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Parashat Shoftim: Learning Lessons from Non-Jewish Society by Yaakov Bieler

August 30, 2011 by  
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Parashat HaMelech and Solomon’s malfeasance.

One of the most famous passages in Parashat Shoftim is known as “Parashat HaMelech” (the section on monarchy)—Devarim 17:14-20. Shlomo HaMelech who is described as being uniquely endowed with Divine Wisdom (Melachim I 5:9), single-handedly draws attention to these verses by deliberately defying Parashat Shoftim’s three negative prohibitions for Jewish kings, i.e., excessive horses, extensive harems and great sums of money, thereby precipitating R. Yitzchak’s avowed opposition to searching for rational reasons behind the Commandments:

Sanhedrin 21b

Why were the reasons for Mitzvot not revealed (within the Tora text itself)?[1] Behold in two verses,[2] the reasons were explicitly stated, and as a result, the greatest in the world (Shlomo)[3] was tripped up as a result. It is written (Devarim 17:17) “He shall not multiply wives for himself”, whereon Shlomo said, “I will multiply wives and not let my heart to be led astray.” Yet we read (Melachim I 11:4) “When Shlomo was old, his wives turned away his heart.” Again it is written (Devarim 17:17) “He shall not multiply for himself horses”, concerning which Shlomo said, “I will multiply them but will not cause Israel to return to Egypt.” Yet we read, (Melachim I 10:29) “And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver (suggesting that the Jews did end up engaging in extensive commerce with the Egyptians).”

The justification that will be offered when the Jewish people request that a king be appointed to lead them.

A more subtle issue, but of far greater relevance to the average contemporary Jew,[4] is the justification that the Tora anticipates will be given when Jews ask for a king to be appointed over them. Devarim 17:14 states that the rationale for desiring a king is to be “like all the nations that surround me.” In light of the numerous warnings concerning how the Jews are to remain unique, and resist the influences of other cultures and societies, e.g., VaYikra 18:3 “Like the activities of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled do not do, and like the activities of the land of Canaan to which I am Bringing you do not do, and in their statutes do not go”; Devarim 7:3-4 “Do not marry with them…for he will cause your son to turn from following Me and they will worship other gods, and God’s Anger will be kindled against you…”; Devarim 18:9 “When you come to the land that the Lord, your God is Giving to you,   do not learn to do like the abominations of these nations”, we would expect that a request to become more similar to these very same nations would fall on Deaf Ears. Yet this does not appear to be the case, neither in Devarim 17, where instead of an outright rejection of such a request, the laws relevant to kings are delineated, suggesting that the request was entirely appropriate, as long as the individual chosen to be king lived up to standards set by HaShem, nor even in I Shmuel 8 where the prediction in Devarim 17:14 comes to fruition. The people say to Shmuel in v. 5, “…Now place for us a king to judge us as is the case for all of the nations.”  Despite an attempt on the part of the prophet to scare the Jews into changing their minds,[5] God Instructs him to carry out their wishes. (8:7, 9) “And God said to Shmuel: Listen to the voice of the people with respect to everything that they say to you…And now listen to their voice…”

The danger inherent in honoring the request to appoint a king in order to be like other nations.

While a distinction can be made between the emulation of other nations in terms of immoral sexual practices and idolatry on the one hand, and the appointment of a king on the other, the former reflecting moral and spiritual matters, whereas the latter concerns the essentially value-neutral question of the particular form of governmental structure that ought to be responsible for administrating the people of Israel, it could be countered, that however innocuous the question of appointing a king may appear, copying other nations in this matter could lead down the slippery slope to appropriating other more potentially toxic areas of culture and society that some may be interested in emulating.

