Shoftim - 3 September 2011 - 4 Elul 5771
This summer, we've seen riots on the streets of London and Manchester on the one hand, Tripoli on the other. On the face of it there was nothing in common between them. In London the rioters were holding rocks. In Tripoli they were holding machine guns. In Libya they were rioting to remove a tyrant. In London they were rioting for clothes and flatscreen televisions. There was only one thing in common, namely that they were riots. They reminded us, as John Maynard Keynes once said, that civilization is a thin and precarious crust. It can crumble easily and quickly.
The riots in both places, in their different ways, should make us think in a new way about the unique political project Moses was engaged in the parsha of Shoftim and in the book of Deuteronomy as a whole.
Why do crowds riot? The short answer is, because they can. This year we have seen the extraordinary impact of smartphones, messaging systems and social network software: the last things, one might have thought, to bring about political change, but they have done so in one country after another in the Middle East – first Tunisia, then Egypt, then Libya, then Syria, and the reverberations will be with us for years to come. Similarly in Britain, though for quite different reasons, they have led to the worst, and strangest, riots in a generation.
What the technology has made possible is instant crowds. Crowd behaviour is notoriously volatile and sweeps up many kinds of people in its vortex. The result has been that for a while, chaos has prevailed, because the police or the army has been caught unawares. The Torah describes a similar situation after the sin of the golden calf: “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control . . .” (Ex. 32: 25). Crowds create chaos.
How then do you deal with crowds? In England, by more police, zero tolerance, and tougher sentencing. In the Middle East, we do not yet know whether we are seeing the birth of free societies or a replacement of the tyranny of a minority by the tyranny of the majority. However, it seems to be a shared assumption that the only way you stop people robbing one another or killing one another is by the use of force. That has been the nature of politics since the birth of civilisation.
The argument was stated most clearly by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century in his political classic, Leviathan. Without the use of force, Hobbes said, we would be in a state of nature, a war of all against all in which life would be “nasty, brutish and short.” What we have witnessed in both Britain and the Middle East has been a vivid tutorial in Hobbesian politics. We have seen what a state of nature looks like.
What Moses was proposing in Devarim was fundamentally different. He assembled the people and told them, in so many words, that there would be social order in the new land they were about to inherit. But who would achieve it? Not Moses. Not Joshua. Not a government. Not a tyrant. Not a charismatic leader. Not the army. Not the police. Who would do it. “You,” said Moses. The maintenance of order in Deuteronomy is the responsibility of the entire people. That is what the covenant was about. That is what the sages meant when they said Kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, “All Israel are responsible for one another.” Responsibility in Judaism belongs to all of us and it cannot be delegated away.
We see this most clearly in this week’s parsha in the law of the king.
When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses . . . The king must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself . . . He must not take many wives . . . He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. (Deut. 17: 14-17)
When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law . . . It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites . . . (17: 18-20)