Limiting the Power of Kings

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The Fourth of July, the Torah, and the Presidency

The Fourth of July is a holy day in the liturgical calendar of the American people, and a time of memory and hope for many people in many nations - not for American national reasons, but because it recalls a great modern document and action on behalf of human rights and the calling to account of an unaccountable, irresponsible ruler.

In Jewish custom, special Torah readings and Prophetic passages are set aside to be read and discussed on the Jewish festivals. In the customs of the movement for Jewish renewal, beginning with havurah (fellowship) retreats in the mid-1970s and continuing in the Kallot (gatherings) sponsored every other summer by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, it has become a joyful custom to honor this festival in a special way:

On that day, we have read from the Torah a special "Passage on the King" -- Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 -- and then have read as a special Haftarah or Prophetic passage the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

The Deuteronomy passage may be the earliest "constitution" for limiting the powers of a ruler. Rabbinic tradition reports that when the King actually read the Torah aloud as the passage commands, the portions he read were these --- limiting his own power - and the passages about the rights of the poor. One of the cultural roots of the Declaration is the Torah passage, and one of the midrashic fruits of the Torah is the Declaration.

After reading from the Declaration, we have invited people to call out their own midrashic emendations to the text: for example, "All women and men are created equal," and clauses honoring not only independence but also interdependence.

The passage from Deuteronomy 14 (using mostly the Everett Fox translation published by Schocken) follows.

If, when you have entered the land
that YHWH / the Interbreathing of all life, your God,
is giving you,
and you possess it and settle in it,
should you say:
I will set over me a king
like all the nations that are around me--
you may set, yes, set over you a king
that YHWH your God chooses;
from among your kinfolk you may set over you a king,
you may not place over you a foreigner
who is not kin to you.

Only: he is not to multiply horses [cavalry] for himself,
and he is not to return the people
to Mitzrayyim/ Tight and Narrow Place/ Egypt
in order to multiply the cavalry,
since YHWH has said to you:
You will never return that way again!

And he is not to multiply wives for himself,
that his heart not be turned-aside,
and silver or gold he is not to multiply for himself to excess.

But it shall be:
when he sits on the throne of his kingdom,
he is to write himself a copy of this Teaching in a
face to face with the Levitical priests.

It is to remain beside him;
he is to read out of it all the days of his life,
in order that he may learn to have-awe-for YHWH/ The interbreathing of all life -- his God,
to be-careful concerning all the words of this Teaching
and the deep-carved laws, to observe them,
that his heart not be raised above his kinfolk,
that he not turn-aside from what-is-connective,
to the right or to the left;
in order that he may prolong (his) days over his kingdom,
he and his children,
in the midst of Israel.

The text of the Declaration is widely available. It is possible to download a facsimile of the original scroll to read from, by going to:

or a copy of the July 4 edition of the New York Times, which each year publishes it on the back page of one of the main sections.

Hazzan Jack Kessler has shaped a way of chanting the Declaration in English using the traditional trope (melody) for a Haftarah. (See the end of this letter for the preamble with Haftarah trope marked in.)

During the last eight years, one of the great disasters of American history was the emergence of theory and practice for an unlimited Presidency: a Presidency that could "legalize" torture; spy on private conversations without a warrant; imprison people without charges, without trials, without lawyers, without access to families or the Red Cross, for as long as the President wanted; throw cases challenging such behavior out of court on the unsubstantiated claim that a trial would expose "state secrets."

All this was justified on the grounds of a "forever war." Precisely sending the people into Mitzrayyim - a tight and narrow space, a servile state - in order to aggrandize the "cavalry" - the military.

Precisely what the Torah, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution all forbid.

And despite the promises with which Barack Obama entered the Presidency, many of those practices have still not been abandoned; the President has prohibited prosecution of these crimes and has opposed even independent investigation of what happened; and some of these practices are even being defended by the President's lawyers in the present and for the future.

May the time soon come, speedily in our own days, when all peoples - Iranians and Russians, Venezuelans and North-Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, renew our commitments to limit the powers of a ruler, whether elected or not, whether the ruler leads a "government" or a "corporation," and to keep our rulers accountable to the vision that all human beings are born with unalienable rights; … that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; … that governments and other organizations are instituted to protect these rights and may be abolished or transformed should they fail to do so; that rulers may not aggrandize themselves through multiplying their power, their armies, their wealth, their sexual conquests; or by forcing the people into tight and narrow spaces.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace -


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