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

October 9, 2020 | Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch
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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.

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