Reviewing a recent biography of Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508)—the Portuguese-born rabbi and courtier who led Spain’s Jewish community during the time of its expulsion—Cole Aronson notes just how hard a figure he is to pigeonhole. While a heroic Jewish leader and dedicated scholar who wrote rabbinic works and biblical commentaries that are still studied today, he worked at various points in his life as a treasurer to the king of Portugal, a tax farmer and provisioner to Queen Isabella of Castile, a Neapolitan merchant trading in salt, grain, and oil, and a Venetian diplomat. Aronson adds that he was “arguably the first modern Jewish political thinker.”
[Abravanel’s] interpretation of the founding of the Israelite monarchy in 1Samuel (complemented by remarks on Exodus and Deuteronomy) begins his bold argument against monarchies and in favor of republics. In 1Samuel 8, the Israelites demand a king, and God acquiesces only reluctantly. The sons of Samuel were unprofessional and rapacious, and the extant system of judges did not work well. Moreover, the establishment of a monarchy is commanded in Deuteronomy. So, Abravanel asks, whence the Lord’s displeasure? His answer is that the Israelite elders were not requesting a king under divine law but a tyrant emancipated from legal restraint. Furthermore, Abravanel does not read the passage in Deuteronomy as requiring a monarchy. Rather, allowing for man’s weakness for autocracy, monarchy is merely permitted.
He also suggests term limits. . . . [T]he majoritarian principle was present already in the Talmud (it governed individual courts), but its extension to a national regime was certainly new. Abravanel suggests further that an individual monarch is more vulnerable to passion and sin than a group of rulers (the possibility of a tyrannical majority does not seem to worry him). Abravanel complements his antimonarchism in Exodus with a discussion of what is now known as “subsidiarity”—the principle, central to Catholic political thought, that decisions should be made as close as possible to those whom the decisions affect. This comes in an exploration of Jethro’s suggestion that Moses create a system of judges and courts rather than trying to judge all of Israel himself.
Of course, Aronson observes, these conclusions were no doubt influenced by Abravanel’s own experience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whom he served loyally for years but who paid no heed to his pleas (or his offers of money) not to drive the Jews from their kingdom.
Read more at Jewish Review of Books
More about: Biblical Politics, Book of Samuel, Isaac Abarbanel, Judaism, Sephardim, Spanish Expulsion