Elections, Kings, Wars, & Justice

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

As the American people faces up to the challenges of the extraordinary Presidential and Congressional election of 2008, this week's Torah portion (Shoftim) offers some profound and precise standards for deciding what to do.

This election is only slightly extraordinary because a woman and a Black person are on the national tickets. Much more extraordinary are the profound issues of centralized power and democratic process that we face.

First off, the Torah portion asserts (Deut.16: 20), "Justice, justice shall you pursue. " Why "justice" twice? To remind us that "Just results can only be achieved by just means." Even the pursuit by any political party or candidate of goals they fervently affirm are "just" cannot be done by suppressing voter turnout or by assassinating the characters of their opponents.

Then the Torah goes on to put clear limits on the centralization of political, economic, and military power.

The "perek hamelekh" (passage on the king; Deut 17: 14-20), puts constitutional limits on royal power: limits that speak profoundly and precisely to the present crisis of power in America.

The king may not pile up horse-chariots – then the chief weapons system for imperial, aggressive war. He may not accumulate wealth for himself and his cronies, out of payoffs for favors or the misuse of tax money for aggrandizing private gain instead of meeting public needs. He may not seek a series of sexual conquests that will feed his own narcissism, turning his heart way from his people. He must not pay the costs of his army by "sending the people back into Mitzrayyim" –- linguistically meaning the "Tight and Narrow Place." Politically and economically, this means the Narrow Place of slavery, crystallized in Israelite memory as the narrow-minded Pharaonic Egypt. The king must drink in precisely the Torah teachings that limit his powers and empower the poor, by both reading them and writing his own copy of them.

And the Torah portion knows that with kings come wars –and that when military service becomes onerous or wars become unpopular, some disaffected soldiers might breed more disaffection in the army. Yet exempting them might encourage opposition and make the war or the army still more unpopular. What to do in this dilemma?

The Torah teaches (Deut. 20: 5-8):

Then the officials shall address the troops:

"Is there anyone who has built a new home but not yet dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it.

"Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another eat from it.

"Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him return to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.

The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, "Is there anyone afraid or rakh halevav "[gentle-hearted," or "disheartened," or "faint-hearted," or "soft-hearted"]? Let him go back to his home, lest he melt the heart of his brothers, like his heart!'

I Maccabees 3:56 reports that even when the land was under occupation by the Hellenistic empire ruled by Antiochus, and the Temple had been desecrated -- the most extreme imaginable moment, when imaginably no one would have been exempted from military service -- -- Judah Maccabee applied this passage of Torah. He ordered back to their homes the newly married, the new homebuilders, the new vine-planters, and those who were frightened or gentle-hearted.

About three centuries later, Rabbi Akiva (Tosefta, Sotah 7:22) commented, "Why does the verse [after specifying ‘the fearful’] then say ‘and the disheartened’? To teach that even the mightiest and strongest of men, if he is compassionate (Rachaman), should turn back." So both those who are afraid to be killed and those who are afraid lest they become killers must be exempted.

Perhaps this provision operated as a rough public check-and-balance, to measure whether the people really believed a specific war was worth dying for and worth killing for. If a king, or a council of middle-aged men, sent the young to kill and die in a worthless war, the young still had a way out.

The provisions limiting royal power and those limiting military power may have been intertwined in the Torah's mind with the possibility of "seeking to achieve justice by just means."

What would happen to modern nation-states, military forces, and wars – including our own -- if these passages of Torah were our model, or even just our teaching?

Would we deny our national leaders the offensive weapons that are the "horse chariots" of today? Would our armies send home exactly the young who now make up the bulk of them --- first-time home-owners, the newly married, those just entering a first career? Would fear of being killed, rather than being scorned as cowardice, become a reason for exemption? Would simply claiming "conscientious" objection be sufficient reason for exemption -- rather than being surrounded by suspicion and demands for proof?

Would the wars in Iraq and increasingly, in Afghanistan, as well as projected wars against Iran, meet the standard of public approval and soldierly compliance, if the choice were free instead of coerced and if the affirmation of fear to die for empty goals were affirmed instead of punished?

And what about the prohibited accumulation of privatized wealth, as against the meeting of public need and especially the needs of the poor? If Americans were actually to apply these biblical standards in a time of sharply increasing separations between the leaping wealth of the wealthy and the despair of the permanently poor, how would we vote today?

And those in our body politic who dismiss addictive or domineering sexual behavior by politicians as merely private concerns might reassess whether they are both symptoms and stimulants of narcissism that turns the hearts of political leaders away from the public good.

And what do we make of the hypocrisy and blindness of a politics that preaches only total sexual abstinence, the prohibition of abortion, and contempt for gay or lesbian sexuality -- while forbidding educators to teach about contraception? A politics that preaches the governmental enforcement of this sexual ethic even when the actual results are millions of teen-age pregnancies and abortions? -- Might this also be seen as a perverse form of sexual license on the part of "kings" – that is, rulers and political leaders?

Finally, the Torah commands that the king copy over by his own hand and reread, every day, the Torah limits on kingly power and the Torah's commands for protections of the poor. This must be done under the watchful eyes of the Levites and priests. How does this check-and-balance system compare with the claims of some politicians that much of what they do can be shielded from responsible public oversight by judges or members of Congress -- by citing "reasons of state, "national security," and "executive privilege"?

Our Torah portion that we read this week, just as the national election campaigns begin in earnest, remind us that beneath, behind, and beyond all "the issues" is the issue of narcissism and arrogance among those who hold power.

The issue of Pharaoh and the disempowerment of citizens. The issue that was at the heart of the American struggle for independence, the American struggle for religious freedom, the American struggle to win the ballot for those without property, the American struggle against slavery, the American struggle for the full equality of women, the American struggle for the right of workers to organize in unions, the American struggles against imperial wars, the American struggle for full racial and sexual equality.

May our America renew these struggles in our own generation!

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace; for a Ramadan karim and mubarak, for a reflective and repentant month of preparation for the Days of Awe.

And for a reflective and repentant autumn of preparation for the Awesome Day of our Election.



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