Declaration of Dependence

by Chaim G.

Today is Independence Day. Guess this is one of those quirky years when it coincides with July the 4th. It is a day when we grill the flesh of bovines in our backyards and our own epidermis’ on beaches. Somewhere, deep in the hidden strata of our collective societal subconscious, we also exult in breaking the shackles of tyrannical monarchy to enjoy the diverse blessings of liberty and democracy.

The eternal question though is; is it good for the Jews?

Hobbes wrote that “the sovereign ruler is by definition above the law” and Jean Bethke Elshtain’s added, “laws take the form of his untrammeled will.” Without a doubt this puts all of his/her subject as at a vulnerable disadvantage. Yet the absence of sovereign monarchs from the world stage puts us at a distinct disadvantage in terms of our relationships with HaShem. Lacking kings claiming “the Divine Right (to rule)” we are short of living breathing metaphors for the right of the Divine King. Every brakha containing the phrase Melekh HaOlam= King of the Universe, every Avinu Malkenu, rings hollow without any sense of the majesty, sovereignty and POWER of Princes.

All brakhos are phenomenological. While saying “Blessed are you HaShem, King of the Cosmos, who created the fruit of the vine” is always a true statement it’s a brakha l’vatala= a brakha in vain unless one is about to imbibe wine/ grape juice. Still, by and large, brakhos are opportunistic. We seldom find a halakha of striving to come in contact with a phenomenon that forces a brakha. The brakha pronounced over kings is a notable exception. The Gemara in Brakhos states that one should exert themselves to see kings, even gentile kings. Also IIRC this is the only brakha in which hearing the phenomenon is sufficient and seeing is not required. IMO the brakha over Kings is exceptional because it is so essential for us to forge an authentic relationship with HaShem.

It is striking that King James I claimed for himself the right “to exalt low things, and abase high things, and make of their subjects like men at the Chesse.” It resonates with our liturgy in describing HaShem as a “mashpil geyim and maggbihah shefalim”. It is also extremely apt because it implies that although, in theory, the absolute Monarch could make up the rules as he goes along, there is, in fact, a game with certain immutable rules that cannot be flouted. Try as he might a sovereign monarch playing chess cannot move his Rooks as he would his Bishops. This speaks to HaShem’s “willingness” to abide by the “limitations” of “midah k’neged midah”= quid pro quo, in dealing with His chess pieces. Re HaShem although “He make-uh da game, He play-uh by da rules”

And while Adam Kirsch wrote in a recent NY Sun Review of Ms. Bethke Elshtain’s book Sovereignty: God, State, and Self that “natural law, history shows, has an unsettling malleability: It tends to become an honorific for prejudice and custom” the current era of the sovereign self, the logical conclusion of the French revolution and July 4th 1776, has culminated in “a self conceived in terms of total autonomy and absolute will — … a monster of egotism.”, in Ms. Elshtain’s view and the expressions of this egotism include radical feminism, sexual license, abortion rights, eugenics, stem cell research, and cloning.

So here’s my dilemma: While a Merciful Providence micromanaging history replaced monarchies with parliamentary democracies and directed a large chunk of His nearly shattered people to these shores in the years following the Holocaust, shores where we breathe free and enjoy religious liberty unprecedented in our long and bitter Galus=Diaspora, did He do so at the expense of His own “prestige” and, concomitantly, at the expense of our own ability to relate to Him in a real and authentic way? To wax metaphoric, did He “raise us on the wings of eagles” and take the hunters arrows for us yet again? And in so doing are the eaglets and chicks now orphans with warped views of their own Parent?

The article that inspired this post is here. Click on the link and read this provocative review. It alone is worth the price of admission!

First Published 7/2008

37 comments on “Declaration of Dependence

  1. Chaim G. wrote:

    These are the models of malchus

    I think not. I think these are models of dictatorship not of malchus. Are really don’t get your drift. When a Jew calls G-d king is hte mental image being pictured SUPPOSED to be one of Atilla the Hun?

    That’s Rabbi Schwartz’s thesis, not mine. But how would you define the difference between absolute monarchy and dictatorship? I believe the only difference is the claim to hereditary right in the first case. Do not confuse the former with constitutional monarchy.

  2. Ah, the ‘Declaration’. Of course, writing from the Commonwealth Royal, it might be assumed that I would disgree with the wording of the Declaration – or embrace it from some percieved “Jewish Bolshevism”. Yet I fundamentally agree with the sentiment – and hold it to be inspired by Torah values. Though with Benjamin Franklin I take umbrage with ‘the pursuit of happiness’. Yet, It seems that we are getting bogged down with the myopia of our own times and places.

