Wednesday, 22 Aug 2012

Written by Alasdair Nisbet & Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Parashat  Shofim by Alasdair Nisbet, Chairman of Leo Baeck College

Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah, has traditionally been known as Mishneh Torah, or repetition of the Torah. This is based on an interesting phrase in this parasha.

“When he sits on his throne of kingship, that he shall write for himself a copy of this teaching (mishneh hatorah hazo’t) in a book before the levitical priests.” Deut 17:18

The name Mishneh Torah is the origin of the Greek name Deuteronomy and poses some interesting questions of authorship.

The traditional view is that Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy.  It comprises several speeches of his to the People of Israel before Joshua leads them across to the Promised Land.

But what about the reference to a king writing it and who is it? Robert Alter points out, that the text implies that the king is actively engaged in personally producing a text of the teaching that ““he shall read in it all the days of his life” Deut 17:19 hardly something he would do with a few lines about keeping tight reins on the royal budget”.

It has become accepted by most Bible Scholars that the king referred to is King Josiah and they point to the story in 2 Kings when, during the reign of Josiah a Sefer Torah was “found” during renovations in the temple.

“Then the high priest Hilkiah said to the scribe Shaphan, “I have found a scroll of the Teaching in the House of the Lord” …….When the king heard the words of the scroll of the Teaching (Sefer Torah), he rent his clothes.” 2 Kings 22:8,11

They also point to the apparent uniformity of the writing in the central part of Deuteronomy, the distinct differences between the other books and the similarity of the proposed rules with the reforms carried out by King Josiah.

King Josiah came to the throne at the age of 8 in 639 BCE and ruled for 31 years. He reigned after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria but at the time of its decline.  His father and grandfather had accepted the rule of the Assyrians and had allowed the worship of their gods in the temple and in ‘high places’.   Josiah, like his great grandfather King Hezikiah, wanted to bring back the people to monotheism and specifically worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Much of the book of Deuteronomy is written in the style of a seventh-century Assyrian contract with a vassal state that outlines the rights and obligations of a subject people, in this case between God and the people of Israel. In effect it as an early political manifesto of a theocratic state.

Josiah had some clear aims in the text:

1. Link his authority back through King Hezikiah to King David:“He did what was pleasing to the Lord and he followed all the ways of his ancestor David; he did not deviate to the right or the left.” 2 Kings 22:2.  This is an echo of a similar phrase in this parashat: “or deviate from this instruction to the right or the left.” Deut 17:20

2. Link his leadership to that of Moses, which may be why Moses was made out to be the author and would explain why the 10 Commandments were changed with the demand to ‘Observe’ rather than just ‘Remember’ the Shabbat and the reason given is the Exodus from Egypt and not the Creation story.

3. To bring about religious reforms.  Apart from centralising sacrifices in the Temple, there is none of the detail on sacrifices that appears in Leviticus.  The emphasis on the Cohanim, the sons of Aaron, is also downplayed in favour of Levitical priests.  Aaron himself is hardly mentioned in the whole of Deuteronomy.

4. To discredit some of his predecessors highlighting in this parashat that the king must not be a foreigner, he must not have too many wives, nor have too much silver and gold or too many horses. Deut 17:14-17

There is more to the book of Deuteronomy than just an historical response to much larger and aggressive neighbours.  Josiah created a political framework that has endured, that is personal, pragmatic and caring.  This is the manifesto for a modern Jew:

“If there is among you a poor man, one of your bretheren…you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him , and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deut 15: 7-8

And in this week’s parashat, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” Deut 16:19.

Also, the rights of family land are protected (Deut 19:14) and the inheritance rights of wives rejected by their husbands were secured (Deut 21:15-17).  

Further, an owner of flat roof had to add a parapet “if anyone should fall from it.” (Deut 22:8 – is this the first piece of HSE legislation?). Farmers were instructed to give the tithe to the poor every third year (Deut 14:29-29); resident aliens were protected from discrimination (Deut 24:14-15). Slaves were to be freed after six years of servitude (Deut 15:12-15).

