Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508) was one of the towering figures of late medieval and early modern Jewry. He held ministerial-level positions in three different royal courts: Portugal, Spain, and the Kingdom of Naples, and he was recognized by contemporary Jews as one of their most important and influential leaders because of his access to the top levels of government. At the same time — and this is what makes him so different from modern Jews who have held important political positions — he was one of the most prolific Jewish writers in history. Especially impressive are his monumental commentaries in Hebrew on the Torah and early and later prophets, an encyclopedic exposition of Jewish thought, especially in the Sephardic ambience, produced at the historic moment when this great culture was experiencing a massive disruption. Because of their length, only a miniscule percentage of his commentaries have been translated.
Not surprising because of his professional career, Abravanel’s commentaries are filled with fascinating ventures into political theory. One of the most important is linked with the verse pertaining to the Israelite king in Parashat Shof’tim:
“[You shall be free to] Set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people [lit.: brothers]; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kin [lit.: brother] (Deuteronomy 17:15).
One obvious question for a commentator on this verse is whether or not it means that the selection of a king is a positive commandment of the Torah. The new Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translation clearly indicates that it is not a commandment, adding the words “If … you decide” at the start of verse 14, and beginning verse 15 with the phrase “You shall be free to” before “set.” In this reading, the Israelites have the option of being ruled by a king and in this verse they merely receive instructions about the eligibility for kingship. The older JPS translation (used in the Hertz Chumash) renders the verse as a commandment to appoint a king. In this, it follows important medieval authorities who considered the appointment of a king to be one of the 613 commandments.1 As is so often the case, the Hebrew text is ambiguous.2
Abravanel rejected the majority position on this biblical verse, insisting that the Israelites were not commanded by God to select a king. But before his detailed analysis of the biblical language, he raised a more general question: Whether a king is indeed necessary for a well-ordered state. He begins his discussion by presenting the general view of political philosophy throughout the Middle Ages: that a king is indeed necessary. Among others, he cites the argument that the position of the king in the state is analogous to the position of God in the world, providing unity, continuity, and a focus of power. Then he continues to argue forcefully against the entire weight of this tradition, maintaining that the king is by no means necessary, and that other forms of government — especially government by a group of people, chosen for a relatively brief period of time, who come together to make the decisions necessary for the well-being of state and society — may well be better than a monarch.
Abravanel argues that the advantages of such pluralistic governance are supported not only by logic, but also by historical experience. Rome, he states, was at the height of its power under the rule of the consuls, but the reign of the Caesars brought about a precipitous decline. For examples in his own time, he points to the Italian republics of Venice, Florence, Genoa, Lucca, Siena, and Bologna, where government is in the hands of temporary rulers who know that they will soon have to render account for their actions.
His conclusion is therefore unambiguous. A good and righteous king is obviously better than an evil king; a limited monarchy is better than an absolute monarchy in which the king has unrestricted powers. But better even than a good king and better than a limited monarch is no king at all, with government by many good citizens, chosen for a limited period of time, in counsel together. This conclusion is especially poignant coming from a man who, as he himself writes, spent so much of his life in the courts of kings.
But it is not that simple. Continuing his discussion of the same Torah passage, Abravanel raises a different though related issue of political theory: the right of rebellion. Can the people be justified in rising up to depose a king who has betrayed his trust, spurned the laws, and transformed himself into a tyrant? Here Abravanel takes another position opposed to the overwhelming majority of medieval Christian thinkers who indeed affirmed the right to resist and overthrow an evil tyrant. Abravanel insists that by enthroning a king, the people have established a covenant, sanctioned by oath, unconditional and binding, to obey his word.
We are left with the apparently paradoxical position of a statesman/scholar who argued that kings serve no necessary function, and are usually harmful to the people they rule, yet who insists — at least as a matter of theory — that once a king is properly recognized as monarch he may never again be resisted by force. The people may cry out to God, and God may arouse the spirit of a hero to lead a rebellion against the king and install a new kind of government, but the people themselves must wait patiently for this to occur. How can we explain this apparent inconsistency?
Although he states that he has found no discussion of this theoretical issue in any prior Jewish thinker, Abravanel may well be arguing from Jewish historical experience. Throughout the Middle Ages, and well into the modern period, the king was usually the primary source of protection for Jews, and popular uprisings almost always brought suffering. 3 Kings might cause perversion of justice — including occasional mass expulsion — but Abravanel noted that most instances of Jewish suffering in the Diaspora were caused not by kings but by rebellious masses. Until the American and French Revolutions, most Jews believed that their safety was dependent upon the political stability and security brought by strong central rule, even if accompanied by a measure of injustice.
This debate about the role of kings may seem rather antiquated, but if we change “king” to “dictator,” the resonance of Abravanel’s discussion is obvious today. For this is precisely the issue being tested in many locations, especially in the countries of the “Arab Spring.” We still hear the argument that, at least in some countries, government by one strongman, though a dictator — Hosni Mubarak, or Mu’amar Qaddafi, or Bashar al-Assad — provided order and stability that were threatened when the dictator was overthrown or seriously challenged. The alternative to a dictator is not always a democracy ruled by the many as Abravanel maintains. A stable society ruled by a dictator can disintegrate into contentious tribes, or religious sects, or rival strongmen, producing — at least in the short term — violence and chaos.
The Jewish communities of Egypt and Libya and Syria have long since departed for other homes, but minority Christian and Muslim communities are left in a position analogous to that of medieval Jews: sometimes protected by the strongmen who ran their political systems with iron hands, sometimes oppressed. Can we understand how these vulnerable minority communities might prefer the stability of dictatorship over the uncertainties and ambiguities of greater freedom in which the religious minorities may be targeted? Will a new pluralism of government lead to the emigration of these ancient Middle Eastern Christian communities?
In unpacking some of the issues raised by our Torah verses, Abravanel helps us to understand the complexities of the current situation, including the recognition that the future is never fully illuminated by any biblical verse or commentator.
1. See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 1.1; Sefer HaḤinuch, Commandment 493
2. See on this Nehama Leibowitz, “Monarchy: A May or a Must?” in Studies in Devarim/ Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980), pp. 175–80
3. As late as 1775, Ezekiel Landau, Chief Rabbi of Prague, preaching on the Sabbath before Pesach, referred to the uprising of Bohemian peasants that had erupted the previous January. He certainly did not apply the holiday’s message of freedom to these peasants who, with significant grievances, attacked the castles of the overlords on their way toward Prague. As the rebels drew near, “We were in great distress,” Landau reminded his listeners. “Indeed, it was worse than the upheaval of war. For when some enemy army comes to fight, there is a king and officers above them. Individual soldiers are not free to decide what to do . . . . But this was different; when the serfs rose up against us (!), each one was free to choose what he wished.” M. Saperstein, ‘Your Voice Like a Ram’s Horn’: Themes and Texts in Traditional Jewish Preaching (Cincinnati: HUC Press, 1997), p. 451
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, after having taught Jewish Studies at American universities for 29 years (Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, George Washington University in D.C.), relocated in 2006 to England for a five-year term as Principal of Leo Baeck College. His recently completed book, Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution and Mass Murder, will be published by Hebrew Union College Press.