The Role of Government in Israel: Almost Nothing, or Absolutely Nothing?
“You shall surely place a king upon yourselves, one that Hashem your God has chosen…”
We are told in this week’s Parasha that we are required to place a king upon ourselves. From here it is assumed that the Torah supports the idea of monarchy. It’s not that simple.
There are two main tanaitic positions regarding this Pasuk. The more familiar one originates from the Tanah Rebbi Yehuda Bar Ilai. He holds that having a monarch is a positive mitzva. If so, what are the monarch’s responsibilities?
According to the Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 4:10, the only areas of jurisdiction he has are defense and courts. Nothing else.
Not education, not welfare, not culture, not price controls, not central banking. In libertarian terminology, we would call this the minarchist position, meaning absolute minimum government.
But there is another position, that of the Yerushalmi Rabanan. Says Midrash Rabba Shoftim:
“Say the Rabanan: Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: In this world you requested kings and kings from Israel rose up and killed you by the sword. Saul killed them at Mount Gilboa…Ahab stopped the rain…and Zedekiah destroyed the Temple.
“When Israel saw what happened to them during the reign of their kings, they all started screaming: We do not want a king from Israel! We want our original King! (Isaiah 33) For God is our Judge and our Legislator. God is our King and our Savior!
“Said the Holy one Blessed Be He to them: By your lives! This I will do!
“As it says (Zechariah 14) ‘And God will be King over all the Earth etc.’”
The Rishonim Abarbanel and Ibn Ezra agree with this second position. Says Ibn Ezra:
“A king is only an option. Only a prophet or the Urim and Tumim may choose one. The people may not elect one themselves.”
So much for democracy.
Abarbanel says explicitly that the minarchist position is incorrect and that the pre-Monarchic regime of the Shoftim was preferable. Essentially, appointing a king was therefore an option, but a mistaken one.
Let’s not forget that this pasuk about a king has been abused by evil people like Rav Shlomo Aviner who defended the expulsion of Jews from their homes on the grounds that the government is like a King and must be obeyed.
The most important thing though is that the machlokes in Halacha on government’s role is between absolute minimum government as per the Rambam (courts and defense only) and no government at all, as per the Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel.
Whichever side you fall on, there is no legitimacy to the government doing anything else whatsoever.