Elections have come and gone, yet there always remains talk of changing the electoral system in Israel. So what about the monarchy proposed in the Torah- is it relevant today? And how would we implement it given that we no longer have prophecy? Could we hold elections for a king?
During election season and after, between all the politics, there often arises the question of changing the electoral system in Israel. One or more parties promise to change the system in some way while other parties propose more but different changes. Often times these proposals are positive (assuming they’re not just empty rhetoric), yet all this talk should raise the question of what is the preferred governing method according to the Torah. It’s time we discuss not only who we should vote for within the current system, but also to think about a new system entirely.
Government and its power is a very large topic in Halacha, but for now let’s focus on the idea of a king. Instinctively we assume that the idea of monarchy belongs in the distant past. In the past we had kings but for thousands of years talk about kings has been relegated to stories and legends. Overcoming this presupposition is crucial in order to have a serious discussion about a king as a practical alternative.
Understanding the difference
The idea of a king brings many questions with it, most of which are based on a comparison with historical monarchies of the world both from the past and present (yes, even today there exist monarchies in many Western countries such as England).
This comparison is not necessarily wrong and the Gemara clearly states, “A person should rush to greet Jewish kings. And not only Jewish kings, but even non-Jewish kings, for if he merits to see them he will understand the difference between Jewish kings and non-Jewish kings” (Brachot 9B). This statement has clear halachic implications (as explained in the Gemara itself), but the general point is that we are obligated to study the idea of monarchy and government (“political science”) through comparisons to the non-Jewish world.
With that knowledge, we would like to explore the question of how to choose a king and more precisely the connection between prophecy and appointing a Jewish king. This question has clear implications to our modern world. While it is possible that a prophet could arrive tomorrow, in our current situation where we don’t have prophecy, the question arises of if it is even possible to appoint a king and what are the limitations of such a king.
Who chooses a king
The idea of a king is first mentioned in the Torah “When you arrive in the land… and you say ‘I will place a king above myself as all the nations around me.’ You will surely place a king whom G-d has chosen, from among your brothers you shall choose a king. You shall surely not appoint a foreigner, who is not your brother, over you” (Deuteronomy 17). The Torah speaks about a king “chosen by G-d,” yet how are we supposed to know who G-d has chosen? The Rabbis explain “chosen by G-d through his prophet.” But what happens if we don’t have a prophet to tell us?
The answer is in the words of the Ramban. At first, the Ramban interprets the words “chosen by G-d” to mean selection by a prophet, yet immediately he raises difficulties with this. “If that is the case [the prophet is selected by G-d through a prophet]then why do we need the warning ‘do not place a foreigner over you’? G-d will simply not select a foreigner.” In other words, why are we commanded not to select a foreigner if the entire process is out of our hands and only comes from G-d through a prophet? The Ramban continues, “Our Rabbis understood that there is a deeper explanation. You shall surely appoint a king chosen by G-d, if you can do so, i.e. if G-d has told you through a prophet, but either way you can never place a foreigner over you.” In other words the Torah is describing two different ways of appointing a king. The first is a clear appointment by G-d through a prophet and the second is if there is no prophet, for us to choose. For the case where we are given the power of choosing, we are warned who we are forbidden from selecting.
According to the Ramban, a king chosen by the people (if there is no prophecy) has the same power as any other king. The Ramban himself counts “appointing a king” as a mitzvah, and we are obligated to perform this commandment even without a prophet.
The choice is in our hands
In simple terms, it is clear that there is a strong preference for G-d to choose the king as was done in the case of King Saul and King David, who were chosen by the prophet Samuel. In such a situation we are exempt from the difficulty of selecting a king and instead the optimal choice is revealed to us.
However there is also an advantage in the case where there is no prophet. One can imagine the representatives of the people gathering and struggling together to decide who should lead the nation and pave the way forward. In such a reality we are forced to align our own will with the will of G-d and ‘guess’ who G-d would have us select. In truth, this is a Jew’s struggle in his daily life- to align our own will with the will of G-d.
If the Ramban’s description is our current reality, then our disadvantage is really to our benefit. Specifcally because we do not have a prophet are we able to reach closer to G-d by aligning our will with His and thus come closer to the Divine.