These are only a few examples of the wide range of personal legislation that was meant to override the traditional injustices and inequalities of everyday life.  Even birds on their nests had rights (Deut 22:6).

King Josiah was killed at the age of 39 in Magiddo in approximately 609 BCE when he confronted Pharoah Necco in circumstances that remain uncertain.  Whilst Josiah achieved much to rebuild and expand Judea, his sons failed and the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, laid siege to Jerusalem and eventually destroyed it and the Temple 23 years later.

Josiah’s legacy has lasted for two and a half millennia and still seems fresh a relevant today.  He created the foundations for modern Judaism (and Christianity) by shaping our understanding and expectations for a just and fair society.

Shabbat Shalom

Alasdair Nisbet
Chairman, Leo Baeck College
August 2012

Parashat Shoftim by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, Professor of Jewish History and Homiletics at Leo Baeck College

“Set a King Over Yourself”

Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508) was one of the towering figures of late medieval and early modern Jewry. He held ministerial-level positions in three different royal courts: Portugal, Spain, and the Kingdom of Naples. He was recognized by contemporary Jews as one of their most important and influential leaders because of his access to the top levels of government. At the same time—and this is what makes him so different from modern Jews who have held important political positions—he was one of the most prolific Jewish writers in history. Especially impressive are his monumental commentaries on the Torah and Early and Later Prophets, an encyclopaedic exposition of Jewish thought, especially in the Sephardic ambience, produced at the historic moment when this great culture was experiencing a massive disruption. Because of their length, only a miniscule percentage of his commentaries have been translated.

Not surprising because of his professional career, Abravanel’s commentaries are filled with fascinating ventures into political theory. One of the most important is linked with the verse pertaining to the Israelite king in our parashah:

שום תשים עליך מלך אשר יבחר יהוה אלהיך בו, מקרב אחיך תשים עליך מלך, לא תוכל לתת עליך איש נכרי אשר לא אחיך הוא.

‘Set a king over yourself whom the Lord your God has chosen; from among your own community [lit.: brothers] you shall set a king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother’ (Deut. 17:15).

One obvious question for a commentator on this verse is whether or not it means that the selection of a king is one of the positive commandments of the Torah. The modern JPS translation clearly indicates that it is not a commandment, adding the word ‘If’ at the start of verse 14, and beginning verse 15 with the phrase ‘You shall be free to’ before ‘set’. In this reading, the Israelites have the option of being ruled by a king, and they merely receive instructions about the eligibility for kingship. The older translation (used in the Hertz Chumash) renders the verse as a commandment to appoint a king. In this it follows important medieval authorities who considered the appointment of a king to be one of the 613 commandments1.  As is so often the case, the Hebrew text is ambiguous2

Abravanel rejects the majority position on this biblical verse: in his view, the Israelites were not commanded by God to select a king. But before his detailed analysis of the biblical language, he raises a more general question: Whether a king is indeed necessary for a well-ordered state. He begins by presenting the general view of political philosophy throughout the Middle Ages: that a king is indeed necessary. Among others, he cites the argument that the position of the king in the state is analogous to the position of God in the world, providing unity, continuity, and a focus of power. And then he continues to argue forcefully against the entire weight of this tradition, maintaining that the king is by no means necessary, and that other forms of government may well be better than the monarchy, especially government by a group of people, chosen for a relatively brief period of time, who come together to make the decisions necessary for the well-being of state and society. 

Abravanel argues that the advantages of such pluralistic governance rather than governance by one individual are supported not only by logic, but also by historical experience. Rome, he states, was at the height of its power under the rule of the consuls, but the reign of the Caesars brought about a precipitous decline. For examples in his own time, he points to the Italian republics of Venice, Florence, Genoa, Lucca, Siena, and Bologna, where government is in the hands of temporary rulers who know that they will soon have to render account for their actions.

