May 19, 2024
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Does the Torah Reject Democracy?

Secular writers claim that the Torah is incompatible with democracy, since it calls for a king. This misguided conclusion stems from a superficial understanding of the Torah. Let us take a deeper look …

A Mitzvah to Appoint a King? Three Rishonic Opinions

The Rishonim vigorously debate if there is a mitzvah to appoint a king. The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 1:1) and the Ramban (Devarim 17:14) argue we are obligated to appoint a king. Their proof is Devarim 17:15, stating: “Som tasim alecha melech — you shall select a king.”

However, Rav Saadia Gaon (Devarim 17:15) and Ibn Ezra (Devarim 17:15) argue that it is not an obligation, but permitted if we want it (reshut). Their proof is Devarim 17:14, which says: “V’amarta asima alai melech — only if you want a king should you have a king.”

Finally, Abarbanel (in Devarim, perek 17 and Shmuel I, perek 8) believes it is terrible to have a king, but Hashem begrudgingly allows it if we insist. His proof is Shmuel HaNavi, who excoriates us for requesting a king (Shmuel I, perek 8). Abarbanel had extensive experience with corrupt kings in Spain and Portugal and cited their failures, as part of his anti-monarchy argument. In Devarim 17:14, it anticipates our wanting a king like the neighboring non-Jews. The Torah repeatedly warns us not to copy our neighbors — why should the request for a king like our neighbors be positive?

Finally, Hashem places myriad restrictions on a king, reminiscent of the barrage of limitations discouraging marriage with an Eishet Yifat Toar. The flurry of rules on a king indicates the Torah’s displeasure with a monarch.

Compromise View No. One: Seforno

According to the Seforno — in Devarim 17:14 — the discretionary king refers to a hereditary kingship. Such kings need no qualifications, other than half of their father’s DNA. The Seforno agrees that this is a miserable idea, since unqualified people (such as Sefer Melachim II, perek 21’s horrific King Menashe) can rise to power.

In Devarim 17:15, the obligatory king refers to a one-generation leader such as those of sefer Shofetim, like Gidon and Ehud ben Geira. The Seforno believes that a leader is necessary — based on Moshe Rabbeinu — in Bamidbar 27:17 — who tells Hashem that Am Yisrael cannot be leaderless. Moshe Rabbeinu compares our people without a head, to a flock without a shepherd. However, such a leader need not necessarily be a king.

Compromise View No. Two: Netziv

The Netziv understands Devarim 17:14-15, as saying that only when we want a king is there a command to appoint one. The king’s authority stems from the people’s consent, so the Torah accepts the government the people desire. If the people want a monarch, that is fine; if they prefer a democratic structure, that is also fine. The same should apply to a country’s financial system. If the people prefer a capitalist arrangement, it is acceptable. It is also fine if they prefer a socialist system or a blend of capitalism and socialism. Regarding discretionary matters such as government or economic structures, the Torah leaves it to a country’s populace to determine its direction.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik told me (in a personal conversation) that the Western philosophers’ (such as Hobbes and Locke) “Social Contract Theory” fits the Torah worldview. Rav Soloveitchik noted that the authority of the Torah stems from our accepting it willingly — as recorded in Shemot, perakim 19 and 24. The Rambam (introduction to his “Mishneh Torah”) similarly states that the Talmud’s stature stems from its universal acceptance by the Jewish people. The authority of the mara d’atra (local rabbinic authority) also stems from his acceptance by the Jewish community he serves.

The following anecdote is an interesting application of Netziv’s idea. A certain rabbi’s community voted him out as their rabbi, and he came to Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik for help to retain his position. However, Rav Soloveitchik surprised the rabbi by telling him that since his authority stems from the people, the rabbi could no longer serve as their rabbi.

The same applies to the choice of one’s personal rabbi. The choice is left to the individual (except for collective decisions when there is a community rabbi). What makes someone your rebbe? The relationship must work both ways! He accepts you, and you take him. If it is not mutually acceptable, the connection terminates.

Conclusion

We should not strive to accommodate Torah with each Western value. Many Western values are deeply antithetical to Torah. However, upon scrutiny, the Torah does not necessarily reject democracy. Will Melech HaMashiach’s government be structured in a democratic style? We eagerly await the day when we will find out …


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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