Parasha Shoftim: The ‘Common Sense’ of the Torah

“Freedom speaks with a Jewish accent,” writes Rabbi Sydney Greenberg. By this he means that the Bible describes a G-d who wants man to be free. G-d hears the cries of the oppressed. G-d demands justice and compassion. “When he proclaims his commandments, G-d introduces Himself by describing himself as “The G-d who brought you out of the House of Bondage”. As we say today, this is G-d branding Himself. The Jewish G-d is first and foremost the G-d of freedom.

In our parasha for this week, Moses prepares the people to set up a system of just government when they enter the Land and possess it. The people, G-d tells him, may want a King to rule over them.  As we know, at the time all of the other nations of the world are governed by kings. It follows that the Jewish people may want one as well. However, the Kings of the Heathen nations had absolute power. Often they were thought of as gods themselves. They could be fabulously wealthy, and, it was common for them to outright own all of the land of their kingdom. Many of the Kings of the Ancient Near East were, in fact, despots, who had little regard, if any, for the well-being of their subjects.

A King of the Jews must be different, says the Torah. A King of the Jews was not to amass too much gold and silver. They could not acquire many wives. Most importantly a King of the Jews was not to be above the law. The King had to write at least one Torah by his own hand, and keep it by him at all times. He was to refer to it frequently to remind himself that there was a King of Kings to whom he would answer. All of these conditions were designed to prevent the King from becoming arrogant and for placing himself far above the people he ruled over, or even to mistake himself for G-d.  It was of utmost importance that the Jewish King did not lose touch with the struggles of the common people.

For many years after the Israelites settled in the Land, they, in fact did not have a King. Each tribe had its own form of government, led by the local chieftain. In times of emergency, when the tribes needed to defend themselves against a common enemy, a leader would arise to temporarily unite the tribes and lead them in battle. When the crisis had passed, the leader would return to his former station in life. He, or she, in some cases, would not become the monarch. This temporary leader was called a “Judge” and the history of this period constitutes what is called the Book of Judges in the Bible.

Monarchies, however, were the predominant form of government of all nations up until the American Revolution. Kingships were usually hereditary. This meant that certain families wielded enormous power and amassed gigantic fortunes, mostly at the expense of their subjects over the centuries they ruled. This was particularly hard on the Jews, who, as non-Christians living in Europe, were often subject to arbitrary confiscation of their property and expulsion from the kingdom whenever royalty needed money to fight wars or to otherwise enhance the kingdom’s treasury. The abuses of the King of England, King George lll, was one of the main causes of the American Revolution.  The Declaration of Independence states that “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The Declaration of Independence goes on to list the multiple grievances that the colonies had against the crown.

In his influential 1776 pamphlet called “Common Sense” Thomas Paine advocates independence from Great Britain. In this pamphlet, Thomas Paine lays out an argument for the abolition of monarchies in general.  For this, he does not rely on the writings of 18th century Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or Thomas Hobbes, whose books and essays on freedom were so influential with the intellectuals of the time. The writings of these men would have been unfamiliar to the audience Thomas Paine was trying to influence – the American farmer, the small businessman, the seamstress, the cobbler, the carpenter, the silversmith. Thomas Paine was trying to reach a mass audience unfamiliar with legal precedents, classical learning and complex arguments. He wanted to draw on a literature that people were familiar with and could relate to in attacking the monarchy. So, he drew upon the Bible.

Now, Biblical literacy in America today isn’t what it was in the 18thcentury. Dr. Reverend Albert Mohler, who is President or the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes about the alarming Biblical illiteracy today among American Christians. Citing a recent poll on Biblical knowledge of Americans, we find that sixty percent of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments, and at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.

But in 1776 people did know their Bible, and that is why Thomas Paine drew from the Hebrew Book of Samuel to make the argument that G-d Himself does not favor monarchies as a form of government. (Unlike today, what G-d wanted was very important to most Americans in 1776). Thomas Paine recounts how in the Book of Samuel the Israelites approach Samuel the prophet and demand that he appoint a King over them. Samuel, distraught that the people want to set a king over them, turns to G-d for advice. G-d says, give the people what they want, but first, warn them about what is in store for them when a nation has a king. Samuel then warns them of the dangers of appointing a King. He will want to conquer foreign lands and he will send your sons off to die. When they are not at war he will force them to plow his fields and reap his harvests. He will take your daughters and impress them into service as his servants. He will take your best fields and give them to members of his court. He’ll take the best of your herds and flocks for his own use. You will live to regret the day that you asked for a king to rule over you, says Samuel. But the people are unconvinced. They demand a King.

But the colonies already had a king, and Americans had ample experience with the injustices that a tyrant could inflict. The pamphlet, Common Sense, sold 150,000 copies and was read by many more. At the time of the American Revolution there were only about 1500 Jews living in the American colonies. About 100 Jewish men fought in the Revolutionary war. But Jewish thinking, mediated by Thomas Paine, had an outsized influence on convincing the common man and woman that America needed a new form of government.

It would take human civilization 2700 years from the time Samuel warned against anointing a king for humankind  to begin to free ourselves from this tyrannical form of government. Although the Torah counsels that the power of a king must be limited, experience with that form of government has shown that the very nature of monarchy makes that impossible. “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality,” said the 19th century Englishman John Dalberg Acton. It is a lesson that the Hebrew Bible taught a long time ago.


Shabbat Shalom