Politics & Parsha: Shoftim 5771

Posted on September 1, 2011 In Archives

Politics & Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”

Each week IPA Director of State Affairs Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.

Required Reading

When I worked in state government I once walked in on my boss reading the New York State Constitution.  When I asked him why, he said he’d suggested something to the governor, who responded: what does the state constitution have to say about that?  Unable to answer, someone suggested he read the constitution and find out.

In today’s Torah portion, as the Bible reviews the rules of kingship, they warn the king to not live too pretty or to sit too high.  They also require him to have written two Torah scrolls, and one must be portable enough so that it can be with him at all times.  It is akin to a spiritual football, the briefcase handcuffed to the White House military aide that contains the nation’s nuclear launch codes and is never far from the President.

On the question of Divine right of Kings, Jewish law is (relatively) clear: it exists and it is good.  Up to a point.  G-d and the Torah demand obedience to the monarch, but the monarch must, on their end, meet the standard.  If not, as King Saul would be the first to learn, their reign is not eternal, their line can be forfeit.

A ruler – whether elected or appointed, must always know that they answer to a higher authority.  In Judaism, that authority is the Lord (and sometimes, His agent, the prophet).  In government, whether autocratic, communist or democratic, that authority is: law.  (Non –democratic regimes twist the law to serve their purpose, but they always utilize it as the authority.)   They must never overstep those bounds – or they risk the end to their rule.  Sometimes, that means impeachment or prison time and, in the extreme, a death sentence.

Knowing the boundaries of the law is a necessary prerequisite to public service.   Sometimes government must act extra-legally.  As Henry Kissinger once noted, the illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer.  Or, as Abraham Lincoln once defended the nation’s breaching of constitutional safeguards during the Civil War, he would not save the constitution at the expense of the union.

In our personal and communal lives as well, our relationships – especially ones of authority or power – depend on knowing what we can do, what we may do and what we should do.  Perhaps we shouldn’t all walk around with pocket Torahs or pocket constitutions – and perhaps we should – but we can work to ensure we never overstep our legitimate roles and rules.

Words to consider, ideas to ponder — politics & the parsha.

(Author’s note: I hope you like reading these weekly posts as much as I enjoy writing them.   It is now a year – to the parsha – I began at the impetus and urging of my colleague, Maury Litwack, the OU National Deputy Director of Public Policy.  Any faults in the product of course remain mine alone but I am grateful to him for his encouragement.)