate side parking restrictions are suspended:  Yom Kippur, both days of Shavuot, Purim (driving is technically allowed, but you can probably guess why the city doesn’t want Jews getting in their cars on Purim), Good Friday, Holy Thursday, Ash Wednesday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali, and the newest entry in the list, the Asian Lunar New Year.

So I guess having a national holiday on the 25th of December does not bother me as much as it once did.  I can accept that for many Americans, as well as the U.S. courts, it is seen as a secular holiday.

So to all of us, Happy National Holiday of the 1st of January, coming up in just a few days.

 

Torture vs. “Enhanced Interrogation” in Judaism – Vayeshev 5775

Like just about everything that takes place in Congress, Senate’s Report on Torture by the CIA that was released this week is probably partisan – at least that is what everyone who does not like it seems to be saying.  It was put out by a Democratic-controlled committee on its way out of power about events that took place under policies of the previous, Republican administration.

Just consider if the roles were reversed: What if it was a report by a Republican controlled committee about policies from a prior Democratic administration?  We would likely be hearing the same voices that are currently crying fair or foul on opposite sides.

Keep in mind that this does not mean that information in the report is not accurate.  Just because a person has a bias does not make that person wrong.  So how are we to know what to think?

Unfortunately, much, most, or perhaps even all of what we think we know about torture comes from television and movies.  Jack Bauer employs torture to great success in every season of “24.”  The movie Zero Dark Thirty suggests that the location of Osama Bin Laden was made possible through “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  If you have seen the movie, I am not sure that you could call what it shows on screen anything but torture.  Most James Bond movies involve some sort of torture scene – although 007 is usually able to keep his secrets..  And the list goes on.

We also hear politicians and talking heads disagreeing vociferously on the subject.  Those who oppose it call it torture and say that it does not produce any actionable intelligence.  Those who support it call it “enhanced interrogation techniques” and claim that it saves lives.

I personally do not know whether torture works.  I doubt that there is anybody in this room who does.  If we are honest with ourselves, we ought to admit that our opinions on the matter are influenced more by our our underlying political leanings and our consumption of entertainment than by personal experience or our familiarity with the facts.

This is a real problem.

In a democracy, we the citizens are responsible for the actions of our government.  If the U.S. government is for the people, by the people, then we are complicit in what the CIA does, and we have a moral obligation to acknowledge this, and potentially to do something about it.

So how do we really feel about torture, and what are willing to have our government do in our names?

Let’s get past the political, partisan posturing.  Let’s try to set aside what we think we know from television and movies.

Let us try to clarify some of the issues around torture so that we can better understand what our values truly are.  Let us consider also how our Jewish tradition informs these issues in a way that enables us to take a more sophisticated and informed position.

The first question must be: what constitutes torture?

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, the sibling rivalry between Joseph and his brothers spirals out of control.  As we heard earlier, the brothers’ hatred becomes so pitched that they decide to kill him.  Before they commit fratricide, they throw their annoying little brother into a pit.  This is how the Torah describes it:

…they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit.  The pit was empty; there was no water in it.  Then they sat down to a meal.  (Genesis 37:23-25)

The medieval commentator Rashi cites a midrash that explains that not only did the pit not have any water, it was filled with snakes and scorpions.

What have they done to him?  The brothers have humiliated Joseph by stripping off his coat.  They have deprived him of food and water, highlighted by the Torah’s juxtaposition of the parched pit with the brothers’ picnic.  And according to the midrash, they have terrorized him by putting him in with poisonous animals.

In this case, the brothers are not trying to get any intelligence out of Joseph.  It is straightforward revenge.  They are getting back at him because they feel he has wronged them.

But perhaps we need a more specific definition.  According to a summary of Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment “torture is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering by or with the consent of the state authorities for a specific purpose.”

I am not going to read the entire list of tactics that the Senate report contains, because some of it is pretty disturbing.  But it does include things like keeping prisoners awake for 180 hours consecutively, waterboarding, threatening to harm family members, keeping prisdoners in total darkness for extended periods of time, exposure to extreme cold, withholding of medical care, and so on.  “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” or “Torture?”  Do we rally need to argue about terminology?  Does the name matter?

The second question is a critical one.  Are there some circumstances in which torture could be permitted?

We might say, on the one hand, that torture in any circumstance is wrong and should be avoided.  While the Constitution protects American citizens on American soil from cruel and unusual punishment, this is really a universal moral value that applies equally to all human beings everywhere.

On the other hand, what about the “ticking time bomb” scenario.  A bomb is set to go off somewhere in the city, and we have a person in custody who knows where it is and how to disarm it.  Many, if not most of us would agree that torturing that person would be acceptable if it would produce information that could potentially save hundreds of lives.

