Judaism and Monarchies
I am amazed that so many Americans are enamored with the British Monarchy. When I was the principal of Carmel College in 1973, we hosted Prince Charles for the day to celebrate our 25th anniversary. He was surprisingly impressive in the professional way he went through the school, asking questions as if he really cared, making everyone feel he was interested, unfailingly gallant, and dignified. A few years later when I met the Queen, she too was very professional.
Growing up in the UK, we tended to dismiss the royal family as symbols of a bygone age, wheeled out to inspect factories and schools, bestow “gongs,” and support charities. Now they are interesting historical footnotes laid bare in documentaries and fantasies on our screens.
Kings and queens were once regarded as gods. But in the Bible, they are subject to the constitution of the Torah and are shown in all their venality and corruption — and their occasional morality and spirituality. It was the rabbis of the Talmud who allowed kings extra-judicial power over life and death. The Romans invested their Emperors with Divinity, which the Christian Popes then arrogated to themselves.
The idea of the Divine Right of Kings justified all kinds of horrors perpetrated on humanity all over the world. Richard the Lionheart claimed he ruled by heavenly approval, “Dieu et Mon Droit” (It is God who gives me the right to rule). This remains the motto of the British Royal Family to this day.
The English started chipping away at their power with the Magna Carta. From there, it progressed — and the record of kings and absolute monarchies has been more baleful than beneficial. This is why nowadays most of us prefer democracies. But some democratic leaders have fared no better.
By nature, we humans are fractious and selfish (with rare exceptions).
So why do we Jews still ask in our formal daily prayers that God should restore a Davidic monarchy? The Bible itself is ambivalent in Deuteronomy. Maimonides, thousands of years later, claims it was a Torah obligation to appoint a king. Abarbanel and his supporters claimed it was an option. And that’s how I prefer to see it.
But if the Torah approves of a monarchy, why did Samuel object when they asked him to appoint a king because his sons were not up to taking over from him?
The elders of Israel assembled and came to Samuel at Ramah, and they said to him, you have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore, appoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations. … Samuel was displeased that they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to God and God replied to Samuel, “Listen to what the people say to you. For it is not you that they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king.” (First Samuel 8:4-7)
One of the most common themes that the Torah repeats is the phrase, “do not be like the nations around you.” Then why here do the people repeat that they want a king specifically to be like the surrounding nations — and why does God seem to agree?
The Torah offers a range of different examples of authority and governance: kings, judges, priests, tribal elders, and divinely ordained leaders like Moses and Joshua. I can only explain this by suggesting that on matters spiritual and legal, one should not imitate other nations but be true to our own values. However, when it comes to science, technology, or methods of administration and governance, then indeed one can and should look around for guidance.
We should search for the system that works best. No human order can be perfect — neither monarchy, democracy, nor autocracy. And frankly, I think the Queen does a far better job than President Biden. But they do have different job specifications.
The author is a rabbi and writer currently living in New York.