Judaism’s Views of Government: Democracy or Monarchy?
Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Speech in the British Parliament, November 11, 1947).
What form of government does Judaism prefer? Monarchy, democracy or theocracy?
We’re told in this week’s Torah portion:
כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכׇל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי׃
If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and –having taken possession of it and settled in it – you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me…” (Deuteronomy 17:14)
It would seem from the above verses that monarchy is preferred. However, many do not view it as such. First, because of context clues.
The Torah opens Parshat Shoftim with the command:
שֹפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכׇל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט צֶדֶק׃
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. (ibid., 16:18)
לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים וְלֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם׃
You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.(ibid., v. 19)
And this culminates with the clarion call for a clear form of justice:
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ׃
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (ibid., v. 20)
In fact, we’re told if a case is too baffling for the local courts to decide, you don’t bring it to the king. Whether it’s a controversy over homicide, civil law or assault, any matters of dispute in the courts that can’t be judged by the local courts:
…וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ׃
…you shall promptly ascend to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen. (ibid., 17:8)
וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט…
Go to the priests, the Levites, and the judge... (ibid., v. 9)
The Torah tells us to go to those who have integrity and scholarship – to help us adjudicate and make sure there’s justice in the land.
In other words, as James Monroe once stated “the best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil.”
There is a balance of power here. Etched into the parsha is that the king is not the sole ruler. There is no absolute power, there is no absolute authority.
There are legislative and judicial branches run by the courts: the Kohanim and the judges. In fact, unless he has approval from the Sanhedrin, the king can wage only defensive wars and, according to some, capture the land of Israel.
The king cannot have too many horses, cannot marry too many women, and must write his own Sefer Torah that accompanies him throughout his life, in order to place limitations on his stature and to ensure that there is no abuse of power, to remain mindful of the true source of his power, God. (ibid., 17:16-20)
However, there are those that suggest that even from these verses, there is no clear indication about the responsibility to appoint a king.
Yes, Maimonides and the Laws of Kings (1:1) says that this is one of the commandments.
But Rav Ovadia Seforno comments that a king is despised by God, and is to be appointed only when there is a necessity, when there’s a need of protection against the nations of the world (Rav Ovadia Seforno’s commentary to Deuteronomy 17:14).
The Abarbanel states, like the Seforno, that it is not a mitzvah. And he reminds us of what happens in the Book of Shmuel when the Jewish people tell Shmuel, ‘You’ve grown old. Your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore appoint a king for us, to govern us, like all the other nations’ (I Samuel 8:5).
Which would seem to be consistent with what we read in our Torah portion.
Shmuel is upset, and God tells him, ‘Heed the demand of the people because everything they’re saying to you is not because they have rejected you, Shmuel, it’s because they have rejected me as a king’ (ibid., v. 6-7).
In fact, the Abarbanel is an advocate for other forms of government and feels a king is only a last resort (Rav Isaac Abarbanel’s commentary to Parshat Shoftim).
He supports the idea of government with term limits to avoid corruption, and states clearly that there should be leaders who have a maximum time in office of four years.
The Netziv looks at the paradigms of Maimonides and the paradigms of the Abarbanel, and he merges the perspectives. He says it might be that Maimonides is correct, that it might be a commandment, if necessary, to have a king (Commentary of HaEmek Davar to Deuteronomy 17:14).
But when democracy works better, when democracy can protect the people better, then it’s “pikuach nefesh“, then it is a form of making sure that every individual life is protected.
Therefore, if democracy can work better, then the commandment, even according to Maimonides, would be suspended in order to make sure we have a better form of government.
What is the message of all this? That leadership is not a right; it is a privilege.
And the responsibility of leaders is to be able to give of themselves. In the process, they become better people, they live more meaningful lives, and in the process, please God, they empower others.