This is the fundamental question:  Am I categorically opposed to torture, in which case there is no need for further discussion, or am I willing to consider the possibility that torture might be justified in certain circumstances?

Jewish law does not address this question directly, but it does deal with a related issue.  According to Jewish law, self-incrimination is not permitted.  Under no circumstances may a person’s own testimony be used against that person.  The mid-twentieth century Rabbi and Professor Saul Lieberman, possibly the greatest Talmudist in history, taught that  “the purpose of the rule [banning self-incrimination] was to eliminate the possibility of forced confessions and testimony motivated by fear…[Early Jewish law] insisted on a strict standard for the admission of evidence and eliminated the possibility of torture to compel confessions at a time when torture and other cruel practices prevailed in the Roman court.”  (Elijah J. Schochet and Solomon Spiro, Saul Lieberman: The Man and His Work, Jewish Theological Seminary Press, 2005, pp. 209-210.)

In other words, there was concern that a person would falsely confess after being tortured.  So to prevent this from happening, confessions were ruled to be inadmissible.  A conviction in Jewish law requires testimony from two valid witnesses.

Similarly, the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution grants citizens the right to not self-incriminate.  This is not as strict a standard as Jewish law, mind you.  We are all experts on the Fifth Amendment, by the way.   Whenever the cops on a television police drama arrest a suspect, they have to read him his Miranda rights, “You have the right to remain silent.  You have the right to an attorney…”

That requirement came about as the result of a 1966 Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona.  In it, Chief Justice Earl Warren traces the origin of the principle of non self-incrimination.  “We sometimes forget how long it has taken to establish the privilege against self-incrimination, the sources from which it came and the fervor with which it was defended.  Its roots go back into ancient times.”  In his footnote, Chief Justice Warren cites Maimonides’ thirteenth century law code, the Mishneh Torah.

Another Supreme Court decision (Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967)) issued one year later elaborates on the principle.

…the Constitutional ruling on self-incrimination concerns only forced confessions, and its restricted character is a result of its historical evolution as a civilized protest against the use of torture in extorting confessions. The Halakhic ruling, however, is much broader and discards confessions in toto, and this because of its psychological insight and its concern for saving man from his own destructive inclinations.

Of course, this concern with self-incrimination and torture is only in the context of confessing one’s own guilt.  What if the purpose is not to determine guilt, but rather to gain information that would save lives?

The Jewish concept of din rodef, the law of the pursuer, teaches that if a person is being pursued by another with the intent to kill, that person is permitted to use physical means to protect him or herself.  Din rode also stipulates that one may use force to prevent the pursuer from harming another person.  This opens up the possibility that torture could be used if it will result in saving lives from an imminent attack.

This leads to our second question.  How effective does torture need to be?  What percent of the time must torture yield helpful information?  How many innocent people are we willing to torture to find the ones with actionable intelligence?

The problem with this question is that there is no way of knowing whether torture will be successful until after it has taken place.  To make an ethically informed decision, we still have to have an idea about success rates, and we have to be prepared for the possibility that it may not produce results.

This needs numbers.  If you knew that 50% of the time, torture would yield important information, and 50% of the time a tortured person would not provide any useful information, would you condone it?  What if it was 20% of the time?  10%?  1%?  We have got to draw the line somewhere.

What about the type of intelligence?  There is a difference between information that leads to stopping an impending terror threat and information about the location of training camps.  How many lives must be saved to justify torture?

Finally, we know that our justice system makes mistakes.  How many innocent people are we willing to torture to get to the ones who have information?

Of the 119 tortured prisoners described in this week’s Senate report, twenty six of them are considered to have been wrongfully detained, in other words, altogether innocent.  That is 22%.  Is that a tolerable percentage?

We come from a religious and ethical tradition in which Abraham, our forefather, challenges God about God’s plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness.  Certain that there must be some righteous people in those societies, Abraham boldly asks: “Shall the judge of all the earth not perform justice?”  He then argues that a small fraction of innocent people ought to save the lives of a thoroughly wicked populace.

The question of torture is almost the opposite of Abraham’s.  How many possibly guilty people are we prepared to torture to possibly save the lives of innocents?  That is what this comes down to.

Ours is a tradition that has at its core a respect for the dignity of every human being.  All humans are made in the image of God.

We have explored several questions this morning that I hope will help us get past the politics, and past the television shows to the fundamental questions about what we are willing to have our government do in our names.

It is essential for us, as citizens of our country, and as Jews who have inherited a strong ethical tradition, to face difficult issues like the use of torture in the fight against terror with open eyes and with honesty.

Limits on Kings and Presidents – Shoftim 5774

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.  Tnah lanu melekh lshofteinu – “…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.