King Solomon, the Lord of the Demons, and the Limits of Virtue Ethics

King Solomon is known for his wisdom, for his glorious and pacific reign over a united Israel, and also for the moral corruption of his old age. In one of its longest, and perhaps one of its most baffling, tales about a biblical figure, the Talmud describes how Solomon once succeeded in capturing Ashm’dai (Asmodeus), ruler of the demons. At the story’s end, Ashm’dai impersonates Solomon, sitting on his throne while the real king wanders the land as a beggar. The late Israeli rabbi Naḥum Eliezer Rabinovitch, in an essay translated into English by Elli Fischer, subjects this narrative to a meticulous allegorical reading, which he uses to explain the contradictions of the biblical monarch:

The [talmudic] sages [believe] that precisely what seems to be the supreme expression of [Solomon’s] “wise and discerning mind” (2Chronicles 3:12) was not simply a gift from God, and it in fact pushed him into the abyss of destruction. The sages said: “Solomon sought to pronounce judgment based on intuition—without witnesses, [in contravention to the requirements of Deuteronomy].” Solomon wanted to circumvent the Torah’s demands with his wisdom. It was not with divine wisdom that he sought to do so; wisdom has its own dark drives.

In the Talmud’s reading, the famous account in 1Kings 3 of the judgment of Solomon, where he adjudicates between two harlots claiming the same child as their own, is a sign of this defect. The rabbis even suggest that one of the litigant mothers may have simply duped the wise king. To Rabinovich, there is an important lesson here about the very essence of Jewish morality:

The wisest of all men wished to go beyond the boundaries of human intelligence and liberate himself from the shackles of the mitzvot [commandments], which are merely the tools with which the body confines the soul. . . . Since the purpose of the mitzvot is to refine people, one who has access to the wellsprings of wisdom and knows how to refine his soul with the fire of love for God, whose flames cannot be quenched with much water, does not need to perform the mitzvot.

[O]nce he became aware of the reasons and purposes of most mitzvot, Solomon thought he could aim straight for the ultimate purpose and no longer needed safeguards and prohibitions. [Thus] Solomon wanted . . . to arrive at the truth without troubling himself to penetrate the different layers of human experience, which cloak the truth like a husk conceals its kernels.

But Solomon’s experiment in living a virtuous life without law—described in both the book of Ecclesiastes and in his encounter with Ashm’dai—failed, and he found himself corrupted.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Jewish ethics, Jewish Thought, Judaism, King Solomon, Talmud

To Save Gaza, the U.S. Needs a Strategy to Restrain Iran

Since the outbreak of war on October 7, America has given Israel much support, and also much advice. Seth Cropsey argues that some of that advice hasn’t been especially good:

American demands for “restraint” and a “lighter footprint” provide significant elements of Hamas’s command structure, including Yahya Sinwar, the architect of 10/7, a far greater chance of surviving and preserving the organization’s capabilities. Its threat will persist to some extent in any case, since it has significant assets in Lebanon and is poised to enter into a full-fledged partnership with Hizballah that would give it access to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps for recruitment and to Iranian-supported ratlines into Jordan and Syria.

Turning to the aftermath of the war, Cropsey observes that it will take a different kind of involvement for the U.S. to get the outcomes it desires, namely an alternative to Israeli and to Hamas rule in Gaza that comes with buy-in from its Arab allies:

The only way that Gaza can be governed in a sustainable and stable manner is through the participation of Arab states, and in particular the Gulf Arabs, and the only power that can deliver their participation is the United States. A grand bargain is impossible unless the U.S. exerts enough leverage to induce one.

Militarily speaking, the U.S. has shown no desire seriously to curb Iranian power. It has persistently signaled a desire to avoid escalation. . . . The Gulf Arabs understand this. They have no desire to engage in serious strategic dialogue with Washington and Jerusalem over Iran strategy, since Washington does not have an Iran strategy.

Gaza’s fate is a small part of a much broader strategic struggle. Unless this is recognized, any diplomatic master plan will degenerate into a diplomatic parlor game.

Read more at National Review

More about: Gaza War 2023, Iran, U.S. Foreign policy