Parshat Shoftim: A King in Israel

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

A King in Israel*

The Torah’s concept of a limited monarchy, with a king subservient to the law and to God, is first outlined in this morning’s sidra: “When you reach the Promised Land, and you will say, ‘I wish to set over myself a king like all the other nations that are about me,’ then you shall set over yourself a king whom the Lord your God will choose” (Deuteronomy 17:14-15).

Now the Rabbis faced a basic question in approaching this biblical passage. Is this declaration of the Torah to be considered an obligation, namely, that upon arriving in the Promised Land the people of Israel must establish a strong central leadership? Or is it to be understood as a grant of permission, i.e. that in the event that the leaders of the people will decide upon a monarchy and request it, that the Torah does not object to such a strong government?

This question was an issue between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehorai (Sanhedrin 20b). Rabbi Judah considered this a positive commandment, an obligation, while Rabbi Nehorai regarded the statement as permission, but not an absolute obligation. Most of our medieval commentators, the Rishonim, are of divided opinion as to the verdict of the Halakha; but the majority seems to favor the opinion of Rabbi Judah who considers the passage concerning the king as an obligation.

Now, if indeed we consider the statement of the Torah as obligatory, this raises a serious and perplexing historical problem. For we read in the Prophets (I Samuel, chapter 8) that when the Children of Israel finally did request a monarchy, the prophet Samuel was furious, and God Himself was highly displeased. The elders approached Samuel, and said to him, “Now that you are old and we can find no worthy successor to you from amongst your children, therefore set for us a king to judge us, like all the other nations.” The prophet was incensed and he prayed to God, who answered him, saying: “You are right, the people have committed a wrong in requesting a king. Nevertheless, let them have their king, for they have rejected not you, but Me.”

Is there not a bold contradiction between the passage in today’s sidra, indicating that it is an obligation to appoint a king, and the chapter in Samuel which clearly implies that it was wrong for the Children of Israel to request a king?

A number of answers have been offered in an attempt to resolve this problem. Permit me to commend to your attention some of them, which are both significant in their own right and also shed light upon contemporary life.

The first of these solutions, chronologically, was offered already in the days of the Mishna. It seeks to differentiate between the request itself, which is considered legitimate, and the reason for the request, which is not. Thus the Talmud (ibid.) relates:

Rabbi Eliezer says, “The wise elders of that generation presented a most proper request: they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ Certainly there was nothing wrong with this. But the ordinary people, the ignoramuses amongst them, where the ones who erred when they gave as the reason for their request the wish to be like all other nations about them.”

There is nothing wrong with the desire for a strong centralized leadership. The mistake lies in the motivation for the request – the urge towards assimilation and imitation. When a nation assimilates, as when an individual abandons his own individuality in order to conform to social pressure, moral principle is violated. In both cases we have an abdication of selfhood, a sudden and irreparable damage to self-respect.

Our sidra anticipated this moral weakness. The Torah divides the problem into two parts: If you will say “I desire a king,” and explain it by the desire to imitate other peoples, then the answer is that your request for a king is granted. It is a proper request. However, I reject the reasons for your demand – assimilation and imitation; instead, you must choose a king not because other people have one, but “a king whom the Lord your God will choose.” Not assimilation to the mores and manners of other people, but obedience to the will of God must dictate the choice of a Jewish leader.

The second answer is one offered by the great medieval scholar, Rabbenu Nissim. He maintains that Samuel’s contemporaries erred in seeking to merge two incompatible functions. They asked for one individual who would combine within himself the features of king – secular- executive government, and judge – the spiritual-legislative office: “Give us a king to judge us,” one person who will be both king and judge.

This was the crux of their error. Our sidra keeps these functions strictly apart. First it tells us the laws that relate to the judge, and then a separate chapter is assigned to the qualifications of the king. When we confuse the two roles, we leave the way open to royal and judicial corruption. The two offices must have a relationship, but they are not interchangeable.

Such indeed is the case with religion and state. There is a clear and positive relation between them. To speak of an “absolute wall of separation” between Church and State is to ignore the evidence of history. Nevertheless, they must never be identical. Politicians ought not to offer verdicts on religious questions; and rabbis ought not become politicians and run for political office. When prime ministers of Israel try to pronounce on matters of Halakha, they are both dangerously adventurous and downright silly. And when rabbis in the United States venture into city politics they jeopardize their vocation and appear hopelessly naïve, as babes in the woods, and they thus constitute a source of embarrassment to the faith and the people they represent.  The two functions of king and of judge are two separate concepts! Never ought they to be mistaken one for the other. God Himself is incensed when they overlap.

