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Rav Soloveitchik on ‘Who is fit to lead the Jewish People’

Author: Esther Ehrman, Iyar 5775/May 2015

A nation needs a leader. Given that G-d is the supreme king of the Jewish people, is there any need for a king of flesh and blood? Commentators debate whether the Bible sees the appointment of a king is a command or a concession - both seem to have backing in the texts. Is there an alternative to a king? Rav Soloveitchik suggests that there is.

When the Israelites ask Samuel for a king, Samuel is displeased, as is G-d, but He tells Samuel to listen to the people. (Samuel 1 ch 8) A king is sanctioned, the Rav explains, because the reality of wars demand it, but his role is bound by a number of conditions: not too much wealth, not too many wives; no stranger may be king, he must write and study a Sefer Torah; above all, G-d will decide who is to be appointed. Kings are given assignments, writes the Rav: ‘Saul was anointed to repulse Philistine attacks; David’s role was to unify the loosely federated tribes into a single nation and to complete the conquest of the Holy Land; Solomon’s mission was to build the Temple’. Kings did not always rise to their missions, the Rav adds. All of this would seem to point to the appointment of a king as a concession. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 20b) takes this view, but also records the view that it is a Mitzva - the view taken by Maimonides. The Gemara lists three commandments to be fulfilled once the Israelites are in the Holy Land: to appoint a king, to destroy the descendants of Amalek and to build the Temple (ibid.), as the Rav notes.

Rav Soloveitchik next discusses briefly why Judges are not an alternative to kings. Again, judgment belongs to G-d. As humans, judges are fallible and when they were the leaders, chaos ruled. The Book of Judges ends with the sentence: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’.

The Rav then makes his own suggestion as to who should lead the Jewish people, namely the scholar/teacher/Rebbe. The teacher-student/disciple relationship has always been encouraged; Moses is called Moshe Rabbenu - not Moshe Malkenu. People like the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon have influenced millions on account of their wisdom and Torah scholarship, unlike the king, who inhibit and coerce their subjects, the Torah teacher develops and brings out the best in his students; these will follow their teachers willingly, since they love and admire them.

The Rav cites Maimonides: ‘And if a king will arise from the Davidic dynasty, studying Torah and occupying himself with Mitzvot like David his ancestor, in accordance with both the Written and Oral law and oblige [lit. bend] all Israel to follow him, and fight the wars of the Lord - him we may presume [i.e. there is a hazakah] to be the Messiah (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4). Such a person would have a kingship that enables the wars of the Lord to be fought and the Torah to be followed.

We might see similarities here with Plato who, in his work, The Republic, suggests that a philosopher-king, seeking and loving wisdom and the truth, can alone be entrusted to be the guardian of the laws of the State. An essential difference is that Rav Soloveitchik sees the Torah scholar as a teacher who inspires love and implementation of the Torah.