One of the most stirring and memorable messages of Sefer Devarim is found in this week’s Torah reading, Parsha Shofetim. The Parsha continues the record of the last lessons that Moses imparted to the Children of Israel. Here, Moses spoke to some very advanced ideas concerning the nature of relationship between a man and the state, including a mode of governance and a justice system. Paramount, is a just justice system. History has oft demonstrated the need for a strong, vibrant and independent judiciary dedicated to propagating the rule of law, to best marshal society’s success and not just the success of some.
The Children of Israel were told to appoint judges and officers in “all of their cities”. The Judges were cautioned on their oath: they were sworn to deliver righteous judgements, free of outside influence, bias, and the corruption of wealth. No bribes were to be taken or solicited. Moses concluded his short teaching with the now familiar phrase: “righteousness and justice you shall pursue”.
While this ideal may resonate with modern civil societies, though far from being universally practised, to the Children of Israel they were radical ideas, all the more so to a nomadic tribe a mere generation removed from slavery. Dispute resolution would have been informal and free of any elements of due process. Tribal leaders would have decided disagreements between tribe members. If the argument was between people of different tribes, we are left to guess on their resolution, though it is likely members of the Priestly Caste had some involvement.
What Moses was proposing and demanding was very different than that informal procedure; he was laying the groundwork for a dedicated, hopefully learned, judiciary. Each city was to have a court, the original municipal court. Later, the Rabbis filled out the structure, implementing a system of appellate courts, and culminating in the Sanhedrin, the penultimate Jewish court.
The very idea of an independent judiciary demonstrates the great changes Moses sought to make in the existing and very unfair social order. More exceptional though were the teaching about monarchs and especially the limitations on their powers. Moses spoke strongly about this subject, though somewhat hesitantly, suggesting that ideal would not be rule by a king as much as by a leader familiar with and loyal to the precepts brought forward in the Torah.
But, as has happened often throughout man’s history, eventually the Israelites too, like so many other nations, demonstrated insecurity and craved the false promise of absolute authority implicit in sovereign rule. Approximately four hundred years after Moses addressed his people on the plains on the eastern approaches of the Promised Lands, the Israelites sought their first monarch. The Book of Samuel records that the elders of Israel approached Samuel, a prophet, and the last of the Judges who had ruled since the death of Joshua: “appoint for us a king to judge us, like all the nations”. Samuel was opposed; if the message of Sinai made one thing clear, Israel was not intended to be like the other nations. However, he eventually succumbed and appointed first Saul then David as the first kings of Israel.
There were some unique restrictions on the king: he must not have too many horses or wives, nor may he hoard wealth. These restrictions were meant to limit a monarch’s personal power and privilege. The prohibition against “too many” wives would limit a monarch’s foreign policy where allegiances and alliances were oft-times solemnized by a marriage. The limit on horses was more intriguing, Horses gave their owner power and mobility – a huge advantage during times of war and an irreplaceable asset in peace, but an instrument of civil oppression nevertheless. The limitation on horses would have also restricted the size and quality of a King’s personal guard. The Jewish king would not have a private guard to maintain their personal authority over the people.
The Rambam derived from these verses that the value system of Israel, as identified through their King, was sharply distinguishable from those of the surrounding peoples – where self-aggrandizement was typical of monarchs and overlords. However, while it would be comforting to think that these ideal were indeed followed by the kings of Israel, more often then not, they were not heeded. King Solomon is the most notorious example, reportedly to have taken as bride over one thousand women, many from the families of foreign rulers. As well he possessed a cavalry in excess of 1500 horses.
Solomon also undertook to build the first Temple in the newly liberated city of Jerusalem. He built a magnificent structure, though only through usurping the wealth and sweat of his subjects who were heavily taxed and pressed into labor to complete what was essentially a vanity project. His burdensome taxes were a cause of the split between the tribes of north and the south, which became separate and inherently weaker petty kingdoms. Herod, one of he last kings of Judea too built magnificent edifices, including the Temple in Jerusalem, one of the most splendid buildings of the time, also financed and erected through the sweat of his subjects and his taxes lead to the Revolt against Rome, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
Like so many other lessons of the Torah, theory was unfortunately overwhelmed by practice.