What is better for a country – a strong, centralized leadership (or individual leader) – or the messy uncertainty of rule by the people (or, at least, its representatives? This is, in many ways the essential question that is at the heart of the challenges facing so many liberal democracies of our time.
Some look to the vast economic leaps of China in the past generation – not only in the rapid expansion of cities and infrastructure, but in lifting hundreds of millions out of subsistence and poverty – with praise. Contrast that with the challenges of doing anything in the West (including this country), where environmental regulations, the need for public input and oversight add excessive delays and cost to any major public project.
The rise of populism – a political movement that seems to be expressing the will of the people, but is expressed in the rise of strong, autocratic leaders is – as a result – sweeping across the globe. You may think of political leaders on the right who express this authoritarian tendency, but those on the left – who speak of the “majority” without considering the need to honor the wellbeing and rights of the minority – also speak in the language of the group, but assume that they alone will provide the answers to a society’s ills.
2400 years ago the philosopher Plato predicted – in his book The Republic – that democracy inevitably gives rise to a tyrannical leader. Speaking through the voice of his teacher Socrates, he says that the fullest flourishing of democracy is an openness to freedoms of all kind, a tolerance that kowtows to no authority, where family hierarchies are disrupted and the moral authority of teachers are questioned. Thus, Socrates says, at such a time when democracy challenges any sense of hierarchy or elitism, “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher … is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.
It is exactly at a time of such seeming cultural openness, Socrates warns, when a would-be tyrant will make his move, appealing to the mob by appealing to their desire to overturn the elite. That person is filled with “false and braggart words”, dismisses moderation, calls “insolence ‘good breeding,’ license ‘liberty,’ prodigality ‘magnificence,’” and “temperance they call ‘want of manhood’ and treat (tolerance) with contempt.” Centuries before Plato, however, the Torah also warned about the desire of the people for a leader who may seem to provide all the answers but will – inevitably and invariably – strip away liberty.
This week’s parasha warns the people of their desire to give up their freedom for someone who will provide for them, seemingly offering simple answers:
If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal 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 the Eternal your God … he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
The irony of this passage is that one of Israel’s greatest kings, Solomon, engaged in the very practices that the Torah warns about. In the Biblical book called Kings we read that he did all of this – taking many wives, accumulating 12000 horses and spending public funds for extravagant expenditures. Many modern scholars believe that the final book of the Torah, the one we read from this week, was written centuries after King Solomon lived. If so, this is a critique of the corruption of monarchy and the problems that happen when too much power is given over to one who thinks she (or he) has the sole authority. And if this book was written before Solomon it is a prophetic warning – similar to Plato’s – that people who give up their authority to an autocratic leader will live to regret it.
What, in particular, are the concerns of the Torah? Why the focus on too many horses and too many wives? In this is a metaphor for the problem with all leaders who imperiously believe only they have the power to solve the nation’s ills. The accumulation of horses (always expensive animals to maintain) is a reminder that those with authoritarian tendencies spend on what they believe is important to the impoverishment (either presently or in the future) of the land. The plethora of wives was a reminder that those who are rich, famous or powerful (certainly the autocrat) is tempted to think that the ability to negotiate with others (since wives were the ancient way of cementing treaties) only belongs to them. It is the arrogance of one who says, “I alone can fix it.”
In the Tanakh (Bible), therefore, there is an internal critique of political power in the hands of an individual. It is as if Torah says, “You may want an authoritarian ruler, but you will rue the day you give in to one.”
How, then, can we prevent what Torah and Plato warn about? In our parasha a suggestion is given to how to control the king:
And it will be when he ascends to the throne, and he will write for himself a ‘copy of this Torah’ (the Hebrew is vru, vban, implying a second) scroll from before the priests from Levi. And it will be with him and he will read from it all of the days of his life, so that he should learn to fear the Eternal his God, to observe all of the matters in this Torah, and all of these laws to do them. So that he not consider himself better than his brothers (literally “raise up his heart above others”), and so that he not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left, he nor his children in the midst of Israel.
The ancients may not have been as technologically as advanced as are we, but they understood human nature and the danger to society of those who speak as if they rule on behalf of the country but eschew morality and use power for personal advantage. In short, Torah suggests, the only way to stay in power is to continually seek ways to restrict one’s power. What are those restrictions:
- First, a leader must remember that he or she shares the ability to lead with others. This section pointedly notes that the Torah comes from the Levites – a reminder that political power must be tempered by the moral vision of religious experience and tradition.
- Second, the ancient rabbinical sages interpret the second Torah that the king was to carry to being a kind of “mini-Torah”, with key phrases from the scroll written out to remind him to keep humble and vigilant.
- Third, leaders who think they alone can provide the answers forget that they come to power – and lose that power – by the will of the people over whom they rule. “Fear of God” is a Biblical phrase that implies humility – an ability to admit mistakes, to treat others with respect and to not give up what is ethical in the pursuit of power.
- Finally, the king is supposed to write himself the Torah scroll. Why should someone of such power spend time doing the seemingly mundane task of the sofer, the Torah scribe? Perhaps the lesson here is related to the fact that every single letter is necessary to make the Torah kosher and, in kabbala – each letter is reminder of the number of people who were present at the giving of Torah. Thus, a political leader is obligated to show respect for all the people – not just their supporters or their party or their “base” – but to
To conclude, neither Plato nor Torah are prophetic or clairvoyant in saying what necessarily will happen, but they do remind us what could happen. In this time when the underpinnings of liberal democracy are being questioned, we would do well to heed the wisdom from of old. Democratic freedom is not inevitable and can be lost seeking those who would constrain our liberty. Power, too often, corrupts. And there is a steep price that comes with not holding leaders to a standard of justice, rectitude and virtue that has stood the test of time.
 “America Has Never Been So Ripe For Tyranny”, Andrew Sullivan (May 1, 2016), http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html?gtm=top
 Deuteronomy 17:14-17
 I Kings 10-11
 Deuteronomy 17:18-20
 Torah Temimah to Deuteronomy 17:18.