As Israel approaches its next prime ministerial election, it is worthwhile reflecting on the subject of Kingship under a Torah government.
“When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and shall have taken possession of it and have settled therein, you will eventually say: ‘We would appoint a king, just like the nations around us,’ … you must appoint a king from among your brethren; you may not appoint a foreigner who is not one of your brethren” (Deut. 17:14-15).
Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch’s commentary is most revealing:
The appointment of the Jewish king is not for conquering the land and not for safeguarding its possession, altogether not for developing forces to be used externally. It is God Who gives the land to Israel, God under Whose support and help it conquered the land, and under Whose protection it lives safely in it. This [Divine] support and assistance is assured again and again in the Torah, and was stressed by Moses again and again in his exhortations preparatory for the conquest of the land. For that, Israel required no king, for that Israel had only to be ‘Israel,’ had only to prove itself the faithful dutiful People of God’s Torah, had only to win the moral victory over itself to be certain of victory over any external force against it.
The purpose of a king of Israel, and of Israel itself, is not to seek external glory but internal perfection. Indeed, the Hebrew term melech primarily implies a chief ‘counselor,’ a president whose intellectual and moral qualities warrant his elevation and authority. The king’s paramount purpose is to win the hearts and minds of the people to the Torah by his own sterling example of a man whose every word and deed is inspired by the Law of which he is nothing more than a faithful servant.
Here it should be noted that a king of Israel may be appointed either by the Great Sanhedrin, or by the people with the Sanhedrin’s approval. Under Jewish law, the Sanhedrin will not appoint a king (or any officer, for that matter) who is not acceptable to the people: “We must not appoint a leader over a community without first consulting it” (Berachot 55a; Exod. 35:30). On the other hand, the Court will not confirm any popular choice who is not qualified for the office. We see here the principle of ‘government with the consent of the governed,’ but without the idol of popular sovereignty. Only God is sovereign; and it is only by the laws of His Torah that men can overcome the perennial problem of democracy, that of reconciling wisdom and consent.
(Notice that a Torah community combines different aspects of kingship, aristocracy, and democracy—and not to be confused with “theocracy.”)
Not only are the king’s powers clearly delineated and circumscribed in the Torah, but the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of his prerogatives. (Of course, the Sanhedrin should not be confused with the judicial imperialism of Israel’s present Supreme Court, whose decisions so often violate the Torah and the heritage of the Jewish people.)
Finally, consider this fact: For 2,000 years the Jewish people were governed by law, the Halakha, without the coercive agency of any state. This phenomenon is utterly unique. It confutes ancient and modern political science. For it has been the unanimous contention of political philosophers that coercion, in contradistinction to persuasion, is an essential and inevitable ingredient of political life.
This suggests that authentic Judaism is incompatible with politics (a matter pregnant with significance for the present State of Israel). But that a people, dispersed for two millennia, should give their consent to the same system of law is profound testimony both to the extraordinary intellectual and moral character of that people and to the extraordinary wisdom, versatility, and graciousness of that system of law. “What great nation is there that has laws … so righteous as this Torah?” (Deut. 4:8).