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    Ethically, monarchs, presidents are both answerable

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News, on 5 November, 1999.

    australian-flagThe referendum will ask Australians whether they want a republic or prefer the monarchy.

    A Queensland pastor recently claimed that God is a monarchist and the Monarchy is “divinely ordered”, and that republicanism is “unbiblical”. With, respect, the pastor is talking nonsense. The Bible does call God a king, but this does not imply that human government has to be monarchist.

    True, the Torah says (Deut 17:14-20): “When you come to the land… and you say ‘I Will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, you shall surely set over yourself a king whom the Lord your God shall choose. One from among your brethren shall you set as king over you; you may not set a stranger over you who is not your brother.”

    Yet the people are later castigated by Samuel when they say “Give us a king to judge us”. Though God allows the appointment of a king, He warns that kings make demands and impose burdens, and the people will be sorry in the end (I Sam 8). The Divine preference is presumably for rule by an educated and pious judge without royal style, pretensions or pomposity.

    When rabbinic debate addresses the verse “You shall surely set over yourself a king”, one view is that a king is not really needed unless the people insist. A more normative view is that a nation must have a king, but he must be approved by God and not be an absolute monarch; he is not above the law, and must conduct himself with restraint and dignity, and not have too many wives or horses. Neither view suggests that a people should be without government. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that a nation needs one head, even a bad one, so that society will not disintegrate into machloket (Mitzvot 71, 497).

    In biblical times, the option of republicanism is unknown. The subject was not systematically debated in Jewish sources until Isaac Abravanel’s biblical commentary in the Middle Ages showed a preference for a republic over a monarchy. Abravanel knew what he was talking about. He was an accomplished statesman, an adviser to the kings of three states and to the republican government of another.

    Discussing Deut 17:15, he asks whether “a monarchy is a necessity, inherently needed for the people”. He says people argue that a monarchy promotes national unity, continuity and absolute power, but all three arguments are fallacious. Why does unity require one single leader? Why not “many leaders, united, agreeing and concurring in counsel”? Why not a limited term of office? “When the turn of other judges and officers comes, they will arise in their stead and investigate whether the first ones have not failed in their trust.”

    Why insist on absolute authority? “Why should their power not be limited and regulated according to the laws and statutes? It is more likely that one man should transgress through his folly or strong temptations or anger, than that many men taking counsel should transgress… Since their administration is temporary and they must render account after a short while, the fear of man will be upon them.” Experience, he adds, shows that a republic is best. The monarchies he knew were full of “abominations and corruptions”; the non-monarchical societies were far more impressive. Florence, for example, was “the glory of all lands”; Venice was “great among nations”.

    Centuries later, we know there have been bad republics and good monarchies. As a constitutional monarchy, the British throne has served its people well. When Jews said the prayer for the royal family, they meant it — but British monarchs were not absolute rulers, and more important was the parliamentary government that went with them.

    Nonetheless, pressure has built up for a fully Australian, non-hereditary head of state, holding an office to which in theory, any Australian could aspire.

    There is disagreement as to how an Australian President should be elected and whether his powers should be identical with those of the present Governor-General. Jewish teaching has something to say about the first issue; Maimonides codifies the requirement that no king is to be appointed “without the consent of a Beth Din of 70 elders and a prophet” (Hilchot M’lachim 1:3), which may be roughly analogous to the presidential model set out in the referendum, though it is unlikely that a Prime Minister from either side of politics is in the category of a biblical prophet.

    Nothing in the current debate, as far as I can see, has been said about the personal qualities and credibility of whichever Australian is elected President. But bearing in mind how many presidents (and monarchs) have been found to have feet of clay, it is to be hoped that Australia will expect him or her to heed the Torah command and “not multiply horses”, i.e. not seek personal advantage from public office; “not multiply wives”, i.e. not be diverted from or compromise office by sensuality; and “write a scroll of the Torah”, i.e. not be above the law or lose sight of national purpose and vision.

    Not that a President or any other leader is expected to be perfect; the Talmud says that a leader “must have a basket of reptiles on his back”. But nothing must compromise the office the leader holds. The Midrash says that above the royal throne of Judah were emblazoned the words “Know before whom thou standest — before Him who spoke and the world came into being” (Esther Rabba 1:12).

    I doubt that God is a monarchist — but ethically, monarchs and presidents are both answerable to Him.

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