Shoftim: Rulership isn’t an extreme sport

You know me. I’m a political person. (Gasp) No surprise, but I haven’t always put politics into the blog here.  Today, in honor of parashat Shoftim, I make a change.  Politics. Kings/Rulers/Presidents and Ruler-wannabees…..and the idea of Kings in Israel.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we read about the kind of king the Israelites are supposed to put on the throne, if they have to have one at all.  Frankly, the Bible isn’t keen on kings – but since the other nations of the world have one, well, the Israelites could have one, too, but on the Bible’s terms.  And here are the terms:  The King is to be chosen by God.  The King is supposed to be one of your own people, not a foreigner.  The King should not be terribly wealthy (“he shall not keep many horses…not have many wives, lest his heart go astray, nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess”)

The reality of today’s political world, with some help from a certain recent Supreme Court decision, and the ongoing Congressional allergy to electoral reform, dictates that wealthy people are pretty much the only ones who can run for office.  But as in all things Jewish, there are limits; there are barriers to excess.

A recent USA Today article states that Mitt Romney is “roughly 1800 times wealthier than the average American” and that if you add up the peak lifetime assets of the last eight presidents combined, Romney has assets that are double that total.  He would be, if elected, the wealthiest president of all time, including adjustments for income of even George Washington, who was pretty darn well off for his time.

Wealth is not a bad thing.  You know Tevye’s line; “I realize of course it’s no shame to be poor…but it’s no great honor, either!”   Yet Shoftim address excessive wealth in a ruler as something to be wary of.  Why ?  Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson wrote a few years ago that “God’s concern is that the king will become the captive of his wealth; that all those possessions will alter his perspective and determine his agenda.”  When is enough money enough?  And can one separate the drive for personal wealth from the decision-making on behalf of an entire nation?  The Torah thinks not.

There’s another aspect of Shoftim that brings to mind the current crop of both Presidential and Congressional prospects, and (inevitable) upcoming elections in Israel:  theocracy.  Shoftim states that the King is to be chosen by God.  And, “when he [the King] is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching [Torah] and write for him on a scroll…Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere Adonai God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws.”  The King is to rule according to a Book of Faith.  And oh yes, he’s to be chosen by God.

That’s what we call theocracy, and it doesn’t work. Quick: name a modern theocracy that hasn’t suffered from hatred, civil unrest and crackdowns.  (Don’t forget the almost-theocracy of Israel and the ongoing attacks on little schoolgirls, women, vandalized mosques and Arab-owned shops, not to mention the near-total lock that one minority end of the religious spectrum has over the political process.)  Now, I don’t vote in Israel; not many of you reading this do, I’d guess.  But we do hold opinions on the goings-on in Israel, and some of us may vote here based on our opinions there.

Now, I have nothing against good people of faith ruling; in fact, I prefer to have rulers who are guided by an ethical and moral standard, wherever that comes from.  But to blend faith and government into one is not a good idea.  People start claiming their faith has a political party.  People start calling dibs on God.  People start asserting that they have the truth, the one true understanding of their own particular religion, or worse yet, that it’s better than, or more authentic than anyone else’s.  None of this makes good government, at least not in the post-modern, pluralistic and diverse world, which happens to be the one in which we live and vote.

The Torah is warning us against excess, and we would be wise to heed the warning.   Today, rule-by-religion is all too often, an extremist position, and like extreme wealth and extreme “heart-straying”, these are not the qualities of a good ruler.  Just over two months till the election, folks.  Keep it in mind.

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