Saturday, November 13, 2010

Libertarianism and Torah

What is Torah’s position on anarchy, lack of a single compulsory political power in a given society? From Defending the Human Spirit: Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society by Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa:
Jewish law’s attachment to freedom is also manifest in its struggles with the concept of any political power. A king, by definition, limits his subjects’ freedom. The following Midrashic passage discusses the appointment of a king mentioned in the Book of Deutoronomy:
The Holy one Blessed is He said to Israel: “My children, I had intended that you be free from kingship … like a wild donkey in the desert that has no fear of man on it, so had I imagined that you should not have the fear of kingship on you…. But you did not want that.”
The passage reveals that the ideal is the untrammeled freedom of the wild donkey in the desert that answers to no man. It does not distinguish between a good king and a tyrannical one, which implies that a king, by definition, imposes limits on the freedom of his subjects. 
Jewish law has always been wary of political power and has therefore sought ways of controlling rather than enabling it. Thus, even though the Bible makes provision for the appointment of a king, no king was appointed for hundreds of years after the conquest of the Land of Israel. When eventually the people requested of the prophet Samuel to appoint a king, they were met with opposition both from Samuel and from G–d Himself:
All the elders of Israel then gathered together and came to Samuel, to Ramah. They said to gim: “Behold, you are old and your sons did not follow your ways. So now appoint for us a king to judge us, like all the nations.” It was wrong in Samuel’s eyes that they said: “Give us a king to judge us”, and Samuel prayed to G–d. G–d said to Samuel: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you whom they have rejected, but it Me Whom they have rejected from reigning over them. Like all their deed that they have done from the day I brought them up from Egypt until this day — they forsook Me and worshipped the gods of others.”
Many Biblical commentators and Jewish law experts have debated, from Talmudic times, the seeming inconsistency between the command in Deuteronomy: “You shall surely set over yourself a king” and the grudging acquiescence given by G–d to the people’s request in the Book of Samuel. And yet, whatever explanation is given, the apparent contradiction reflects the fact that the political authority of a king presents problems for and creates tension within Jewish law. This tension means that Jewish law is naturally drawn to a constitutionalist model of emphasizing the limitations of state power, rather than exercise of it. Because it is uncomfortable with the authority of a king, the Jewish law seeks ways to limit his power.
Even the command to appoint the king given in Deuteronomy is far from uncontroversial. It is phrased in what is for the Bible is a relatively unconventional style in that it makes the appointment of a king dependent on the people’s declaration: “When you come to the land… and you will say, ‘I will set a king over myself.’” Biblical commandment are usually just that — commandments — and do not depend on the support of the people for their validity. Furthermore, the Bible, in uncharacteristic fashion, seems to be motivating the appointment of a king by referring to the practices of “all the nations”. The strange phraseology leads Rabbi Nehorai, one of the scholars (Amora’im) mentioned in the Talmud to conclude that the appointment of a king is not mandatory but rather dependent on the wishes of the people. It is a concession to the people’s weekend of needing a political figure “like all the nations”.
Update: for Chassidic approach to the mitzva of choosing a king, see Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecho, “Mitzvas Minui Melech” (it’s one of the chapters translated in the Sichot in English edition). It explains why — from the spiritual perspective — Shmuel haNovi did not want Jews to have a king, and what the advantage of Melech HaMoshiach will be over the previous kings.


Chaim said...

I agree that the Torah seems to support anarchy, but I think the Torah is in favor of socialism as well. Everyone is obligated to give charity, and any purchased land must return to the original owner at the Jubilee year.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

All emes is found in Torah. So, those elements of socialism that are good are found in Torah. Unfortunately, everything else in socialism (and government bichlal) is bad.