The Talmud discusses an area of ritual practice associated with Jewish and non-Jewish royalty which appears to come dangerously close to idolatry. In Avoda Zora 11a-b, the following verse in Yirmiyahu 34:5, directed by the prophet to the Jewish King Tzidkiyahu, is scrutinized: “You shall die in peace, and with BURNINGS OF YOUR FATHERS they shall make A BURNING FOR YOU.”[6] The Mishna in Avoda Zora 8a had previously stated with reference to non-Jewish kings, “A death of royalty at which BURNING of articles of the dead takes place is associated with idolatry (and consequently, in light of the first Mishna in Avoda Zora on 2a, in which it is stated “it is forbidden to transact business with non-Jews,[7] to lend articles to them or borrow any from them, to advance or receive any money from them, to repay a debt or receive any repayment from them,” it was assumed that on days which had idolatrous significance, money and objects would be dedicated to these beliefs, and Jews engaging in such transactions would at least indirectly be aiding and abetting idolatrous practices.)[8] To counter the  negative association between the manner in which royal funerals were conducted and idolatrous practices of the general non-Jewish culture, the Talmud in 11a decisively states “The BURNING of articles at a (Jewish) king’s funeral is permitted and there is nothing of ‘Darchei Emori’ (Amorite usage)[9] (5) about it.” The fine line being walked is understandable. In many societies, the king had the status of a deity, or short of this, because the king was believed to be at least chosen from Above, his place in the hierarchy of Creation was somewhere between men and the gods. Consequently, when he would die, the funeral could not be treated like that of any other mortal, and rituals would be carried out that reflected his superhuman status. Then again, some of these rituals would not have particularly religious connotations, but simply were designed to reflect the great honor that his nation was striving to demonstrate for him. The ambiguity of the connotation of burning a deceased king’s throne, scepter, robes, etc.—is this done as a type of offering, or to assure that his artifacts would not be used by anyone else, particularly one who would try to usurp his predecessor’s status and power[10] —led to the Talmud’s conclusion based upon the text in Yirmiyahu that the latter was the case and therefore permitted on behalf of Jewish kings.

The Jewish King as God’s Surrogate rather than an independent authority in his own right.

The inherent confusion generated by the question of the status of kings, the position of the king as a competing source of authority to God Himself,[11] and the expressed desire on the part of the people in Devarim and I Shmuel  to ape other cultures as opposed to defining a unique social arrangement most conducive to Judaism and its beliefs, all lend credence to the position in Sanhedrin 20b attributed to R. Nehorai that the entire institution of royalty was permitted to the Jewish people only as a result of their complaining;[12] a monarchy is far from a Jewish ideal, and is hardly a state of affairs that should exist under the best of circumstances. R. Nehorai would consequently group a Jewish monarchy with other aspects of Jewish law considered examples of “DeLo Dibra Tora Ela KiNeged Yetzer HaRa” (the Tora speaks only to counter the adverse influence of the Evil Inclination)—see e.g., Kiddushin 21b—concessions to man’s imperfect nature, such as RaMBaM’s presentation of sacrifices in the Moreh Nevuchim III:46,[13] the “Eishet Yefat To’ar” (lit., the wife of beautiful appearance, i.e., a war captive bride) in Devarim 21:10-14, and the “Goel HaDam” (the blood redeemer, i.e., the individual charged with attempting to track down and kill an inadvertent murderer) in e.g., BaMidbar 35:19. Just as in these instances, despite HaShem’s “Preference” that man worship Him via contemplation rather than animal and plant sacrifice,[14] that spouses not be chosen from peoples vanquished in war, and taking vengeance not be legitimized within a Tora society, forcing the Jewish people to completely suppress these impulses that are apparently so inherent within human nature could have other, more disturbing consequences,[15] so too turning down the perceived need for a monarch, could have disastrous results, as evidenced in the sordid account of the “Pilegesh BaGiva” (the concubine in the valley)—see Shoftim 19-21, particularly 21:25.

A school of thought that deems the institution of Jewish monarchy as wholly positive.

However the majority of commentators and decisors approach the issue of Jewish monarchy as a positive obligation and societal structure, agreeing with R. Yehuda’s view in Sanhedrin 20b.[16] These scholars contend that if in I Shmuel the request of the people was deemed by the prophet as objectionable, this had more to do with the TIMING of the request than its content.

A perspective that shines light on both R. Nehorai’s and R. Yehuda’s positions if we accept that the virtue of having a Jewish king has to do with the timing of the request.

