On rabbis and politics

Cause for Redemption

Question: Why don’t the rabbis today stand up with strength and courage, like Mattityahu in the days of the Maccabean revolt, and lead the Jewish people in a religious re-awakening and an all-out war with the Arab enemy? Why don’t they take as their role model the Maccabees, who dared to engage the Greeks and the Jewish Hellenists in battle?

Answer: Mattityahu the Hasmonean priest did not begin his revolt when Hellenism gripped the Jews and our beautiful and holy city of Jerusalem changed her grandeur and took on the appearance of a Hellenist metropolis. Even when Hellenism had infected the Holy Sanctuary itself, and the High Priests of Israel took Greek names and frequented the athletic competitions in the coliseum which stood adjacent to the Temple Mount more often than performing their Divine worship in the Holy Temple, no revolt was instigated.

The revolt did not begin until the situation became virtually unbearable as a result of religious persecution – when the Greeks, aided by Hellenists, began to force people to practice idolatry. The vast majority of pious Jews fled to the hills and the caves, and when they were caught, they sanctified God’s name by giving their lives rather than performing idolatry. Mattityahu the Priest chose the path of active resistance and initiated the Hasmonean revolt.

The High Road to Salvation

Nevertheless, this is not the ideal path to redemption. Ideally, Israel’s redemption should pour forth from a genuine inner awakening and true desire on the part of the masses, for as a result of strengthening of faith and Torah study, the nation will become united around Torah values. This, in turn, will lead to the land’s liberation and the construction of the Holy Temple. Such was the case in the time of Samuel the Prophet and King David: It was the impact of Samuel the Prophet’s educational activities that unified the nation and readied the people for accepting upon themselves a king who would lead them in realizing truly Divine ideals.

This was King David’s uniqueness: He initiated and brought about the creation of the kingdom of Israel according to his own premeditated plan. The judges that preceded David were different. Each of these Judges rose up in response to enemy attacks from without. In order to defend Israel and repel such assaults each Judge united the people and uplifted their spirits.

David, though, took premeditated and calculated steps in order to unite the Jews: He began by assisting King Saul in his war with the Philistines, and when in time, Saul’s jealousy of him grew, David chose to leave the public arena in order not to cause a rift in the nation. Even after Saul’s death, David took slow and calculated steps. He began by establishing his kingdom in Judea. When the time was ripe, the nation having accepted his leadership, David made Jerusalem the seat of his kingdom. This step was taken so the entire nation would rally around the city of Jerusalem, and thus, it became a holy capital. In battle too, David’s driving force was apparent: Rather than waiting for his enemies to build up strength and attack, David engaged the surrounding enemies in war. Hence, till this day we proclaim: “David the king of Israel is alive and enduring!” It was he who established the kingdom of Israel.

Usually, though, our salvation developed in response to difficulties and hardships which plagued the nation.

Two Paths to Redemption

The first path calls for bringing the Redemption via our own active initiative, like Samuel the Prophet and King David, who exhibited human effort and were aided from above. This is “redemption by choice,” and is our principle desire.

The second path plays itself out via Divine intervention. Seeing the hopeless plight of the Jewish people and their inability to advance toward the desired elevated goals, God covertly intervenes in historical events, creating a “no choice” situation, by virtue of which the Nation of Israel is forced to take a stand and free itself. This is a “no choice redemption”, and it is riddled with difficulties and hardships. To a certain degree, the redemption of Chanukah was of the latter nature, for it began as a reaction to the barbarous decrees of Antiochus.

We, of course, yearn for a redemption which comes about as a result of the ascent of the entire nation through faith, Torah, and the settlement of Eretz Yisrael. We pray that in this manner the Kingdom of David will be restored, leading to a peaceful and pleasant redemption. On the verse in the Book of Isaiah: “The least one shall become a thousand, and the smallest one, a strong nation. I the Lord will hasten it in its time,” our Sages teach us: If you are worthy: “I… will hasten it.” If not: “… in its time.”

“I will hasten it in its time”

There also exists a possibility of a redemption that combines both of the paths we have mentioned. This sort of process is essentially “no-choice,” as illustrated in the twenty-sixth chapter of Ezekiel, yet contains an element of human effort. This, in fact, is the literal meaning of the passage: “I the Lord will hasten it in its time.” Into the midst of a natural “in its time” process of redemption, enters the miraculous element of “I will hasten it.”

