Each time we pronounce a blessing, we are making a political statement. Within the introduction to every blessing are the words which declare that our Eternal God is melekh ha-olam, Sovereign of the Universe. Every time we express our gratitude for the opportunities and experiences life offers us, we also affirm our loyalty to God as our sovereign and acknowledge our citizenship in the Divine One’s dominion. In Hebrew this is called kabbalat ol malchut shamayim, accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.
This basic Jewish concept appears as one of the central themes of our worship. Our tradition sees the recitation of the Shema as a way to witness our acceptance of God’s rule over our lives. When we bring our worship to a conclusion with the Aleinu prayer, we thank God for our unique destiny and bow before God’s sovereign power. We finish the prayer with the hope that all nations will join together acknowledging God as the Ruler of All. Earthly dominion will pass away and we all will recognize that we are God’s subjects.
The understanding that God is the only true sovereign forms the base for biblical and later Jewish political thought. We measure the legitimacy of any human regime by a high moral standard: the manner in which it promotes the welfare of all God’s children, particularly the most vulnerable in society; the poor, the homeless, and the stranger.
The Bible’s appreciation of earthly kings and kingship is at best ambiguous. On the one hand, our tradition honors David and his descendants despite their foibles. The Bible credits the establishment of the monarchy for terminating the chaos at the end of the period of the judges. On the other hand, foreign rulers, such as Pharaoh, often appear as tyrants opposed to God’s will. Many Israelite rulers do not fare much better. The historical books of the Bible — Samuel, Kings and Chronicles — present a highly critical picture of the monarchy in the two ancient Jewish kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The great political dramas of these books frequently center on the struggle between the representatives of royal authority and those loyal to the laws, customs and traditions of Israel.
This equivocal attitude toward political authority in general, and toward kingship in particular, appears in this week’s Torah portion which is, for the most part, concerned with the establishment of Israel’s judicial, political and religious offices to enforce God’s covenant — priests, prophets, judges and kings. In this week’s portion, Moses describes various regulations concerning the priesthood (Deuteronomy 18:1-8), presents criteria for determining legitimate prophets (18:14-22), and mandates the appointment of various judges and other magistrates to administer justice (16:18-20). In stark contrast, Moses presents the establishment of a monarchy as optional (17:14-20).
In the eyes of the Torah, kingship is different from the other three offices, whose authority grows out of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. Prophets serve as God’s mouthpiece and priests regulate and conduct the worship of God. Even judges and magistrates have no independent authority. They are to follow the divine directive: tzedek, tzedek tirdof — “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (16:20)
Unlike the offices of prophets, priests and magistrates, the office of kingship appears in the Torah as a foreign import. The Torah does not mandate a certain political system. This week we learn that if the Israelites desire a king to rule them just as the other nations have kings ruling them, they are free to select one (17:14). They need to make sure, however, that their king remains subject to God and God’s covenant and is a loyal member of the nation he serves (17:15).
They must remember that the institution of monarchy presents a risk. With the enhanced efficiency of centralized rule, there may also be a loss of freedom. They need to be aware of a monarch’s opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Kings can build large armies, sacrifice the well-being of citizens for their own grandeur, enhance their own prestige and amass great fortunes at the people’s expense (17:16-17). The Israelites need to find ways to control the potential excesses of a monarchy.
To limit the ruler’s power, the Torah presents what we might describe as a constitutional monarchy. The king is to be subject to the covenant and is required to study his own copy of the law so that he can remain obedient to it (17:18-19). Just as Israel’s possession of the Land of Israel depends on the Israelites’ loyalty to God’s covenant, an Israelite king’s possession of the throne depends on his devotion to God’s law (17:20).
Ultimately, the Torah recognizes only one true ruler: God. All human leaders — kings, prophets, judges and priests, even Moses, himself — are limited in insight, understanding and wisdom. Even the best rulers are tempted by the perquisites of their office and may fall to the temptations of authority. n the biblical context, it is the function of the other offices to remind the ruler that he is a servant of God’s people, and, above all, like the rest of us, a servant of God obligated to carry out God’s word in God’s earthly kingdom.