R. S.R. Hirsch maintains, based upon the Sifre’s careful reading of Devarim 17:14,[17] that a Jewish king is appropriate only AFTER the completion of the conquest and settlement of the land of Israel. In this manner, the king can concern himself with the development of the spiritual and ethical nature of the society, rather than exclusively dealing with military threats from without, the exclusive task of the “Shoftim” (Judges) that had led the people immediately before the advent of the monarchy. The contrast between Shaul, the first king anointed by Shmuel, and his successor David, demonstrates the difference between a king whose entire career was spent repelling the Philistines and trying to assure that his son would succeed him, and one who “besides his military proficiency in protecting the people and the land, at the same time was so filled with the spiritual ideal of a Jewish king ‘after the heart of God’, that, like no other before or after him, so sang the whole rich store of human and national relations to God in such inspired and inspiring words of feelings and thoughts of the Jewish people.” Shlomo, who was perfectly positioned to continue the spiritual legacy that his father began with respect to his Divinely Bestowed intelligence and the peaceful state of the land which his father left for him, unfortunately diverted from the model set by David, and engaged in “the imitation of the arts of peace of the ‘kings of the manner of the other nations’ whose daughters he wooed, and with whom he competed in splendor and luxury”, ultimately symbolized by the three Tora laws for Jewish kings that he violated. The Jewish people will consequently be forced to wait until a descendent of David will eventually establish the ideal Jewish monarchy as was intended all along by God, during the Messianic period, described in Yeshayahu 11.

An alternate view would argue that each people, depending upon its personality and the stage of its development, will determine whether having a king is appropriate for them altogether.

An even more sophisticated approach is offered by the NeTzIV, in his commentary HaEmek Davar. He contends that different societies have different needs at different times. To try to impose a monarchy on a society that does not perceive that it requires one, even if monarchy happens to be the appropriate structure for such a society, is as doomed to failure, as trying to take a culture that is desirous of and comfortable with a monarchy and attempting to turn it into a democratic republic.[18] Shmuel was under the impression that since a monarchy had not been initially instituted for Israel from the outset, it should never take effect. When God responds to his prophet that if this is what the people perceive that they need, then it is appropriate to give it to them, along with all of the implications that the office of king imposes on its subjects, He implicitly is Acknowledging that Moshe and Yehoshua served as “kings” for all intents and purposes, and that the system of Judges satisfied the people’s needs subsequently up through the period of Shmuel’s leadership. Now, however, that the people are requesting a change, they are entitled to it. While they may not currently fully appreciate why a king would be in their best interests, once they ask for one, their request should be granted, albeit with specific provisos that will position the king to not only lead the Jews in war, but also create the type of society which God Expects of His People and His Land.

Does the history of the institution of the Jewish monarchy suggest that at least in certain matters, it is proper for Jewish culture to emulate the practices of the surrounding nations?

However the commentaries reconcile the seeming contradiction between treating the establishment of the Jewish monarchy as a Tora obligation, and awaiting the moment when the people come forward to request it before implementing such an administrative structure, it would appear that at least in certain instances, the legitimacy of Jews taking cues from the surrounding culture is being validated by some of the traditional Jewish scholars with respect to monarchy. Perhaps absent the fundamental belief in the ultimate advent of the Moshiach, the “perfect monarch”, the entire initiative to have a king being agreed to by HaShem would have been deemed nothing more than a test to which God has subjected us, along the lines of the Divine Agreement to send out spies to inspect the land of Israel in BaMidbar 13. Despite the fact that the desire to spy out the land prior to entering into it, turns out badly as a result of the failure of the people to trust in God sufficiently, and directly leads to the forty years of wandering in the desert in order that the entire generation of those having left Egypt is eliminated, God supports our exercise of free choice, even when the choice that we make is not in our immediate best interests. Similarly, desiring a king and then reviewing the track record of the overwhelming majority of Jewish kings could be deemed to constitute another exercise in futility. However, the concept of the Messiah and the idyllic Messianic period that he is to usher in, suggests conversely, that an incredibly long-term learning curve is required in order to properly develop the concept of Jewish monarchy, and considerable collective patience is needed. Looking to others for their concept of royal leadership is not the problem; developing an appropriate Jewish version of monarchy is the challenge that we confront.