The more active a part we take in the process of our own Redemption – through settling the land, education, kind deeds, and above all, through delving into the Torah of Eretz Yisrael which directs the Jewish people toward the Divine goal of preparing the world for the Heavenly Kingdom – the more bearable will be the suffering accompanying the Redemption and the birth-pangs of the Messiah.

Torah Luminaries and Political Leaders

Question: Why did the revolt of the Maccabees not begin until forced idolatry reached the hometown of Mattityahu the Kohen, Modi’in?

Answer: It would appear that Mattityahu’s chief responsibility was occupying himself with Torah – to study and educate others, and not to lead the nation on a political level. Hence, he instinctively waited for public leaders to take those steps necessary for the good of the people. Only when he saw that there was nobody capable of dealing with the situation, and there was no other choice, did he begin the revolt.

This is the fundamental difference between political leaders and Torah scholars. A public leader, whether a king or a democratically elected official, must take responsibility for leading the people in the political, economic, security-related, and social realms. Torah scholars – though they ought to participate in all-important deliberations – should not be the ones to initiate action. The rabbis must provide constructive criticism, enlighten, and rouse the leadership pertaining to those areas in which the leaders act.

It is for this reason that in Jewish history we always find the political leadership taking constructive action, while the Sages of the religious courts respond to questions directed towards them. Thus, the rabbis generally express their opinion regarding public issues by means of providing answers to questions.

Question: But why shouldn’t the spiritual leaders be the ones who lead the nation?

Answer: Generally speaking, a separation of powers is beneficial. It is good to have one sector focusing on education and spiritual guidance, while another initiates the practical aspects of the goals. If the rabbis were to deal in practical leadership, we would run the risk of impairing the Torah study and education for which they are responsible.

And though it goes without saying that political leaders must be imbued with Torah, their essential role is practical leadership. It is advisable that religious leaders be involved in political and economic decision making, so they will be able to provide advice, and when need be, express criticism. Rabbis might also awaken the leadership to address questions that have been ignored.

Nevertheless, the general rule is that there must be two sides to leadership: practical and spiritual. Practical leadership must devote its efforts to tending to the needs of the public, and carrying out elevated spiritual goals on a down-to-earth practical level. Spiritual leadership, on the other hand, educates the masses and sets long-term national objectives. It is desirable that there be healthy cooperation between these two kinds of leaders, while one steps back and allows the opinion of the other to take precedence when necessary. When, however, these two forms of authority are divorced from one another, crisis and division are sure to result.

We know that King David, after deciding to go to war, would instruct his generals to consult with experts in military strategy. Following this, they would turn to the Sanhedrin for approval (see Berakhoth 3b). In the Sanhedrin sat the most prominent rabbinic Sages of the day, and though it possessed the authority to support or disapprove of military action, it was not the body who initiated such steps. Initiating a war was left to the king.

King Joshaphat too was a righteous leader who held the Torah the scholars of his day in high esteem and thus enjoyed great success as a ruler.

Eli the High Priest and his house, on the other hand, drew heavy criticism. They were both High Priests and leaders; their rule was tainted, and were defeated in their war against the Philistines. Even their priesthood was tainted as a result of the behavior of Eli’s sons (see First Samuel chapters 2-4). In addition, our Sages were critical of the Hasmoneans who were of the priestly class, because they took the kingship. In this manner, both the kingdom and the priesthood were tainted.

Stately Rabbis

There have been cases of Torah giants who were exceptions to this rule – scholars so great they were able by virtue of their illustrious profundity and scope in Torah, to organize all national matters. Samuel the Prophet would be an example of a personage who was capable of leading the nation because of his exceeding greatness in Torah and prophecy. Perhaps in order to prepare the nation for a new era there was a need for leadership which combined both spiritual idealism and practical realism: Moses was called upon to prepare the Children of Israel for national cohesion and entrance into the Land of Israel; Samuel the Prophet, to lay the ground for the establishment of the kingdom of Israel and the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

We also find examples of Torah giants taking upon themselves political leadership roles in periods of national weakness, as was the case with the princes of Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple. The politically active “Geonim” (heads of Babylonian academies) also bear this out. It is quite possible that precisely national weakness demanded unity of leadership, so that the spiritual and religious ideals could receive all the more emphasis.

This article was translated from Hebrew.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed; The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper; His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English; Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at:
Related Topics
Related Posts