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What is the Best From of Government?
By Avi Lazerson
People, philosophers and politicians have been arguing for centuries as to just what is the best form of government. Monarchies, fascism, communism, capitalism, socialism are just a few of the offerings that we have heard of. We have grown up with the tradition that the democratic form of government is the best. Have you ever considered just what does the Torah think the best form is?
What is very interesting is that the Torah permits a monarchy as directed by a prophet (Deuteronomy 17:14-20):
"When you shall come unto the land which the Lord your G-d has given you, and shall possess it, and shall dwell therein; and shall say: 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me; you shall set a king over you, whom the Lord your G-d shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, one who is not your brother..."
We see from this that a king is permitted to the ancient Jews. Many of the early Torah commentators who say that it is obligatory that after the Jews have conquered the land of Canaan that they set about to appoint a king. However this is problematic as we shall point out. But does this mean that this is the best form or only that it is permitted?
We find that in the Book of Samuel 1, chapter 5, as the prophet Samuel grows very old, the people come to him with a request that he make a king for them. Historically, the Jews have been now in their land for close to five hundred years. During this time they have been fighting successfully, and at times not successfully, against the local Canaanite kings. When ever a serious threat arose, a shofet, meaning a judge or redeemer, arose and saved the nation. Generally the scenario was something like this: The Jews were doing well, then they turned towards idolatry, G-d sent the local enemy army to plague them, the Jews cried to G-d to save them, G-d sent them a judge who caused them to cast off their idols and return to G-d with a full heart, and then they were victorious in throwing off the yoke of the evil king and army. They then lived peacefully for a period of years and then after this judge died they returned to their old idolatrous ways and the whole cycle repeated itself.
Samuel was now old. He had served the Jewish nation for his entire life time. His children were not accepted by the Jews as replacements for him. The Jews came to him and requested a king, "...place upon us a king to judge us like all the other nations" (Book of Samuel 1, 5:5). Well Samuel was dumb founded and felt rejected so he turned to G-d for advice. G-d said to him that he should not be despondent for they do not reject you, rather they reject Me. Never the less, G-d tells Samuel to tell the Jews what the pitfalls of having a king are; that a king will take your sons and daughters, your crops, your animals and your property and he will levy taxes upon you. The Jews listened to Samuel but they still preferred to have a king. Samuel saw this as a bad thing.
Now the question here is what was so bad with having a king?? They wanted an assurance for security; they wanted a strong leader and army. Up until this point in time there was no legal political structure in their land. Each person lived on his own property as a land owner. He paid no taxes and owed no allegiance to any leader or government. As mentioned above, in times of need, G-d sent a judge to lead them in war and when that was over they went back to their land and to their private life. There was zero political life in ancient Israel, there were no nationally recognized leaders other that the judges who had no national legal status. The judges were accepted by the people only because they were people of special character that came at special times for special needs. Now they wanted some one to whom they could turn over the problems of national security.
The request for a king does not sound particularly earth-shaking. Why does Samuel take it as a rejection? The rabbis who comment on the Book of Samuel offer several explanations. The main consensus is that they wanted a king like all of the other gentile kings who would judge them according to his (gentile) law and not the Torah law. But other commentaries seem to indicate that it was not that they rejected the Torah law but that they rejected living a free life which gave them insecurity. This was an insecure life in which they did not know if G-d would step in and save them or let them suffer at the hands of a enemy king. It was G-d's plan of providing them help only when they were obedient to Him that they disliked. They wanted the security of a human king over the insecurity of a spiritual king. They wanted the security of a human king even though it would mean a loss of their total freedom.
We can therefore derive from this that the best state of government for us is really dependent on the state of the people. If the people are idealistic, ethical, moral and honest, then the form of government is different than that of a state for people who are ignoramuses, degenerates and dishonest. The best form of the government was simply no government, not anarchy as we understand it, but morally sound people who can rely upon G-d's protection. When the people feel that they have lost their high spiritual state and realize that they can no longer rely upon their good merit to guarantee G-d's intervention, they requested a king.
Going back to our original question as to which is the best form of government, we must conclude that it really depends on the people involved. We see that democracy works well in the West but in other lands where the people are corrupt and illiterate that other forms of government are needed. What is the best form of government? Well it all depends on the people.
from the August 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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