How the Hebrew Bible Sought to Humble the King

In this week’s Torah reading of Shoftim, Deuteronomy raises the possibility that, after taking over the land of Canaan, the Israelites might collectively say, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” and lays out some regulations to which the monarch must adhere. David Wolpe comments on their significance:

At a time of unlimited power for kings, the Torah was far wiser in its skepticism about human power. As our parashah tells us, Israel is (with some reluctance on God’s part) permitted to have a king, but with limitations. Kings may not accumulate too many horses (lest they be tempted to go back to Egypt to enlarge their stock), may not set up a royal harem by marrying too many wives, and may not acquire too much silver and gold.

In other words, the Torah seeks to humble the king, because his position will elevate him. Therefore, [the Talmud adds], the king, while reciting the central Amidah prayer, must remain bowed throughout, [unlike ordinary people, who must only bow at specific points]. And he must both write a Torah scroll and carry it with him and read it throughout his life.

Underlying this deliberate reining-in of those who reign is a philosophical assumption that is basic to the Jewish tradition. Kings in the ancient world acted like Pharaoh in the Torah—capricious, often cruel, and unlimited in the scope given to their appetites and preferences.

[W]hen the Jews are liberated from Egypt it is because they are not to be slaves to a human king, but to the King of Kings—God. For the title of “king” does not apply properly to a single human, but to all humans. Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of quoting the ḥasidic bromide that the greatest sin a human being could commit is to forget that he is a king. Everyone, men, women, children, are all royalty, for we are all made in the image of God.

Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Biblical Politics, Deuteronomy, Hebrew Bible, Jewish political tradition

Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship