Are you surprised to hear that President Trump and Judge Kavanaugh, his nominee for a lifetime post on the Supreme Court, might appear in a text that is about 2500 years old?
Read Deuteronomy Chapter 17: 14-20 -- a section often called Perek HaMelekh, “Passage on the King.”
The passage is worried about the possibility that an Israelite king might turn himself into a tyrant, like Pharaoh.
So it starts out by setting limits on the power and behavior of a king, and then it tries to create a way of enforcing these limits. .
The king must not act haughtily toward the people – that is, with contempt.
The king may not multiply gold and silver for himself.
The king may not multiply wives/ women for himself.
The king may not multiply horses. (Horse chariots were the jet bombers of the day, weapons for an aggressive imperial army like that of Egypt’s Pharaoh).
What’s more, the king may not send the people back into Mitzrayyim (the Tight and Narrow Place, which in Hebrew is the name of Egypt) to buy horses for himself. (That is, he may not oppress the people by imposing taxes or forced service so he can pay for an oppressive army).
And the king must every day of his life read -- under supervision by the levitical priests -- the Torah passages that restricted his powers and protected the poor.
Under priestly supervision – ahhh, that is what the Torah hoped would keep him under control. For the Kohanim, the priests, members of the Tribe of Levi, were utterly independent of the king. They had religious power to come close to God, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh -- the Interbreathing Spirit of the world. The Breath of Life.
They were not appointed by the king. They were not members of the king’s family. Not even of his tribe, since they were descendants of Levi, like Moses and Aaron and Miriam, and the kings were descendants of David, of the tribe of Benjamin.
When the heirs of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean kings, broke this ancient Constitution by merging the priesthood and the kingship, they turned out to be terrible kings. Among other things, they sold out Israelite independence to a foreign power -- Rome.
Why does all this matter? So Torah seeks to limit the power of a king, as do the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Why does this matter to us today?
Because it embodies wisdom that speaks through centuries and millennia -- not just about a single generation’s crises, fears, desires. It is a wisdom that our culture today often, though not always, seeks to learn from -- precisely because it embodies what has lasted.
Surely that wisdom, like the US Declaration and Constitution, was flawed. The Bible, for example, assumes and often seems to endorse the subjugation of women. (In how the furthest reaches of the Bible see the great arc of the human future, not so; but that is another exploration.) So did the original US framing documents, as well as the subjugation of Blacks.
Yet some wisdom even deeper has kept moving the adherents of both sets of framing Teachings to keep trying to move beyond those subjugations to a fuller sense of human dignity. What we call the “spirituality” of the Bible is a distillation of a wise relationship of a small tribe to all that is greater than itself – to the great round Earth, to the other cultures (“strangers”), to its own future, its great-grandchildren, to the over-arching Mystery of how we came into physical, biological, and cultural existence in the first place.
So it behooves us in our perilous present moment to recall that the Bible was and is worried about the concentration of power in a single human’s hands.
All right. Let us look with eyes wide open at our present.
We have an elected king who speaks of his own people – Blacks, Latinos, the free and independent-minded press, Muslims, women with contempt (“haughtiness above his kinfolk”).
Who speaks and sometimes acts toward women as mere objects of his own pleasure (“multiplying wives”).
Who has used his own power before and since becoming “king” to cheat workers and contractors, to make secret deals, to hide his finances from the public (“multiplying gold and silver for himself”).
Who threatens other nations with ”fire and fury” and who seeks a trillion dollars to “modernize” a nuclear arsenal that can already destroy all life on Earth several times over, and who is planning to erase the bright line between nuclear and other weapons by producing “small” nuclear weapons for battlefield use (“multiplying horses for his army”).
And who now seeks to appoint to the Supreme Court – our nearest effort at inventing the independent check of the Levitical priesthood -- a man whose previous record indicates willingness to support the “king’s” hostility to women’s rights, to workers’ rights, to efforts to heal the Earth.
Whose previous record suggests support for such egregious misuses of kingly powers as the use of torture. A man who is opposed to even the limited possibility of subpoenaing the “king” to testify under oath.
All this while the “king” himself is already under very serious clouds of possible violations of the Constitution and the laws. And when his appointee, if confirmed, would probably be a crucial weigh-in for how this sacred body of the Court would vote.
So for all these reasons, I urge you, all members and readers of The Shalom Center, and all your friends, to call 1202-224-3121. To ask for your Senators and Congressmember.
What could they do? They could oppose with every nonviolent means the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh. They could, for example, use legitimate parliamentary rules to hold all Congressional decision-making in suspense until the Senate Judiciary Committee tables the nomination. They could demand roll-call votes on “ordinary” business instead of giving unanimous consent. The future of our Constitution and our freedom is at stake; this is no time for “ordinary” measures.
Demanding this kind of action is not just “politics.” It upholds what the Bible itself taught was and is a crucial part of the spiritual health of a community committed to human dignity.
With blessings of joyful action in this coming new year, this Time of Transformation, for the sake of human dignity – Arthur