Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Parashah as Political Theory

The Parashah as Political Theory

Guest post by R. Josh Berman

[R. Josh Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center. His recent book, Created Equal, is discussed in this post: link. He has graciously contributed this guest post about this week's Torah portion, Shofetim. His book can be purchased here: link. - GS]

It is commonly known that the Torah understood that absolute power corrupts absolutely; that’s why it limited the size of the king’s treasury, and forbade him from acquiring a state-of-the-art army with horses for chariots (17:16-17). But with its delineation of the offices of the judges (16:18-20; 17:8-13), the king (7:14-20) and the navi (18:15-22), parashat Shoftim wrote a page in the history of political ideas, ideas, in fact, that would not resurface until the writings of the American Founding Fathers.

Click here for moreWhat emerges from our parashah is a highly advanced notion of the separation of powers. It is well known that in the Torah, the king has no role in the mikdash, the kohanim have no political role outside the mikdash, and that the judges described at the beginning of the parashah are not appointed by the king, but by the people. But the real insight that the Torah gave the world about the separation of the powers of government is only fully appreciated when we see how this issue was handled in other cultures.

A bit of constitutional history: think of the British parliamentary system. There's a House of Lords and a House of Commons. The idea was to divide legislative power so that the two houses could balance each other. But why Lords and Commons? The reason is that throughout history the idea of how to divide power was always the same: identify the competing classes within society and assign each a little bit of the power. Each class would naturally look out for its own interests and counterbalance the other. That meant that the balance of power was not a balance of institutions of government in which any citizen could participate – a Senate and a House of Representatives – as we are accustomed to today. Rather, the balance was achieved by allowing competing socioeconomic classes a functioning role within each seat of government.

From Greek times until the early modern period this system worked well, but it came at a price: when you assign political power to Lords because by birth they are Lords, and to commoners because by birth they are commoners you are helping to ensure that society remains forever divided along class lines of those that are elite and those that are not.

Only with the American Founding Fathers do we eventually find a new notion of political office, where a political office is not automatically assigned to this class or that, and which any citizen is eligible to hold.

This idea of political office has only one precursor in the history of political thought and it is in this week’s parashah.

Who can serve as king, according to our parashah? Later, in Sefer Shmuel, kingship would be restricted to the Davidic line. But according to our parashah, anyone who is mi-kerev achecha “among your brethren” (17:15) – that is, any citizen - is eligible to be appointed king. The same is true with regard to the judiciary: anyone may be appointed judge, The appointment of judges is mandated with the sole purpose of achieving the execution of justice, rather than the assignment of office to perpetuate the standing of a noble class.

It is telling that in the entire Tanakh we find no word for “class” and no word for “noble.” The Exodus from Egypt disallowed any Israelite to lay claim to elevated status, because all members of Bnei Yisrael had once been slaves, and all were liberated at the same time. Likewise, Ma’amad Har Sinai was not just a religious event; it was a political event. Elsewhere in the ancient world, the gods communicated only with the kings. But at Har-Sinai, Hashem spoke to all of Bnei Yisrael as equals, indeed, to everyone as a kingdom of priests.

To learn more about the Torah as political theory you may read Rabbi Berman’s essay, “The Biblical Origins of Equality,” featured in the current issue of Azure. To gain free access to the essay, visit Rabbi Berman's website at:

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More