Do we want a king?
Deuteronomy 17:14-20 contains laws concerning kings, specifically what a king should not do. The royal power brings to mind the ridiculous belief once held by many people, and still held some today, people who don’t know they are retaining this ancient idea. It is the notion of the healing power of the king’s hand. It is based on the conviction that the king was a divine appointee and, hence, carried some divine strength, including the ability to heal.
The nineteenth century American satirist Ambrose Bierce wrote in his The Devil’s Dictionary, “‘the most pious Edward’ [king] of England used to lay his royal hand upon his ailing subjects and make them whole.”
Bierce continued, “The superstition that maladies can be cured by royal action is dead, but like many a departed conviction it has left a monument of custom to keep its memory green. The practice of forming in line and shaking the president’s hand had no other origin, and when that great dignitary bestows his healing salutation on… visiting people… [they] are handing along an extinguished torch which once was kindled at the altar-fire of a faith long held by all classes of men.”
What other “monuments of custom” has this superstition left as our legacy?
Dare we pause and consider the underlying rationale for our desire to press hands with clergy at the conclusion of services? Is there some semblance between these clergy and the preacher who panders to the pitiful masses who seek healing from he who declares that he can touch and cure his flock though the medium of television waves? Dare we ask if we are seeking some cure or spiritual elevation or are only performing a friendly social act?
Are those who kiss the Torah scroll as it passes them on its way to the platform or ark, or who kiss holy books when they close them, showing a sign of affection and respect or something more? When a father blesses his child on Friday evening, is his blessing more effective because he, as pater familias, touched his child when he makes the blessing? Is it wrong to have such beliefs? It is if one relinquishes control over one’s life and relies on superstition.
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Is it good to have a king?
The ancients disagreed whether it is good to have a king with supreme and absolute power to rule over Israel. Deuteronomy 17:14–20 contains a command – or, as some say, permission – to establish a monarchy. Yet, the prophet Samuel railed against it in I Samuel 8:4–22. He recited a long list of royal exploitations showing how royal rule involves the sacrifice of personal freedoms: people give over the power that they should have over their lives to someone who is interested in his own agenda. Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508) agreed that monarchy is wrong. He was a court official and Bible commentator who saw how the king and queen of Spain abused their royal power and expelled Jews in 1492.
The rabbis analyzed the question and were bothered by the conflict that they saw in Jewish history. They held the conviction that the monarchy belonged only to the descendants of King David, but saw that many Jewish kings were not related to David. The kings of the northern kingdom of Israel were not of his house, yet some of them were appointed to the throne by prophets. This seemed to imply divine approval and authenticity to non-Davidic kings. Furthermore, the Hasmonean kings were not Davidic.
The rabbis resolved their quandary as follows. They acknowledged that there is a biblical command or permission to have a king. They stated that Samuel did not disagree with the clear biblical statement. They explained his opposition to his conviction that the people of his generation were demanding a king for the wrong reason. They were acting in a contentious manner with the improper goal of ridding themselves of the prophetic authority of Samuel. The rabbis recognized the legitimacy of only those kings of the north who were appointed by a prophet and who later showed they were worthy to hold the throne. Thus they dismissed the legitimacy of all the Hasmonean kings and most of those who held the northern throne. The true king in their view was Davidic, with very few exceptions when God saw the need and because of the exigencies of the moment.
The rabbinical view was incorporated into the Synagogue liturgy with prayers being recited daily for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, including statements that the Messiah would be from this royal line.
Despite the recognition of the biblical command and the general rabbinic desire for a Davidic king, the Bible and later rabbinic writings retained the fear expressed by Samuel and set restraints upon the royal power, so that Judaism could assure that the king does not misuse his power.
There are conflicting views, pro and con, whether it is good for Jews to have a king. The underlying fear was that the king would abuse his power. A second and to some a primary concern was that Judaism feels that royalty belongs only to the Davidic family. A third worry is the giving up of personal powers and an over reliance, perhaps even a superstitious reliance, on royal power.
 This is a version of a chapter from my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary” published by Urim Publications.