Beware the Concentration of Power

Posted on August 18, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

This week’s parashah, Shoftim, reads like a primer on the science of good government. And could it possibly come at a more critical time? Across the globe, issues of political power and governance are increasingly contentious and controversial. Populism and authoritarianism are on the rise in Europe and are threatening the very foundations of democracy in Israel and America. A strong dose of clarity and wisdom is most needed, and thankfully is readily at hand in Parashat Shoftim.


According to western liberalism, the antidote to the dangers of demagoguery and tyranny is the balance and distribution of powers. This philosophy gave birth to the kind of constitutional democracy that has by and large functioned so well here in America. No one person and no one governing structure has unchecked authority. Neither the Executive, the Legislature, the Judiciary, nor even a majority of the populace can overturn the rule of the law. All are bound by constraints imposed by the Constitution, which is not easily amended, and none wields absolute power.


The origins of these democratic principles are most frequently and appropriately ascribed to the ancient Greeks. Indeed, much credit for these gifts belongs to Plato and his fellow Greek philosophers. But the core principle that makes democracy work is already present in the Bible, specifically, in the Book of Deuteronomy, and especially in Parashat Shoftim.


At the opening of the parashah we read: “Judges and magistrates, you shall appoint for your tribes in all the settlements that God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” Judges and magistrates. One without the other will not do. A system of justice absent a mechanism of enforcement is not justice at all, as the rulings of what is legal and what is not remain theoretical and of no practical import. Worse, it leaves us knowing what is right, but frustrated by the failure to see it implemented. The result is often a travesty of justice.


On the other hand, law enforcement without recourse to adjudication yields a police state, a nightmare scenario in which justice is capricious, arbitrary, and rife with corruption. “Judges and magistrates, you shall appoint… that they may govern the people with due justice.” What is due justice? In Hebrew, it is mishpat tzedek, which literally means, “just justice.” It sounds redundant, but the nuance is critically significant. It refers to a system of governance in which the administration of justice is just and right, fair, temperate, and balanced.


Parashat Shoftim teaches that the path to such a system is to avoid the concentration of power in any one person or institution — not in the judiciary, not in the police, and not in the executive, which in parshat Shoftim is the monarchy. In a very real sense, the laws pertaining to the monarchy in this parashah can be seen as the origin of constitutional democracy. Here we learn that any future king is subject to the rules of the Torah, which are to be interpreted by the Levitical Priests, or a judge, thus placing multiple checks and balances on the power of the monarchy. As we read in our parashah, “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him… It shall remain with him for him to read all the days of his life, so that he may learn to revere God and observe faithfully every word of this Teaching and its laws.” (Dt. 17:18-19) So limited are the powers of the king in the Torah that one could easily conclude that he is more subject that than ruler — subject to the rules of the Torah, the God-given “constitution” of the nation.


It strikes me that the roots of the opposition to the attempted judicial coup in Israel are to be found right here in this parashah. This conflict is not about right or left-wing politics. It is about avoiding the concentration of power in any one person or institution and maintaining checks and balances in the name of justice.


As Reform Jews we can be very proud of role our Israeli Reform Movement is playing in the struggle for Israel’s democracy. Every week since January, from north to south, and in every major city throughout the land, our 54 congregations, their rabbis, and our movement leaders have stood up for democracy in the name of Judaism and Jewish values. Defying the religious secular divide, Reform Jews have declared that democracy is a Jewish value because it vouchsafes the freedom and dignity of every person of every creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or economic status.


Reform Jews are part of a patriotic movement that has claimed the flag of Israel as its symbol and Israel’s declaration of Independence as its creed in order to preserve and fully realize its vision of Israel as a Jewish democratic state “based upon freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel…” a nation that “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants …”


A strong majority of Israelis and Jews around the world have been energized by a renewed commitment to these values and this vision, and I am hopeful and cautiously optimistic that Israel and the Jewish people will emerge from the current crisis stronger for the challenges we are facing with courage, conviction, and an ever abiding devotion the principles of justice as taught in our holy Torah, and especially in this week’s parashah, Shoftim.


V’chein yehi ratzon!


Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck