King Smotey I

You gotta hand it to Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich. Four years ago, he was the junior member of the junior Tkuma faction of the Jewish Home, eighth of eight. He was mostly known for being the guy people downplayed. Pay no attention to his declaration that he’s a “proud homophobe.” Ignore his proposal that Jews and Arabs have separate maternity wards. He’s a backbencher, gadfly, firebrand.

But then he won the chairmanship of Tkuma, and as Jewish Home splintered and reformed (now with Kahanists!), Smotrich was suddenly number one, until the new Knesset could be elected. He’s number two in our current post-election pre-election surreality, but he has no intention of going back to the back benches. Before the April elections, he wanted to become education minister. Now he wants to become justice minister. And looky here, Prime Minister Netanyahu just fired the holders of both offices! All this and he’s not even forty.

But why does Smotey the Bear (which I affectionately call him because, of course, when someone is really hairy and really into the sex lives of gay men, “bear” is the proper term) want this office specifically?

We want the justice portfolio because we want to restore the Torah justice system…

When we talk about Torah laws there are many things. I think the Torah’s monetary laws are much better [than ours]. We need to grant the rabbinical courts a higher status.

Our country will return to the way it was in the days of King David and King Solomon, run by the laws of the Torah.

I suppose it’s appropriate to do this the week before Shavuot, since that holiday celebrates both the Giving of the Torah and the life of King David. However, they represent two very different systems of justice: the rabbinic and the monarchic are, ultimately, not on the same page. Consider what Maimonides writes in the Laws of Kings (Ch. 3):

Anyone who rebels against a king of Israel may be executed by the king. Even if the king orders one of the people to go to a particular place and the latter refuses, or he orders him not to leave his house and he goes out, the offender is liable to be put to death… Similarly, anyone who embarrasses or shames the king may be executed by the king…

The king may only execute people by decapitation. He may also imprison offenders and have them beaten with rods to protect his honor…

A killer whose incriminating evidence is inconclusive, or who was not warned, or who was observed by only one witness, or who inadvertently killed someone he hated–the king is granted license to execute them and to improve society according to the needs of the time…

The rabbinic tradition is one developed over millennia, but the monarchic tradition is the classic “Off with his head.” Many in Israel, including not only secular or traditional people but Religious Zionist and even Haredi Jews–not to speak of the Arabs, because you really don’t want to know what life would be like for them–fear a “halakhic state,” since the Chief Rabbinate has done such a fine job bungling what it controls now: kosher supervision, marriage and divorce, conversion, burial.

But a halakhic state is not what he’s proposing. Smotrich thinks Israel should “go back to conducting itself the way it did in the days of King David, while adjusting that for life in 2019.” No one knows what that would mean, but at least the halakhic tradition has been developed over the course of the past three thousand years, unlike Davidic monarchy.

The most curious aspect is his cryptic statement: “Nothing happens instantly and it doesn’t happen with coercion.” Coercion is exactly what we’re talking about. Brooking no dissent is a rabbinical standard as well (Maimonides, Laws of Rebels 3:4).

However, the “rebellious elder” mentioned in the Torah… has a difference of opinion in one of the Torah’s laws with the Great Sanhedrin and does not accept their views, but instead issues a ruling to act in a different manner. The Torah decreed that he should be executed… Even though he analyzes and they analyze; he received the tradition and they received the tradition, the Torah grants them deference. Even if the court desires to forgo their honor and allow him to live, they are not allowed so that arguments will not increase within Israel.

Our tradition is a complex one; we have been struggling with it ever since we received it at Sinai. The least we can do as we approach Shavuot is recognize the challenges. And cancel the coronation of King Smotey, First of His Name.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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