    Given that I can never assume the throne, I am free to achieve my own happiness. Confident that my freedoms are assured under the weight of ‘Common Law’.

    The United States is a daring experiment, that may or may not remain – but in the end it is as transitory as the current reigning house in our world. Does this debase it? I think not. It is part of the common heritage of humanity, and evidence that a spark of the Divine dwells within us all.

    If the United States had not existed, and the genius of the ‘Colonial Enlightenment’ has not shone in our world, then we would all be the poorer (I still get chills when i read Federalist No.13).

    It does however present us with a chilling dilemma. The elevation of the individual to pre-eminence has spawned a whole swathe of philosophical dilemmas that our society is struggling with. Up to this point, we have struggled with this dilemma as evinced by the high emotion of the ‘sectarianism’ of the last 2.5 centuries.

    Our friends across the pond might think that George the III is still going to invade (along with Dumpy Old George IV), yet having grown up in a Constitutional Monarchy I find the Brachah issue less acrimonious than my republican leaning friends.

    We have a Brachah upon seeing a monarch (and I am proud to say I have recited it many times), and here in the Commonwealth we recite the prayer for the Royal Family with awe and gusto. Does this mean that when i refer to HaShem as Melech HaOlam that i put him in the same boat as Attila? No!

    Our brethren who live in the US might be trapped by 240 odd years of ‘anti-royalist’ propoganda. They might find the viewing of HaShem in the light of a Basileus – an enlightened monarch – or a ‘dharma-King’. Both are monarchs who must rule in accord with ‘The Path’. Sumerian’s ruled according to ‘met’, and Egyptians ruled according to ‘ma’at’. Our monarchs rule according to ‘Torah’, and this touches upon an important point. In the Shema we are instructed to ‘make of ourselves a Holy People’. This phrase includes a verb – ‘to make’. We must do something so as to be holy. Our monarchs are lifted up and consecrated by holy rituals that recognise that all power comes from the Divine. So we acknowledge that by being the ‘Melech HaOlam’, that HaShem is the ultimate consecrator, the supreme source of authority. Through our reaching up, and embracing the revolutionary agenda of making ourselves holy (without denying others their own paths) that we are raised above the local, to the level of the Holy. Is this not the journey of the Tsaddik?

    May the blessings of the Rabbenu Shel Olam grace you all on this holiday season. May peace grace our world and all Israel.

    Wishing you all a Kol Tov


  3. >These are the models of malchus

    I think not. I think these are models of dictatorship not of malchus. Are really don’t get your drift. When a Jew calls G-d king is hte mental image being pictured SUPPOSED to be one of Atilla the Hun?

    Remember in serving G-d love and awe are both supposed to inform the relationship. Atilla was many things, but he was certainly not adorable.

  4. Now that I’ve got Steve weighing in that I’m correct, let me introduce a little nuance.

    I believe the conception of monarchy found in Jewish classical sensibility, as reflected in the Tanach through the Talmud and early authorities, is not at all European but of the “Oriental despot” variety. The kings and warlords of the East did indeed have absolute power, which they exercised cruelly. They ruled over societies that had neither Christianity nor any of the aspects of pluralism that characterized a Europe that considered Ancient Greece a bona fide source of cultural and, later, political inspiration. As pagans, they seldom had an issue with hypocrisy (compare the case of Caesar’s wife in the pagan West): they regarded power and its perquisites as being justified axiomatically by a leader’s ability to exercise them.

    These are the models of malchus, not the medieval kings, queens, lords and ladies, nor the petty monarchs of democracy. Considering this cultural readjustment of our focus, Rabbi Schwartz’s thesis is more compelling, not necessarily as to the contradistinction with what American-style democracy and pluralism has wrought in the West, but at least as to the way our ancestors looked at royalty in ancient times.

    I would think.

  5. R Schwartz-thanks for that clarification. Yet, even assuming that the moshul is accurate, the same functions only and if the Gdolei Talmidie Chachamim have awareness of the same factors that either a Kohen or Melech had in their function. Halevai that this was or is so.

  6. Prior to the Declaration of Independence it would be pretty unthinkable for the head of any state, much less a great power, to be similarly pilloried

    True. But I ask again… Is this good for the Jews? When Kings reigned their subjects had living breathing examples of an entity that was beyond reproach.

