David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

The Dangers of Dynasty — Parshat Acharei Mot

Stephen, as imagined by a non-contemporary unknown artist, about 1620. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Stephen, as imagined by a non-contemporary unknown artist, about 1620. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The haftarah we read on the seventh day of Passover has King David, near the end of his life, singing a song of praise for all that God has given him. It ends with the verse, “He is a tower of salvation for His king, and does kindness to His anointed one, to David and his descendants forever,” (II Samuel 22:51). Then, in the blessings after the haftarah, we recite, “No outsider shall sit on his throne, and no others shall inherit his glory, for You swore to him by Your holy name that his light would never be extinguished.”

Passover is the time of redemption, and we conclude with the promise and the hope that the Davidic dynasty will endure forever.

And it struck me (in a sort of Monty Python moment) that primogeniture is probably not the best system of government.

Even King David didn’t do too well with his dynasty. Two of his sons, Absalom and Amnon, tried to take the throne from him in his lifetime. After his death, his son Solomon ruled in his place, but after Solomon, the kingdom was divided with Solomon’s heir Rehoboam ruling the smaller southern Kingdom of Judah, while a former courtier, Jeroboam, ruled over 10 tribes in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Yet ensuring the continuity of the Davidic line was so important, that when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai stood before Vespasian on the eve of the destruction of the Second Temple and was granted three requests, one of the requests was to spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel, a descendant of King David (Gittin 56b). (It is ironic that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s closest student, Rabbi Yehoshua, nearly brought about the downfall of Rabban Gamliel and had him temporarily replaced by Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah).

An early 15th-century miniature showing the future Edward III giving homage to Charles IV under the guidance of Edward’s mother, and Charles’s sister, Isabella, in 1325. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

How many wars have been fought because a king (and queen) failed to produce a son. The Hundred Years’ War began because Charles IV of France had no sons, and Edward III of England decided he was the closest male relative. The War of the Roses tore England apart because the Houses of York and Lancaster quibbled over who was more closely related to John of Gaunt. Henry VIII wouldn’t have had to divorce Catherine of Aragon and create the Anglican Church if he hadn’t been desperate for a son to inherit him. The War of Spanish Succession embroiled Europe, and both North and South America because Charles II of Spain died childless.

Let’s consider the story of King Stephen of England, also known as Stephen of Blois. His maternal grandfather, William the Conqueror, had famously taken the crown of England at the Battle of Hastings. William had half a dozen daughters and four sons, though his second son, Richard, predeceased him. When William died, in 1087, his eldest son Robert (known as Robert Curthose – “Short stockings”) inherited his father’s more important title as Duke of Normandy, while William (known as William Rufus – probably because he had red hair) became King of England.

When William died in a hunting accident, the youngest brother, Henry, became King of England. William had a son, William Adelin, and a daughter, Matilda. So there should have been no squabbling over who succeeded him. Except for an unfortunate boat accident, and a fateful bout of diarrhea.

An early 14th-century depiction of the White Ship sinking in 1120. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On November 25, 1120, The White Ship set off on the short journey from France to England. Aboard were some 300 nobles, including William Adelin and his half-siblings Matilda of Perche and Richard of Lincoln. The passengers encouraged the captain Thomas FitzStephen to show how fast the vessel could go by overtaking the king’s ship which had a head start. However, in the dark, the boat hit a rock about a mile out of harbor and quickly capsized. The only survivor was a butcher.

This left Matilda the only surviving legitimate child of Henry (though he had at least about two dozen illegitimate children, including three other daughters named Matilda). As a child, Matilda was married to the future Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, but he died in 1125, leaving her a 23-year-old widow. Her father then arranged for her to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, but this was not a popular decision with his court, as Anjou and Normandy were fierce rivals.

In 1126, realizing that he was unlikely to have any legitimate male heirs, Henry declared that Matilda should be his successor. He gathered the Anglo-Norman barons together at Christmas and made them swear allegiance to his daughter and any children she may have. There was no real precedent for a daughter to inherit the English crown, and despite the oaths, many of the barons and nobles were unhappy with the prospect of a queen.

Contemporary depiction of the Empress Matilda. (Public Domain/ WIkimedia Commons)

When Henry died suddenly, in 1135, there were two versions of his final words. According to those chroniclers who supported Matilda, Henry had reaffirmed his commitment that she was to become queen. Those who did not support Matilda, wrote that Henry renounced his plans and apologized to the barons for making them swear to support his daughter. Either way, Matilda and Geoffrey were in Anjou at the time, and Matilda was pregnant with their third son, William, making it difficult for them to return to England.

Meanwhile, Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, heard of his uncle’s death and raced across the channel to claim the English throne. Stephen should have been aboard the White Ship 15 years earlier, and would likely have perished with the others, except that he suddenly disembarked just before the ship set sail. According to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis in his book Historia Ecclesiastica, this was due to a sudden bout of diarrhea.

Stephen reached London where he was proclaimed king of England. Stephen was supported by his younger brother, Henry, who was both Abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester, and thus one of the richest people in the country. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on December 22, 1135, setting off a 15-year civil war known as The Anarchy, as the two cousins fought for the throne, which caused widespread breakdown of law and order.