His conclusion is therefore unambiguous. A good and righteous king is obviously better than an evil king; a limited monarchy is better than an absolute monarchy in which the king has unrestricted powers; but better even than a good king and better than a limited monarch is no king at all, with government by many good citizens in counsel together, chosen for a limited period of time. It is a conclusion that is especially poignant coming from a man who, as he himself writes, spent so much of his life in the courts of kings.

This debate about the need for kings may seem rather antiquated, but if we change ‘king’ to ‘dictator’, the resonance of Abravanel’s discussion is obvious today. For this is precisely the issue being tested in many locations, especially in the countries of the ‘Arab Spring.’ We still hear the argument that, at least in some countries, government by one strongman, though a dictator—Hosni Mubarak, or Mu’amar Qaddafi, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia—provides order and stability that are threatened when the dictator is overthrown and power devolves to others who turn against each other, so that the society disintegrates into contentious tribes, or religious sects, or rival strongmen. Abravanel’s insistence, made some five centuries ago, that government by the many is preferable to government by one, has rather impressive resonance.

But it is not that simple. Continuing his discussion of the same Torah passage, Abravanel raises a different though related issue of political theory: the right of rebellion. Can the people be justified in rising up to depose a king who has betrayed his trust, spurned the laws, and transformed himself into a tyrant? Here Abravanel takes another position against the overwhelming majority of medieval Christian thinkers who indeed affirmed the right to resist and overthrow an evil tyrant. Abravanel insists that by enthroning a king, the people have established a covenant, sanctioned by oath, unconditional and binding, to obey his word.

We are left with the apparently paradoxical position of a man who argued that kings serve no necessary function, and are usually harmful to the people they rule, yet who insists—at least as a matter of theory—that once a king is properly recognized as monarch he may never again be resisted by force. The people may cry out to God, and God may arouse the spirit of a hero to rebel against his king and reign in his place, but the people themselves must wait patiently. How can we explain this apparent inconsistency?

Although he states that he has found no discussion of this theoretical issue in any prior Jewish thinker, Abravanel may well be arguing from Jewish historical experience. Throughout the Middle Ages, and well into the modern period, the king was usually the primary source of protection for Jews, and popular uprisings almost always brought suffering3.  Kings might cause perversion of justice, but Abravanel noted that most instances of Jewish suffering in the Diaspora were caused not by kings but by rebellious masses. Until the American and French Revolutions, most Jews believed that their safety was dependent upon the political stability and security brought by strong central rule, even if accompanied by a measure of injustice.

And this brings us back once again to the present. The Jewish communities of Egypt and Syria have long since departed, but minority Christian communities are left in a position analogous to that of medieval Jews: in general protected by the strongmen who ran their political systems with iron hands. Can we understand how these vulnerable minority communities might prefer the stability of dictatorship over the uncertainties and ambiguities of greater freedom in which the religious minorities may be targeted? Will a new pluralism of government lead to the emigration of these ancient Middle Eastern Christian communities?

In unpacking some of the issues raised by our Torah verses, Abravanel helps us to understand the complexities of the current situation, including the recognition that the future is never fully illuminated by any biblical verse or commentator.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
August 2012


1E.g., Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 1.1; Sefer ha-Hinukh, Commandment 493.

2 See on this Nehama Leibowitz, ‘Monarchy: A May or a Must? in Studies in Devarim/ Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980), pp. 175–80.

3  As late as 1775, Ezekiel Landau, Chief Rabbi of Prague, preaching on the Sabbath before Pesach, referred to the uprising of Bohemian peasants that had erupted the previous January. He certainly did not apply the holiday’s message of freedom to these peasants who, with significant grievances, attacked the castles of the overlords on their way toward Prague. As the rebel army drew near, ‘We were in great distress’, Landau reminded his listeners. ‘Indeed, it was worse than the upheaval of war. For when some enemy army comes to fight, there is a king and officers above them. Individual soldiers are not free to decide what to do . . . . But this was different; when the serfs rose up against us (!), each one was free to choose what he wished.’ M. Saperstein, ‘Your Voice Like a Ram’s Horn: Themes and Texts in Traditional Jewish Preaching (Cincinnati: HUC Press, 1997), p. 451.





The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.