    … That’s an interesting point, standing by itself. But it’s hard to imagine that even this psychological model was all that useful considering that you could see a king — unlike the King of kings — could be wicked, rapacious, stupid, arbitrary, and immoral, and yet “beyond reproach.” I’m not sure that’s a good object lesson in terms of how to regard HKBH.

  7. Regarding the comment by Steve Brizel
    July 4th, 2008 11:27 20 :

    Clearly, the Neviim were limited in their ability to force a message across to certain kings. That did not give the trangressing kings any “right” to disobey the Torah and avoid consequences from Heaven.

    Regarding the comment by Steve Brizel
    July 4th, 2008 12:02 25 :

    Esther was Divinely authorized to do what she did, and this matter is, in any case, irrelevant to our discussion.


    I’m looking forward to the restoration of Malchus Beis David speedily in our days. Mashiach’s behavior will be on the highest level, in HaShem’s eyes and ours!

  8. >Please explain how the Maharal’s comment disproves Churchill’s comment.

    IIRC he was referring to democracy as practiced by the Greeks and opined that Monarchies are superior forms of governments to democracies.

    I don’t recall if he touched on the issues raised by Rav Kirzner z”l and Chaim G.

  9. The moshol my RY z”l gave by way of introduction was this: When, cholila, a family man becomes a widower he must be BOTH mother and father to his children. In a more modern parlance he must learn to multitask.

    The Rama M’Fano is describing a golus/Churban phenomenon. Wheras in halcyon times there was a distinct “division of labor” and the tasks of the talmidei chachomim were more specialized in golus the lomdei Torah MUST multitask and somewaht fill the roles of the kohanim b’avodusum and the Kings. IOW *currently* regal-ness, pomp and/or rulership and and modes of worship/avoadah not-grounded in Torah nor embodied in T.C.s, more likely than not, will not reflect authentic Jewsih values.

    Just as a two parent home where mothers do the mothering is preferable to a one-parent home, even one helmed by the most in-touch-with-his-nurturing-side , Mr. Mom father so too what came before and what will reappear in the Messianic era BB”A is the optimum condition for K’lal Yisrael.

    That is waht the liturgy reflects. i see no contradiction between the Rama and the Rambam/liturgy.

  10. RDS-re your comment of the Maharal, WADR, I am at a loss to understand the same. The Maharal died in 1609(?), which was the very beginning of the British and French exploration and conquest of the eastern sections of North America and long before the UK was truly a constitutional monarchy. Please explain how the Maharal’s comment disproves Churchill’s comment.

  11. R Schwartz-Please explain your last comment in light of Rambam’s statement in Hilcos Talmud Torah 3:1 that the crown of Torah differs from the crowns of Malcus and Kehunah and is accessible to all. Obviously, a Mamzer Talmid Chacham is greater than a Kohen Am HaAretz but our Tefilos still include reqest the restoration of Malchus Ben David and the Mikdash, as opposed to praising Talmidie Chachamim as encompassing Malchus Ben David or the Kohanim Gdolim in their most pristine and ideal state. One can argue that the hashkafa known as Daas Torah makes such a comparison, but the Nusach HaTefilah clearly would make such a comparison open to discussion as to the accuracy of the same,at the very least.

  12. Bob Miller-The Talmud ( IIRC in Megillah) tells us that Esther HaMalkah accomplished more than all of the previous prophets attempted to do and that we should be very happy on Purim-despite the fact that she remained Achashverush’s wife to her death and raised her children as total Gentiles.

    Rambam and many Rishonim view the Book of Esther as having the same stringencies as Torah for this reason, as opposed to all of the Sifrei Neviim-whose attempts at motivating the royal classes and the Jewish People went fairly unanswered by comparison. One can argue that the critiques of the Nevvim were simply not listened to, and that Esther’s emphasis on communal unity among all Jews in a Taanis , as stated in the Megilah and Talmud, resulted in Teshuvah and a willing reacceptance of TSBP.

  13. Re: Rav Kirzner z”l’s insight:

    I heard from my Roshashiva z”l in the name of the Rama of Fahno (R. Menachem Azariah mi-Fano )after the destruction of the Bais HaMiqdash and the dissolution of the Davidic dynasty that the kesser of malkhus and the kesser of k’huna/avodah were both absorbed by the kesser torah.

    Many chasidim look to Rebbes, Yeshiva-leit to their Roshei Yeshiva and balei-Batim to their Rabbonim and for some last vestige of the allegory of sovereignty to help them better relate to G-d.