The third and last answer I wish to comment to you is offered by the author of the Keli Yakar, who bases his remarks upon a subtle but forceful distinction between two Hebrew prepositions. It is a solution which yields valuable lessons on the philosophy of leadership and especially spiritual leadership.

This commentator tells us that the Torah, in articulating the obligation to form a kingdom, utilizes the preposition “al” which literally means “on” or “upon”; whereas Samuel’s elders utilized the preposition “le,” in its contracted form “lanu,” which means “to” or “for.” Thus the Torah has the Israelites saying, “I want to set upon myself, or over myself, a king”; and the commandment in response is “you shall set over yourself, or upon yourself a king.” However, the elders of Samuel’s days said to the prophet, “Now set for us a king,” and “give for us, or to us, a king to judge us.”

What is the difference? The very nature of leadership! Al, when applied to leadership, means that the leader has certain inherent and intrinsic qualities which mark that individual as a person of unusual foresight, strength, and courage. He must be able to inspire his followers, who must be willing to follow their leader. Once these followers have indicated their confidence in that person as their leader, they should be willing to submit to his discretion. The Torah does not believe in an absolute monarchy or in blind obedience by the king’s subjects; that is why the Torah in today’s sidra severely limits the king’s rights. But he must not be a milquetoast. A leader, especially in a spiritual sense, must not be merely a broker of popular opinion. A leader must lead – he must be al, one who is beyond the people and can take them along with him to new horizons. However, Samuel’s contemporaries wanted a king lanu, for us, they wanted someone who will carry out our wishes, and do our bidding. They wanted a royal messenger-boy, not a leader whom they could trust and follow.

There is no doubt that a lanu leader is more popular than the al leader. But in the long run the truth must come out. Rule by consensus alone, leading merely where the public opinion polls indicate the public wants to go, is not an exercise of leadership or commitment or orientation. It is merely a specialized craft, a talent, a technique. A community is not enlightened, and humanity does not make strides, when its leaders merely pamper its talent for prejudices.

This is true of the leadership of government, and is also true of mass movements. Zionism, for instance, was blessed with great leaders who achieved great successes. But, especially in its later years, its leadership experienced failures as well. They emphasized only the political dimensions and goals of Zionism, the founding of a viable, independent state. But they were not able to bring their people along to the awareness that Zionism had, and should have had, cultural, educational, and religious goals as well. It turned into a lanu rather than an al kind of leadership.

There must be reciprocity and interplay between leader and followers. The leader must not be too far ahead of his people; but never must he abdicate his pedagogic and educative function.

And what we have said of human leadership as a mortal king is equally and even more so true of divine leadership, the immortal King of kings. We fulfill a great mitzva if we accept God as a king “upon” us. We commit a major spiritual crime if we expect Him to be a little God “for” us who does our bidding.

Let it be clear: For Judaism, God is not an Executive Vice President of the Cosmos in charge of Human Happiness. A truly religious person does not wake up in the morning and say to God, “What have You done for me recently?” God is not looking for our votes in an election or popularity contest. He is not interested in our approval.

An authentic religion does not cater to what people want and think they need. It teaches them to want what they really need. It leads them to aspire to higher deeds and more sublime ideals.

If Judaism may, as indeed its “modernist” versions have averred, be cut and truncated and transformed and reformed to conform to the latest ephemeral intellectual currents and fads of fashion and tastes, then it reveals that at the bottom there is an immature conception of God as a kind of divine Servant or at best a divine Insurance Agent who will provide for our happiness and convenience. God is not a King for us; He is a King over us: “You shall set over yourself a King.” That is the essence of Torah and the meaning of Halakha.

Indeed, this is what God told Samuel when Samuel complained to Him about the people’s request. Samuel, God said, the failing of the people is not political but fundamentally religious. “They have not rejected you, they have rejected Me.” Their political immaturity reflects a fundamental religious bankruptcy. The real Jew, the authentic Godfearing person, does not regard God as Servant of mankind but mankind as the ambassador of God.

This, indeed, is the proper way to prepare for Rosh HaShana, that holiday on which we emphasize the malkhut theme, the sovereignty and Kingship of God. It is an illustration and expression of fundamental Jewishness to declare then, as we declare every day in our prayers, “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth.”

Bayom hahu, on that day, when He is accepted as King over all the earth, shall the Lord be One and His Name be One.


*September 4, 1965.