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Shabbat Shoftim

Kings and Judges - 16:18-21:9

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

In the ancient world, all governments had three elements. The King or Queen was the political head and the representative of God on earth. And the monarch ruled with what was called the Divine Right. Then there was the priesthood that worked alongside the king and was responsible for the religious life and the welfare of the populace. And finally, the judiciary, the legal system. Usually, the three buildings, the palace, the temple, and the judiciary were adjoining each other. In the ancient Kingdom of Judea, the King's palace was next door to the temple, and at the side of the temple was the Chamber of Hewn Stone which was the judiciary. This model lasted for thousands of years all over the world in different cultures.

Nowadays the king has usually been replaced by a democratically elected head of State or an authoritarian dictatorship. Priesthood, other than symbolically, has been relegated to a non-political role. But the judiciary still plays an essential function. Is this relevant today?

The part of the Torah that we're reading this week talks about the possibility of appointing a king. But words it in such a way as to leave it open as to whether it's in a concession or an obligation. Other forms of meritocracy, would emerge, judges, scholars, religious and civil leadership. But in all one form or another of the three fundamentals underpinned Jewish societies.

The Torah allows for different forms of government but does not advocate or impose any specific political system. The one thing the Torah tells us very clearly about the king is that however he or she comes to be in that position, they are subject to the constitution which in this case is the Torah. It must be consulted and at their side constantly.

“If, after you enter the land that your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and 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... and when he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of the Torah written for him by the priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws.”(Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

The Torah also specifies a judiciary with responsibility for matters of life and death, human interaction, commerce, and regulations that all countries need to have to function effectively. It acts as an extension of the written Law, the Constitution. It authorizes change to deal with unforeseen or changing circumstances.

“If a case is too uncertain for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault—matters of dispute in your court, you shall go to the place that your God chooses chosen, and appear before the priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced their verdict…you must obey their verdict” (Deuteronomy (17:8-9).

On the one hand, this is the basis for innovation and change in Jewish Law. Resolved through debate and a majority decision. On the other hand, the importance of peaceful resolution of problems. This is the overriding imperative in which all elements of governance in traditional Judaism are expected to find a resolution.

Law and political authority are the roots of the current conflicts in Israel and around the world. Different countries choose different systems. And no system yet discovered is perfect, so that accommodation becomes crucial. A king or a politician does not have the right to do whatever he or she sees fit. A counterbalancing system of law that is accessible and equal for every citizen must be in place whether we call it a constitution or body of law. And inevitably there are always conflicts over values, priorities, and loyalties. It is folly to think we humans will agree on everything. As a result, the Torah suggests by implication that we must agree on a legal system and find ways of compromising.

Of course, theory is one thing, practice is another. And it pains me terribly, that we humans of all shades seem unable to resolve our differences peacefully and amicably. Individuality has been a blessing and also a curse, but if we are unable to come together the future looks very bleak indeed.

Shabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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