What the Torah Teaches about the Use (and Abuse) of Political Power

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Max Chaiken

“Justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deut. 16:20)

We find this famous biblical aspiration at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shof’tim, which continues Moses’ elaboration of the extensive set of laws that the Israelites are to follow, if they are to create a holy and just society.

The opening verses of Shof’tim, which refer to the judges that the Israelites are commanded to appoint in each tribe, turn our attention to law and justice. Their mandate is to “govern the people with due justice, mishpat-tzedek” (Deut. 16:18), specifically not to take bribes or show partiality (Deut. 16:19) and generally to establish a fair system of justice.

In addition to the administration of a judicial system, Shof’tim covers a range of topics, including the legal status of the priests and Levites (Deut. 18:1-8), the danger of false prophets and idolatry (Deut. 18:9-22), provisions to create cities of refuge (Deut. 19:1-13), and laws pertaining to war and battle (Deut. 20:1-20).

Perhaps the most powerful set of these laws concern the appointment of a king:

If… 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 the Eternal 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 kin. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses… And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus, he will not act haughtily toward his fellows… (Deut. 17:14-20)

This verse emphasizes that not even a duly appointed king of Israel is above the law. It also stipulates that a king must be mikerev acheikha, literally “from among your brothers or kin” (Deut. 17:14), which can be read as xenophobia or, more generously, as requiring that a king should be knowledgeable of his community and in touch with the general population and its needs.

The prohibitions on horses, wives, and gold aim to prevent the king from using his position to amass personal wealth and power. The requirement to keep with him “this Teaching,” the Torah, serves as a reminder that he must comply with the laws and values therein. Following Torah, and studying it, and trying to live by its values will ideally help prevent the sovereign from abusing his power and “acting haughtily toward his fellows.”

In the ancient world, this kind of law was incredibly progressive. In other ancient Near Eastern texts, the king creates laws, often as a vassal of the deity itself.

The law of kings warns against abuses of military and policy-making power as well as abuses for personal financial gain.

Concern about the proper and improper use of political power echo through the centuries to us today. While democracy has done much to try to shift some of the power from kings and single rulers to larger groups of people, we would be wise to hear the voice our Torah in its warning: Leaders must be subject to the law.

We see this concern reflected in the U.S. Constitution in various ways. The Emoluments Clause, for instance, addresses the use of public office for personal financial gain: “No person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” And of course, section four of Article II of the Constitution allows a process of removal from office “on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

The laws in Shof’tim are a timely reminder that all who hold positions of power over life and livelihood must be held accountable for their actions. We do that today at the ballot box. As our Torah reminds us, living a holy life requires us to pursue justice.

Learn more about Jewish civic engagement efforts and join in this vital work by visiting rac.org/cec.