If, after you have entered the land which Adonai your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me," you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Adonai your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since Adonai has warned you, "You must not go back that way again." And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)
I decided yesterday morning to modify the lesson I had been planning to teach to our fifth through seventh graders, our b'nei mitzvah prep students. We still did some of what was originally on the syllabus for the day, but in honor of this week's Presidential election, we also took some time to read and discuss the short Torah passage above.
I was curious to hear how my students would respond to this short Torah teaching. Would they interpret this passage from Torah as favoring the idea of appointing a king, or not? (I tend to read it as begrudging acceptance -- it might be preferable not to have a king, because it's too easy to get attached to human sovereignty and power, but once the children of Israel have a nation-state of their own they'll inevitably want a government like everybody else's, so here are the Torah's stipulations about how the ruler should be chosen.)
How would my students understand Torah's qualifications for a king? Which of those qualifications still resonate for us today? What might be a modern equivalent of keeping too many warhorses, or of sending people back into slavery in order to add to the might of the army? What is the Teaching, or Instruction, which our modern leaders study and interpret and live by?
And is any of this relevant to us in an era and a place where we vote for a President instead of living in the old system where the power was shared between a King, the priests, and the prophets? My answer to that last question is, of course, yes -- there are always ways to find relevancy and meaning in Torah, even as times change. But I was interested to know how, and whether, my students would relate this passage to the process of choosing the American President.
The kids settled first on the matter that a king of Israel needed to be an Israelite, not a foreigner. We talked a bit about the extent to which different peoples worshipped different gods in those days, and they drew the connection between this idea in Torah and the American system in which only native-born citizens can run for President. We talked a bit about the matter of warfare and wealth, then and now. And then we talked about the question of whether or not, in our modern paradigm where we elect our government, kids ought to be able to vote. (My class's opinions were divided on that one.)
I'm curious to hear your responses, too. Does this bit of Torah have any bearing on how you think about our government today?
Elections, Kings, Wars, & Justice by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center, 2008. "The perek hamelekh (passage on the king; Deut 17: 14-20), puts constitutional limits on royal power: limits that speak profoundly and precisely to the present crisis of power in America."
YU Torah on Elections, a collection of texts about the Torah's concept of democracy, the responsibility of voters, the responsibility of elected officials, etc. Read it online, and/or download a PDF or TXT file to keep.
- A Prayer for Voting by Rabbi Sami Barth, which I've shared (with permission) on my G+. "On this day we are called to discern and choose, to embrace a vision and cast our vote..."