Several religious parties achieved very positive results in Tuesday’s election, strengthening the identity of Israel’s government as that of a Jewish state. Some rabbis see this as an extension of the Biblical commandment to appoint a king over Israel, raising questions about the government’s responsibility to act in accordance with the Torah.
The Torah explicitly commands the Jews to appoint a king when they arrive in Israel
If, after you have entered the land that Hashem your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, 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, one chosen by Hashem your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Deuteronomy 17:14-15
Most scholars interpret this verse as permitting the Jews to appoint a king though the ideal is to look to God as the ultimate and only ruler. This was illustrated in Samuel’s reluctance to appoint a king, even rebuking the nation for requesting a king, because an evil monarchy could lead the nation away from serving God.
But Israel does not have a king. The modern Jewish state touts itself as the only true democracy in the Middle East. This is emphasized by the almost non-stop elections. Whether the head of the party, Benny Gantz, intended it or not, the name of the National Unity Party hints at monarchic aspirations. In Hebrew, the party is called HaMahane Hamamlachti; the kingdom’s camp.
Rabbi Menachem Makover of the Temple Institute noted that a democratically elected government is not a monarchy but it stands in the place of a true monarchy.
“There are those who interpret the Torah as meaning that the only acceptable form of government for Israel is a monarchy but that is not true. It is the only form described in the Bible but there were long periods of time when there were no kings. Judges served as a governing mechanism. Ideally, Israel should appoint a king. But if there is no king, alternatives are acceptable.”
“This is our situation today,” Rabbi Makover said.
The rabbi noted that even among those who accept a democratically elected government as an acceptable alternative, there is a dispute as to whether it should be viewed as having the same status as a monarchy.
“Jews in the diaspora are required by Jewish law to honor and obey the ruling government as long as it does not violate Jewish law, but the government certainly does not have the same standing as a monarchy ruling the Jews in Israel,” Rabbi Makover said. “But even the government of Israel does not have the same status as the Davidic dynasty.”
The rabbi explained that the Biblical commandment specifically takes effect when the Jews enter the land and could, therefore, apply to the Knesset.
“Jews in Israel should, of course, see electing a Torah-based government as a mitzvah (Torah commandment),” Rabbi Makover said. “Voting is not a mitzvah unto itself but, if done with the proper intent, it is an act that brings about mitzvoth for the public.”
Being a Biblical commandment differentiates Israeli democracy from democracy in other countries.
“It is forbidden that Israel should have a non-Jewish leader,” Rabbi Makover said.
He noted that according to Jewish tradition, there are certain Biblical commandments incumbent upon a king of Israel: wiping out Amalek and building the Temple in Jerusalem. As a government elected by Jews in Israel, the Israeli government has Biblical obligations.
“The Israeli government serves in place of the king and ideally they should relate to these obligations,” Rabbi Makover said. “This includes building the Temple in Jerusalem. They were obligated to do this in 1967. Unfortunately, they failed to do so. If the government does not build the Temple, that is their failure. But this does not exempt the nation of Israel from carrying out this obligation.”
Rabbi Dov Lior, the former Chief Rabbi of Hebron and a prominent figure in the religious Zionist movement agreed that the root source of a democratically elected government lies in the Biblically mandated monarchy.
“Democracy is choosing people to carry out specific functions for the public,” Rabbi Lior said. “In a democratic government, these functions are divided up among many people. One person takes care of defense, another organizes transportation, another deals with immigration. In a monarchy, the entire government is embodied in one person. The authority of the king is effectively divided up.”
The rabbi explained that the special nature of the nation imbues a divine element in the electoral process.
“This divine element used to lie in a king who was chosen through prophecy,” Rabbi Lior explained. “The king embodied the nation and acted as a conduit between God and His people. But since prophecy no longer exists, the nation must choose leaders since there are mitzvoth that an individual cannot perform alone so it is necessary to organize the public.”
Rabbi Lior explained that this divine element was not a privilege but an obligation.
“The authority to do these public functions ultimately comes from God,” Rabbi Lior said. “This is especially true of the army. No man has the authority to order Israel to go to war. But by appointing a government, this authority is given. This is only true of a war in Israel because God commanded us to conquer the land.”