During this time, King David of Scotland (Matilda’s uncle) invaded England and had to be fought back, while the Welsh leaders rebelled against English rule. While Stephen was dealing with attacks from the north and west, Matilda and Geoffrey attacked Normandy and several of the barons began to revolt.

Ultimately, the war ended after Stephen’s only son Eustace died, and Stephen agreed to recognize Matilda’s son Henry as his heir. After Stephen’s death in 1154, his nephew, grandson of Henry I, became Henry II of England.

The first page of the Peterborough element of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written around 1150, which details the events of Stephen’s reign. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commoons)

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, during The Anarchy, “there was nothing but disturbance and wickedness and robbery.” And all because the system of government decided upon by the kings and barons of medieval Europe required a male heir to succeed.

Of course, there are advantages to having a hereditary monarchy. A prince raised from a young age to inherit the crown learns how to behave in court, and earns the support of his fathers noblemen. When kings produce surviving sons, there is a sense of stability in the realm. The marriages between princes and princesses united kingdoms and created peace treaties. As soon as a king died, his son inherited the throne without any break, and thus law and order was upheld.

But it is a risky way to run a country. Producing sons is a fickle business. And there is no guarantee that they will have the necessary skill or personality to run the government. Not to mention that the inbreeding necessary to keep the royal bloodline pure resulted in some kings, like Charles II of Spain, with severe physical and mental disabilities.

And yet this is the ideal form of leadership according to Judaism.

In this week’s Torah reading, Aharei Mot, we learn, “The priest who has been announced and whose hand has been filled to serve as priest in place of his father, shall atone,” (Leviticus 16:32).

Torat Cohanim on this verse states: “If he fills his father’s place, he takes precedence over everyone else. But if he does not fill his father’s place, another should come and serve instead.”

Maimonides codifies this in Hilchot Melachim 1:7 and expands it to anyone in a position of authority:

Once a king is anointed, the throne belongs to him and his sons forever, for kingship is an inheritance… Whoever is the closest relative takes precedence in inheriting the throne… Not only the monarchy but any position of authority and anyone appointed in Israel is bequeathed to the person’s son and grandson in perpetuity. However, this is only if the son fills the place of his father in wisdom and fear of God.

A portrait purportedly displaying Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, painted by Boris Schatz 66 years after he died. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout the ages, Jewish leaders have struggled with how to hand over leadership to the next generation. Perhaps the most telling example is Chabad, who struggled with who should replace the first Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi after his death. Some hasidim followed the rebbe’s eldest son, Dovber Schneuri, while others pledged allegiance to the rebbe’s closest student, Aharon of Strashelye. It was only after these two rivals both passed away that the Chabad hasidim once again united around Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, who was the grandson of the first rebbe. From that time on, leadership of Hasidic groups has almost always passed to the eldest son or another close relative.

The Bible is filled with stories of eldest sons who failed to live up to their potential, and therefore the line of succession went through a younger brother. Ishmael, Esau, Reuben and many others did not fill the place of their fathers in their wisdom or fear of God, and so did not inherit their father’s mantle.

The Talmud relates two anecdotes about succession, one a cautionary tale and the other a success story.

In Menachot (109b), the Talmud relates that on his deathbed, Shimon HaTzaddik told the rabbis that his younger son Onias should replace him as High Priest, and not his older son Shimi. There are two versions of what happened next. According to Rabbi Meir, the jealous Shimi betrayed Onias, teaching him to wear a tunic and ribbon instead of the clothes of the High Priest, then telling the other priests that Onias had worn these clothes to fulfil a vow to his beloved. Onias was forced to flee for his life. He ended up in Alexandria where he built a replica of the Temple and offered sacrifices there.

According to Rabbi Yehuda, Onias initially refused to accept the position, and against his father’s wishes, let his elder brother become High Priest. But then Onias became jealous and dressed Shimi in a tunic and ribbon. Onias then told the priests that Shimi was wearing these clothes to fulfil a vow to his beloved. But Shimi explained he had been duped by his younger brother. In this story too, Onias was forced to flee to Alexandria where he built a replica of the temple.

The rabbis of the Talmud use this story as a paradigm of the damage that jealousy causes. There is also implicit criticism of Shimon HaTzaddik for prioritizing his younger son over the rightful heir.

In contrast, when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was on his deathbed, he instructed that although his younger son Shimon was the greater scholar, his elder son Gamliel should succeed him as Nasi (Ketubot 103b). The Talmud comments that even though Gamliel was not as great a Torah scholar as his father or his brother, he did fill his father’s place in his fear of sin.

Before he died, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi called for his younger son Shimon and passed on to him the secrets of wisdom. Then he called for his elder son Gamliel and transmitted the secrets of the office of Nasi.

This, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, is the ideal succession. As long as the eldest son is God fearing, he should inherit his father’s position, whether that be political, as in the case of the office of Nasi, or religious, as in the case of the High Priest.

Throughout history, only a few Jewish leaders have merited to have a smooth transition of power to their eldest son. Yet we pray every day for the scion of David, a descendant of that Divinely ordained dynasty, to come and lead our nation once again.

May we all merit to see the fulfillment of that prayer very soon.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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