5771 - #42



            The disagreement is usually framed as being between Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 173 and Ramban, Devarim 17:14. The former maintains that Devarim 17;14,15 represent a clear obligation; the Jewish People are to appoint a king. The latter, however, maintains that these verses do not define an obligation but, rather, are enunciating an allowance, that if they wish, the Jewish People can anoint a king. In fact, this argument is found much earlier, in Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:3. The problem is Shmuel I 8:4-9 which presents the desire of the Jewish People for a king and God’s displeasure with this request. If the nation is commanded to anoint a king, why should God be displeased? Devarim 17:15 though, does seem to read as a clear command upon the nation to appoint a king. This disagreement reflects the two opposing methods applied to reconcile this apparent contradiction.

            Those who maintain the view associated with Ramban argue that reading Devarim 17:15 as an obligation is not necessary. The Chumash text is actually speaking prophetically of the case in Shmuel and voicing, simply, an allowance for a king. The language of Devarim 17:14 lends support to this understanding. Those who maintain the view associated with Rambam retort that the obligatory nature of Devarim 17:15 cannot so easily be dismissed. They maintain that there must be something uniquely problematic with the case in Shmuel. In some way, while the nation indeed is obligated to appoint a king, there was something specifically wrong with this request.

            Rabbi Shimshon Rapahel Hirsch, Devarim 17:14 argues that the problem in Shmuel lay in its timing and the specific reason for the request. Shmuel I 8:20 states that the nation wanted a king to lead them in battle, to fight their wars. This was not the Torah’s perception of the role of a king; in fact, a king was only to be appointed after the nation was already settled on the land.1 This request, as such, was problematic and premature. Ntziv, HaEmek Davar, Devarim 17:14, building on the same verse in Shmuel, argues that the problem was that they wanted a king to judge them as other kings judged their nations.2 We, however, are to follow Torah law. Yet could the problem not be just that they simply wanted to be like the other nations? Are the Jewish People not to be unique and unlike the other nations? The difficulty with defining the problem with the people in Shmuel as solely a general desire to be like all the other nations is that the Chumash text also mentions, in describing the circumstances that will lead to the appointment of a king, that the nation will wish to be like all the other nations. If this text is outlining a positive obligation, however, than it must also be understood as perceiving this desire to be like all the other nations not to be a problem. It is, as such, that Rabbi Hirsch and the Ntziv show that the problem in Shmuel was the wish to be like other nations in specific ways.

            For Ramban, though, it is the very fact that the Chumash text speaks of the nation desiring to be like all the other nations that leads him to not see these verses as obligatory. It must be that the Chumash is referring prophetically to the case in Shmuel for the very thrust of Torah is not to follow the ways of others. How then could the Torah speak positively about a desire to be like all the other nations? The challenge that then falls upon Rambam is to explain the positive aspect of this desire to be like the others. It is not enough to explain the problems in Shmuel as emerging from their incorrect desires to be like other nations. It now becomes incumbent upon us to explain when the desire to have a king like all the other nations actually reflects a good intent.

            Ntziv responds that the good desire is in regard to government (hanhagat hamedina). We are to use the nation-building of other nations as a model for ourselves. In this regard, we are to ask for a king just as the other nations have a king and it is in such circumstances that there is an obligation upon us to appoint a king. When we, in seeing the ways of other nations, wish governance as they do, we are commanded by the Torah to appoint a king. Yet the Ramban’s challenge is most powerful; since when does the Torah direct us in following the ways of others?   

            Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff in a recent lecture in Toronto presented the idea that there are two covenants that God has entered into with the Jewish People.3 One is the covenant of Avraham Avinu which is between God and individual Jews, i.e. individuals who choose to be Jewish.4 The second is the covenant that was forged, through the Exodus and Sinai,5 with the Jewish nation. A national covenant is unique in the annals of religion. The relationship between the human being and God is usually described in terms of the personal and, in this regard, even a non-Jew, through the Noachide Laws, can have a connection with the Divine.6 The idea that God can forge a relationship with a nation, not just a group of individuals, though, is unique to Torah. It defies normative religious perspectives. A religion may wish to direct a state in certain regards but the actual mechanics of statehood is still perceived to be secular. Torah, though, touches upon these mechanics, demanding nationhood from the Jewish People. God connects with our nationhood – and, so, we must be a nation, a nation like all other nations first. We are to be a unique nation but before we can be distinctive as a nation, we must first be a nation. It is only through our viewing of other nations that we can understand the nature of nationhood. We are to wish governance just like all nations for we see that this is an essential element of nationhood.  Yet our desire for a king must be to lead us into becoming a unique nation

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 In that, as presented in T.B. Sanhedrin 20b, the appointment of a king was to precede the conclusive war with Amalek, it would seem that, contradictory to this assertion, part of the role of a king was indeed to be a military leader. Rabbi Hirsch responds that this anointing of a king only prior to the war with Amalek actually proves his point. It was only for this unique moral war with Amalek that it was necessary for a king to lead as this was part of his moral focus.

2 See, however, Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:3 which seems to imply that the wish to be judged by a king like all the other nations is a good desire.

3 See, also, Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, From Washington Avenue to Washington Street, Chap. 9, The Book and the Sword.

4 While the Raya Kuk also speaks of two covenants with similar labels -- one Brit Avraham, the other Brit Sinai – his focus, it would seem, is on two aspects of our national identity. Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s presentation would seem to be entirely different.

5 It may be that, in mentioning both the Exodus and Sinai, Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff is implicitly referring to the theory of his rebbi, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, that our nationhood is bounded in both fate and destiny. It was the Exodus that established the shared fate of the Jewish People while it was Sinai that established our shared destiny.

6 In that he referred to the personal connection between God and the individual both in the context of Avraham Avinu and also in the context of the Noachide Laws, in a private conversation I had with Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff after the lecture, I queried him about this. He briefly explained that while all human beings can relate to God as individuals, the relationship between God and individual Jews as individuals is still unique. This is the distinctiveness that was established by Avraham Avinu and is marked by such events as Akeidut Yitzchak.

Nishma 2011

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