When considering how the principle of adopting positive aspects of our non-Jewish neighbors’ societies can be extended beyond the area of the monarchy, careful determinations must obviously be made to assure that there are no inherent contradictions between Jewish beliefs and morality and those which may be associated with the practices that are singled out for emulation. The subtlety of such analyses can understandably convince some to avoid all attempts in this area, for fear of erring and introducing inappropriate practices and beliefs into Jewish life. But going to the opposite extreme creates a reductio ad absurdum construct if we determine never to do anything that resembles, let alone is identical, to practices of the members of the broader society among whom we reside. Must we find means of transportation other than cars, buses, trains, and planes? Must the styles and colors of our clothing be completely different? Must we find means of shelter other than houses? Are we prohibited from availing ourselves of technological advances such as computers, telecommunications and electronic recording devices of all kinds? Whether we like it or not, huge chunks of our everyday existences are indistinguishable from those of our non-Jewish neighbors. Understandably, there is great reluctance to adopt so many components of the greater non-Jewish society, that virtually no external distinctions remain between ourselves and everyone else. But that being said, to what extent is it appropriate to consciously adopt[19] at least some of the practices of the manifold societies and cultures which the Exile and subsequent persecutions have forced the Jewish people to endure, particularly when they are perceived to enhance the quality of our physical and spiritual lives? What do you think?


[1] Although the Talmud’s question appears to be absolute, in fact there are other Mitzvot in the Tora which are accompanied with reasons, e.g.,

Shemot 20:10-11

But the seventh day is a sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Devarim 15:12-15

If thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, he shall serve thee six years; and in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty; thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing-floor, and out of thy winepress; of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee; therefore I command thee this thing to-day.

Devarim 22:8

When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house, if any man fall from thence.

Consequently we would have to interpret the Talmud’s question to apply to the overwhelming majority of Mitzvot in the Tora.

[2] In contrast to the prohibitions against too many wives and too many horses, no reason is given for why a Jewish king should not accumulate too much wealth.

Only he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses; forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you: ‘Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.’ Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.

Consequently, R. Yitzchak’s point can only be made with respect to the first two of the three Mitzvot that Shlomo violated. Perhaps the absence of a reason for the third of these Mitzvot HaMelech is due to how obvious the dangers of unbridled materialism are to a Jewish king’s spirituality, and by extension to the kingdom over which he rules. Shlomo’s carelessness in this regard is reflected in:

I Melachim 10:21

And all king Solomon’s drinking-vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest    of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver; it was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon.

Ibid. 27

And the king made silver to be in Jerusalem as stones, and cedars made he to be as the sycamore-trees that are in the Lowland, for abundance.

[3] At least with respect to wisdom, in light of I Melachim 5:10-11.

And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men: than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was in all the nations round about.

[4] There has not been a Jewish monarchy for thousands of years, but the desire to emulate the surrounding cultures, thereby risking the integrity of one’s Jewish beliefs and practices has been an omnipresent concern from the beginning the Jewish people.

[5] I Shmuel 8:11-18.

[6] Other verses in which the practice of burning a king’s property as part of his funeral ceremony are:

II Divrei HaYamim 16:14; 21:19.

[7] It could be claimed that the “non-Jews” to which the Mishna and Talmud are referring are pagans and overt idolaters in contradistinction to the non-Jews whom Jews interact with in modern society. See David Berger’s outstanding essay, “Jews, Gentiles and the Modern Egalitarian Ethos: Some Formative Thoughts” at http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/rsrh/Jews_Gentiles_and_Egalitarianism_2.pdf

[8] Jacob Katz’ classic work, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, discusses how the Rabbis of Ashkenaz legislated around restrictions such as these when it was perceived that the economic limitations imposed by Halacha designed to insulate Jews from idolatry and assimilation, endangered Jewish livelihoods to the point of causing extreme economic hardship.

