Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil

Absolute Influence

With the narrative of the Torah winding down and the Jewish people on the cusp of entering The Land, this week’s Torah reading turns some of our attention to what that might look like. Besides rules about keeping the nation faithful to Hashem’s laws, and laws requiring “due process” for EVERYONE, we also have a number of mitzvot that seem to be focused on what governance will look like for the new nation. There is a lot of power invested in the judicial system. Rules are set out to clarify some limits on the Kohanim and even on the prophets. But to me, the most interesting, and perhaps the most controversial, are the mitzvot around the monarchy. The Torah says,

When you come into the Land that Hashem your G-d gives you, and possess it, and settle in it, and you will say, ‘I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.’ You shall surely set over yourself a king whom Hashem your G-d shall choose. . . Only he shall not have too many horses … And he shall not have too many wives … he shall not greatly increase gold and silver to himself … he shall write for himself two copies of this book and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear Hashem, his G-d …. (Deut. 17-19 excerpted.)

There is a well know disagreement between the Rambam (Maimonides 1138-1204) and the Abarbanel (Don Yitzchak Abarbanel 1437-1508) about this passage. The Rambam understands these verses, and various passages in the Talmud, to teach that there is an obligatory commandment for the Jewish people to request and anoint a king to lead them. A major question on the Rambam’s theory is that when the Jewish people DO request a king, in 1 Samuel chapter 8 the request is considered inappropriate to the prophet Shmuel.  And even Hashem Himself says, “It is not you whom they have rejected but it is Me they have rejected from reigning over them.” (1 Sam. 8:7) Whoa! If this is something they are supposed to do them what’s with all the gloomy faces?  (Obviously, the Rambam can answer that question. He lived in the 12th century, so he learned Navi and he knew this problem. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole yet.)

The Abarbanel (in his commentary to sefer Shmuel) has a totally different take here. The punchline is that the Abarbanel thinks that it’s not a MITZVAH for the Jewish people to appoint a king. It’s just that if they are swayed by The Evil Inclination to request a king, it has to be in within the parameters the Torah lays out. (Similar to the yefat to’ar, vhameivin yavin.) Hashem and Shmuel disapproved of the request in 1 Sam. 8 because it was a sign that the people weren’t living lives at the highest levels of faith.

This is all the basics and my scholarly friends just skimmed through all of that thinking, “It’s all just blah blah Rambam, blah blah Abarbanel, say some something interesting, Soskil.” Ok, here we go.

If we accept that the Torah’s ideal form of government according to the Rambam was a monarchy, it’s clear that this was not the case for the Abarbanel. (As an aside, we can wonder how much of these viewpoints were shaped by their life experiences. The Abarbanel, after all, was the leader of the Jewish people expelled from Spain in 1492. The Rambam, on the other hand, was essentially the chief medical officer and personal physician in the royal court of Saladin. One of these scholars was a victim of tyrannical monarchy and one was able to parlay his relationships with royalty to help his people. But I think that this type of analysis undermines their great fidelity to the Talmudic sources. Still, it’s interesting.)

So, let’s speculate, if monarchy wasn’t the ideal form of government according to the Abarbanel, what is? In the same (extraordinarily long) comment to 1 Sam. 8, the Abarbanel gives praise to two types of governance. One is what you and I might think of as a constitutional monarchy, where there is a king that has limited powers defined by some arrangement with the people. He also talks about democratic city states where elected leadership has a set term.

One of the great contributions that the late Lord Rabbi Sacks made to my own thinking about Torah is the way he differentiated between leadership of power and leadership of influence. An absolute monarch has the power to do what he wants. He can collect unlimited taxes; he can engage in peace treaties with foreign nations in ways that only benefit him personally; he can indulge in frivolous, idle pastimes without regard to the cost to the public. (That is, he can collect too much gold, too many wives, and too many horses.) He has the power to make people do what he wants. But when he turns to dust and maggots, so will his control.

Leadership of influence is a much trickier proposition. This type of leader might actually have no ability to force anyone to do anything. To shape the world around them, their work takes place in the realm of hearts and minds, not policies and regulations. This type of leadership is takes time, it takes wisdom, and *shudders*, it takes talking to people. It’s more complicated on the front end. But on the back end, its impact lasts forever.

To the Rambam, the ideal form of leadership was a monarch who could wield leadership of power. He could force allegiance to halacha through the institutions of government. The Abarbanel was so dismayed by the observation that power corrupts, and that even in the biblical, divinely mandated, Davidic dynasty MOST KINGS WERE NEITHER BENEVOLENT NOR FAITHFUL TO THE TORAH, that he just can’t believe the there is enough sugar to help that medicine go down. Instead, he favors a world where the leadership of influence wins the day.

In my work at school, the distinction between power and influence is a real, living conversation. On the one hand, the school has the power to force students to comply with certain rules. But that’s never really the goal. The goal is always to influence their choices through curriculum, discussion, and activities.  Sometimes we have the luxury of playing the long game of influence. Sometimes we are forced into the power play. As a parents, I know that Allison and I have had similar dilemmas. (Though 26 years of parenting has led me to realize we have a surprisingly smaller amount of power than I believed.)

And on the macro level, I think you see the tension between power and influence playing out in Israel. In this response (thank you Dr. Zipora Schorr!), Rabbi Eliezer Melamed speaks about the tension between the Haredi/Orthodox governmental infrastructure, and Reformed and Conservative Jews. Though he doesn’t say it quite this way, I think it’s clear that Rabbi Melamed is arguing that we won’t win a hearts-and-minds campaign through regulation and policies. We have to talk, we have to understand, and most importantly, we have to love. Love is not the language of power, it’s the language of influence.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now three precious granddaughters.