By Rav Jesse Horn
“Does the Torah reject democracy?” is a question commonly asked by modern Westerners. After all, does the Mitzvah to appoint a king not reflect the Torah’s ideal form of government, monarchic theocracy?
If that is the case, even a superficial look at history would bring the Torah’s value-system into question. Hasn’t democracy served as the world’s greatest and most just form of government? Although imperfect, was Winston Churchill not correct when claiming, “Democracy is the worst form of government, with the exception of all others”?
There seem to be three different approaches to answering this question. First of all, and most straight-forward, the Rambam (Melachim 1:1), Ramban (Devorim 17:14), and Sefer HaChinuch (497) accept this commandment at face value, and thus the religious ideal is appointing and running a government via a king, as implied by the Pasuk “Appoint for yourself a king” (Devorim 17:15).
The second group have a more negative view of monarchy. The Ibn Ezra (Devorim 17:15) believes appointing a king is optional, not obligatory. This anti-monarchy school of thought is really headed by the Abarbanel (Devorim 17, Shmuel 1:8). Similar to the Ibn Ezra, the Abarbanel claims that Hashem, by allowing the king’s appointment, is giving in to man’s desires. However, the Abarbanel’s (Abarbanel’s Introduction to Shoftim) critique penetrates deeper for he attacks the abuse of power that kings are notorious for. In contrast to a king, who can rule and live above the law, the more-favorable model of government, the Shofet, was limited to judge and rule according to the laws of the Torah.
Thirdly, there are those who articulate a more nuanced approach. The Netziv (Ha’emik Daver Devorim 17:14) distinguishes between civilizations in which a king would be appropriate, while in others, a king might not. Therefore, appointing a king is only a Mitzvah when it befits the situation.
Tangentially, the Netziv resolves two additional difficulties. Firstly, we can now better understand why the Torah introduces the commandment to appoint a king with a quotation of the people’s request (Devorim 17:14), “And you will say ‘I will appoint upon myself a king like all the surrounding nations.’ Appoint for yourself a king . . . ” It is precisely the people’s request, illustrating a king appropriateness, which transforms the appointment of a king into a Mitzvah. Additionally, we can explain why no king was appointed beforehand. From the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai until Shmuel anointed Shaul, no one even attempted to appoint a king. If they were to have been commanded at the time, presumably someone would have attempted to fulfill it.
As Westerners, we might naturally identify or understand the advantages of democracy. What advantages might a religious monarchy have over a democracy? According to the first school of thought, why not insist upon, or at least allow for, a democracy?
Designed to completely serve the people, their needs, and desires, democracies’ weakness is the same as its strength. Although the virtue is obvious, the danger is complete service of the people to the exclusion of the service of Hashem. Democracies, wonderfully, are very successful at protecting human rights and creating cultures of tolerance; what they often lack is an objective sense of divine truth and objective morality.
Although, it is possible, and unfortunately common, for a king to abuse his power and serve himself, this approach thinks it is clearly not the Torah’s design. The Torah entrusts the king with power to both serve the nation and more importantly assist and lead them in their service of Hashem.
In light of this, we can understand why so many Mitzvot are designed to curtail and direct the king’s power. The king cannot amass too many wives (Devorim 17:17), too much wealth (Devorim 17:17) or horses (Devorim 17:16). Moreover, he must write a Sefer Torah and carry it with him at all times as well (Devorim 17:18-19). Fully aware of the potential downsides of human nature, greed and desire for power, the Torah assists the king into obtaining a mechanism to correctly channel it. Instead of stripping the king of power, out of fear of misuse, the Torah designs a system to properly manage it.
Although presumably more risky than a democracy, a religious monarchy more accurately represents the Torah’s ideal role of a government; not merely to service the people and their desires, but to additionally facilitate an environment where they can best serve Hashem. In contrast to most democracies, which demand little if anything from their people on a level of Ben Adam L’Chavaro (commandments between man and his fellow man), the Torah aims at inspiring Jews in both Mitzvot Ben Adam L’Chavaro” and “Ben Adam L’Makom” (commandments between man and Hashem).
According to those who argue monarchic theocracy is a Mitzvah, we must appreciate the tremendous gifts democracies have given us: freedom, capitalism, opportunity and more. Simultaneously, however, we must remember that cultivating an open and free climate designed to serve Hashem is ultimately our religious goal.