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Authority in our Jewish Society

How does the saying go? “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is for this very reason, as any student of American history knows, our Founding Fathers instituted a three-part system of governance. This governmental division protected the people from the tyranny of one or even a few despots. Spreading the power of government over three distinct branches, legislative, executive and judicial was an enlightened idea.

What is Judaism’s perspective on governance? Based on the first two words in this week’s Torah portion, שופטים ושטרים, judges and police, we know there are judicial and executive divisions. In chapter 17, verse 14 we are introduced to the position of king. While there is a Talmudic debate whether appointing a king is an obligatory mitzvah or optional, everyone agrees the Torah places limitations on the power of the king.

First, he must be selected because the people of Israel desire a king, a very democratic safeguard. The need may arise due to some external crisis or to strengthen the spiritual cohesion facing the nation. Before the first king was appointed, anarchy prevailed: “In those days (Judges 17) there being no king, each person acted as he pleased” (without restraints). The king’s appointment must therefore have the endorsement of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel, who represent the will of the people, or selection by one of our prophets. Saul was appointed to repulse the Philistine attacks; David’s goal was to unify the tribes into a single nation by completing the conquest of the Holy Land. Solomon’s mission was to build the Temple while other kings were delegated to rid the country of idol worship.

Other limitations fall upon the appointee. He must be born from a Jewish mother; he cannot amass personal silver, gold or horses, more than necessary to maintain his army and royal staff; and as king, he cannot have more than eighteen wives.

However, the king of Israel was not just a political figure to provide for the defense and welfare of the nation. He was to be, first and foremost, a “philosopher king,” very similar to the king described by Plato in his “Republic.” The king of Israel was required to write for himself a scroll of the Torah. This Torah, separate from the one required by every Jewish male to write, was to accompany him wherever he went. Why? The king of Israel was not to “make a move” before reading and studying the Torah. The פרשה specifically states, “It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear Hashem, his God, to observe all the words of the Torah and these decrees, to perform them, so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left…”

It is clear. God is concerned about the attending dangers that lurk behind the institution of kingship. They are concerns not only for the nation but for the psychological welfare of the king himself. Since great power will be vested in the hands of one man, the legal system imposes on the king a unique law of prayer. In contradistinction to when we bow during our silent prayer, at the beginning and end of the “שמונה עשרה,” when the king prays, he must remain bent over, head down, from the time he begins until he finishes.

However, there is one authority the Torah not only permits but encourages in the Jewish society. That authority is of the teacher-student relationship. Here the leader is not a warrior, king or priest. It is the Torah scholar whose reach extends over his students. It is the power exhibited, for example, by Moshe, who is known as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, not Moses our king, notwithstanding the fact that he had all the halachic, legal authority of king. Moshe shunned the limelight of political leadership. We all know that it took God seven days and nights to finally convince Moshe to accept the mission to redeem his own brethren from slavery. Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, too was primarily a teacher as it states in Malachi 2:7, “…for the priest’s lips preserve knowledge and the law is sought from his mouth.”

The authority of the King Messiah will primarily stem from his roll and skill as a teacher not from his political acumen. Maimonides writes, “And if a king arise from the Davidic dynasty, studying the Torah and occupying himself with mitzvot like David his ancestor, in accordance to both the Written and Oral Law, and bend all Israel to follow…him we may presume to be the Messiah.” Later Maimonides states that the Messiah will get the entire world to recognize God. How? Teaching them the true ideas about the one, non-physical God of the universe.

Regarding the institution of teacher, however, there are no restrictions. The authority of the teacher is not imposed or coerced. A teacher is freely accepted or not. His authority stems from his learning and selfless character. Affection and respect motivate submission not fear. The students are not stifled, crimped, or forced into conformity. Rather they experience enlargement and grow academically and emotionally. In the process of learning both the teacher and student become transformed.

The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, put it this way. “In the political realm, God is reluctant to share His kingship with man; in the scholarly realm He is willing. He would not share absolute power with a king, but only with Torah teachers.” Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua stated in our Pirkey Avot, Ethics of Our Sages, “May the reverence for your teachers be like the reverence of Heaven.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan