Left, right and center, people have many attempts over the years to narrow the Torah to fit their oppinions of different political stances, forms of government, and other modern sociopolticial issues. Given how frequent and how varied these types of claims have been for millennia, looking at some of the most common types nowadays and historically can lend important insight to both politics and Torah.
The Torah itself does not explicitly endorse or prescribe specific styles of government like monarchy, democracy, communism, or libertarianism, and certainly would not do so for all peoples around the world. Instead, it provides principles and values that can be applied to different forms of governance in order to maintain rule of law. The Jewish approach to government is derived from the interpretation of the Torah and later rabbinic writings, including the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the Talmud. Here’s a brief analysis of different styles of government, along with the Jewish approach based on relevant Torah sources:
- The Torah does provide guidelines for the appointment of a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), but only “if you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me”. Clearly then a monarchy is substandard as it is not commanded and comes about from Jews feeling jealous and embarassed by other nations. The king is also somewhat limited in how much personal benefit he can recieve. The people are also instructed to respect and obey the king’s authority.
- Period of the Monarchy: The period of the Judges led to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy, starting with King Saul, followed by King David and King Solomon. This was a time of strength and building the Temple, and from this lineage will come Moshiach who will rule over the start of a new era in the world.
- Democracy/Democratic Republicanism:
- While the concept of democracy is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, Jewish tradition values the involvement of the community in decision-making processes in a way that might be akin to republicanism. For example, the selection of judges, elders, and leaders was done through consultation with the people (Exodus 18:13-26) who then administered over local questions and disputes. The establishment of the Sanhedrin, a council of scholars and leaders, also involved some small amount of communal representation not centralized into a single authority.
- Period of the Judges: During this era, the Israelites were governed by judges who were chosen by God and recognized for their wisdom and leadership abilities. Their selection often involved input from the people, however, whom the judges would have to ask to accept them. It was overall a far less centralized time than the monarchic period, with the people suffering morally and militarily in times without a judge, and the judges not always being strong moral figures.
- Communism (or Socialism):
- While some semblance of welfare is commanded in the Torah, much of the Torah deals with specific property rights over both real estate and chattels, and partnerships come by way of clearly defined contracts, not communal use. In the Gemara in tractate Brachot, it meantions even after Moshiach comes, there will still be distinctions between the rich and poor such that there will still be charity.
- The concept of “Tzedakah” (charity) is an integral part of Jewish law and mandates providing for those in need (Deuteronomy 15:7-8), giving away no less than 10% of one’s net income. Additionally, the “gleaning laws” in Leviticus 19:9-10 and Deuteronomy 24:19-21 require leaving some of the harvest for the poor and strangers to collect.
- The Talmudic tractate of Pe’ah discusses the laws of leaving the corners of fields for the poor, reinforcing the concept of communal responsibility for the welfare of all members of society. However, this is very different than socialism as it gives away the fruits, but not land. Welfare but not propery, and instances communally used but crucially not ownerless machinery like ovens and wine presses are not at all like socialism in a practical sense.
- While libertarianism as a political ideology is not explicitly addressed in the Torah, some Jewish scholars argue that the concept of individual freedom and minimal government intervention aligns with certain aspects of Jewish law. For example, the principle of “Dina d’Malchuta Dina” (the law of the land is the law) demands respect for the authority of the civil government if it is not in direct violation of any other command in the Torah.
- Of course, this does not account for the power excerted by the judges, kings, and prophets over individual’s lives during times of Jewish authority and independence. Rather, some of these principles only found relevance when the Jews were forced into exile, living as a minority without the ability to wield power.
- Authoritarianism (Autocracy):
- While the Torah does acknowledge the necessity of strong leadership in times of crisis, it also emphasizes the limitations on the king’s power. The king is not above halacha and must follow Torah principles (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
- The Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin discusses cases where leaders were held accountable for their actions and decisions, indicating that even rulers were subject to the law. Strong authority still must be checked by strong principles.
With an overview of all of these, it should be clear that no foreign concept of government can universally align with the Torah, which contains a unique set of values.
It is important to note that while the Torah provides essential ethical principles and guidelines, it does not present a comprehensive political system. As such, Jewish scholars and leaders have interpreted these principles to be adaptable to various forms of governance throughout history. The Jewish approach to government emphasizes the values of justice, compassion, communal responsibility, and adherence to divine law, in order to create a good and fair society.