There are so many troubling parts of the Torah, and we struggle to interpret them. The laws about owning slaves, for example, are hard to grapple with, even if they were probably pretty progressive for their time. In addition, many of the Torah’s preachings about women might give us pause (to say the least). And should we really stone the disobedient child? Do we genuinely believe that idolaters should not be allowed to live? I have no doubt that we could provide many more such examples.
These concepts and principles force us to interpret the Torah through a modern lens. And rabbis over the centuries have struggled to do that as well. And, God willing, centuries of future Jews will face the same intellectual and spiritual challenge.
But this week’s parsha has a very modern feel to it. Much of SHOFTIM is devoted to JUSTICE. Justice justice shall you pursue. The very repetition of the word makes clear how important a concept it is. And Shoftim gives us clear guidelines not only for how kings should be appointed over a people but also about limitations on the king’s behavior. These are VERY radical ideas.
It wasn’t that long ago that many scholars and politicians defended what has been called the DIVINE RIGHT OF KINGS. That idea meant that the King was the direct descendent of God, and that God had actually APPOINTED the king. What would that mean? Well, it would mean that to question a king is literally to question GOD. It would also mean that the king had absolute authority over his people—in other words, there were no limits to what a king could do. And, finally, the idea of the divine right of kings meant that the successor to the throne was based on one’s ancestry. Any idiot son could (and DID!) lay claim to the throne. And that was not at all unusual.
It was only in the 1600s and 1700s that real opposition to this idea became forceful. Think about THAT—only four or five hundred years ago radical thinkers challenged the idea that God appoints kings.
But the Torah has something to say about that LONG before the 1600s. In parshat Shoftim, there are definite limits on a king’s power. First, one’s king has to be a “kinsman,” not a foreigner. A king, we are told, should not keep too many horses or have too many wives. In other words, kings should not be distracted by wealth or romance. As the Torah tells us, “He shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.” Even our own rulers (think about Shlomo) didn’t always follow those principles.
And perhaps the most radical idea of all is that Shoftim tells us that the king should always keep a copy of the Torah by his side. “Let it remain with him and let him read it all his life.” What a powerful idea—this passage is instructing the king on how to rule. This passage is telling the king (and all of us) that rule cannot be arbitrary, that rule must be based on teaching, on scripture, on the Torah. So that we know that there is always something higher than the king. The Torah (and God) limit what the king can and cannot do; and that’s a very radical idea, not only for the time when it was written but even for today.