[9] “Actions that are associated with practices of witchcraft, necromancy and witchcraft, and through them are articulated idolatrous beliefs. When something is disassociated from ‘Darchei Emori’ it is being declared permitted, and there is not perceived within it an emulation of idolatrous practices, about which the Tora instructs (VaYikra 18:3) “…And in their statutes do not go.” Shabbat 67a demonstrates that any practice which can clearly be shown to be of medical benefit, even though the action strongly resembles witchcraft, is not to be prohibited under the category of ‘Darchei Emori.’”—Yosef Schechter, Leksikon Otzar HaTalmud, Dvir, Tel Aviv, 5750, p. 102.

[10] Such an intent clearly informed Adoniyahu’s desire to marry Avishag, his father David’s concubine in

I Melachim 2:13 ff.

[11] The first king in Biblical history is Nimrod, as described (“Reishit Mamlachto”) in Beraishit 10:10. The description of him being (10:9) “Gibor Tzayid Lifnai HaShem” (a mighty hunter before HaShem), suggesting to a number of commentators that his hunting abilities were directed at HaShem as well as at those who worshipped HaShem, coupled with the project associated with Bavel, described as the seat of his monarchy, i.e., (11:4) building a tower whose top would reach the Heavens, contribute to the perception that Nimrod wished to establish himself as the replacement to the Divine. Kings, as well as heads of state in every culture, are mightily susceptible to the sort of hubris which pits them against organized religion and both its this-worldly and other-worldly leadership. While some monarchs have appeared to strike common cause with established religious authority, it has been demonstrated on many occasions that this is little more than either a cynical ploy or a pact based on mutual benefit to further consolidate either the monarch’s power and authority, or also that of the religious leadership. One can understand therefore how the entire institution of the monarchy historically has had a tense relationship at best with the religions of the societies over which they have ruled.

[12] While R. Nehorai said: This section was spoken only in anticipation of their future murmurings, as it is written, “And shalt say, I will set a king over me etc.”

[13] The fact that in his Halachic work Mishneh Tora, no such reservations about sacrifices are expressed, leads some scholars to claim that what appears in the Guide to the Perplexed is apologetics intended to appeal to an alienated intellectual cadre of Jews, with RaMBaM himself not believing his own presentation.

[14] RaMBaN stridently contests RaMBaM’s view in the former’s commentary on VaYikra 1:9.

[15] Examples of what might happen in the absence of these practices that are commonly viewed as reprehensible might be: a) A manifestation of human bloodshed if a certain inherent human bloodlust is not sublimated by the slaughter of animals. Richard Rubinstein speculates about such a phenomenon in the lead essay of his collection After Auschwitz, in which he ruminates about why German society which had reached such an ostensibly refined cultural level was capable of such extraordinary ruthlessness and cruelty. b) If the war captive bride would not be permitted, such an individual would be more than likely raped and left by the roadside. At least according to the manner proscribed for her by the Tora, she will be treated more respectfully and receive more personal benefits than were there no provision made for such a situation. c) The desire for revenge is powerful, to the extent that the Tora has to command, (VaYikra 19:18) “You will not take revenge, and you will not bear a grudge…” It is presumed that the family of the victim of an inadvertent murder might be tempted to take the law into its own hands, if a tempered concession were not to be made and a single individual officially appointed to carry out justice should the inadvertent murderer be found outside the precincts of the City of Refuge.

[16] R. Yehuda said: That section was stated only to inspire them with awe, for it is written, “Thou shalt in anywise set him king over thee, [meaning], that his awe should be over thee. And thus R. Yehuda said: Three commandments were given to Israel when they entered the land: [i] to appoint a king, [ii] to cut off the seed of Amalek, and [iii] to build themselves the chosen house.

[17] When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’;

[18] These comments have become that much more interesting in light of recent developments in world politics, where attempts have been made in different parts of the world to introduce untraditional administrative structures into societies unaccustomed to them.

[19] Some degree of cultural osmosis takes place in virtually every setting, and even the most separatist and ghettoized groups take on aspects of their host cultures, completely unbeknownst to them.

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