  14. Rabbi Kirzner z”tl spoke about the lack of honor-deserving Kings in our times and the difficulty that creates for us in revering Hashem as the King of the Universe

    I guess a hearty Baruch shekeevantee is in order.

  15. Winston Chuchaill once commented that democracy, especially the American constitutional form, is the worst form of government, except for all others!

    IIRC the Mahral makes Churchill’s comment without making his exception.

  16. I recall going through a Sicha of Rav Nevenzahl as well as a Dvar Torah from RHS wherein this theme was voiced-When we learn anything, we have to recognize trying to understand what the Rishonim are saying is paramount-even if they disagree sharply with each other’s understanding, which is very evident. One should never say that because Rashi was two generations before the Baalei HaTosfos that Rashi is always right, to reconcile a sharp dissent of the Raavad from the Rambam that represents a totally different understanding of a Talmnudic passage than that of Rambam, or that if the Mchaber and Rema disagree, then if one is Ashkenazi or Sefardi, one merely ignores one or the other. Likewise, we err in placing all energies in understanding Chumash solely into learning only Rashi, as opposed to Ramban, Ibn Ezra. Seforno, Rashbam, etc. All are clearly Divrei Elokim Chaim.

    However, neither a Rishon, Acharon or contemporary Gadol has the same level of Ruach HaKodesh as HaKadosh Baruch Hu because man, while created in the Divine Image, simply is a person whose lifespan is finite.

  17. Bob Miller-Besides Musar from a Navi, which was not always listened to, what formal mechanisms were ever implemented in the renoval ala a resignation due to an extramarital affair, congressional investigations, articles of impeachment, etc, of any of the various corupt and idol-worshipping and Torah transgressing monarchs during Bayis Rishon?

  18. Rabbi Kirzner z”tl spoke about the lack of honor-deserving Kings in our times and the difficulty that creates for us in revering Hashem as the King of the Universe. He suggested that our Rebbeim serve that role these days.

    Although there is too much negativity aimed at Rebbeim online, in the offline world, Rebbeim do get respect. In KGH, many more people stand now when a Rabbi enters the room then in the past. It is only one outward sign, but perhaps each of us can build on that to develop the necessary reverence.

  19. The Jewish kings allowed by Torah law were constitutional monarchs. Both the Chumash and Neviim made it very clear that these kings could not rule arbitrarily. Those honored to be Jewish kings were not legally beyond reproach. We see clear examples in Tanach of reproach delivered when necessary.

  20. I would suggest that as citizens of a country where the Jewish People have such an unparalleled ability to observe their faith in the history of our people requires that we educated ourselves and our children in what Baalei Chasidus and Musar would call the Mesiras Nefesh of the past generations who fought the American Revolution, signed the Declaration of Independence, cobbled together a Constitution and Bill of Rights and fought a bloody war over the future of slavery. There are so many National Parks, battlefield monuments ,etc on the East Coast and excellent books to read that make for a great sense of appreciation of the actions of the American People.

  21. One can argue that an emphasis on unfettered individual rights at the expense of the community may have led to the situation described by the author. However, Winston Chuchaill once commented that democracy, especially the American constitutional form, is the worst form of government, except for all others!

  22. IMO historically thsi was why the period of Judges ended and the period of Kings began. The Talmud teaches that the people “judged their judges” because the Judges were more sinful and corrupt than the laity.

    Our first king Saul OTOH was as innocent as a “one year old when he reigned” and “head and shoulders” above his peers.

  23. Prior to the Declaration of Independence it would be pretty unthinkable for the head of any state, much less a great power, to be similarly pilloried,

    True. But I ask again… Is this good for the Jews? When Kings reigned their subjects had living breathing examples of an entity that was beyond reproach.

    How many of us walk around ambivalent in our observances and cold in our devotion because we have gripes against G-d? Do you believe that “Why good things happen to bad people” would have mushroomed into such a cottage industry under the reign of sovereign monarchs?

    As recently as the “Camelot” era of JFK Presidential peccadillos were covered up by a collaberating, cooperative press to maintain the prestige and dignity of the oval office.

    Our presidents are no longer awe-inspiring they are comedy inspiring. We routinely sling mud at them at so much of the muck sticks. Where’s the allegory for the King of kings?

  24. my right to property isn’t inherent, it exists because HaShem forbade you from taking it from me!

    Sounds like a pretty good definition of “inherent” to me!

    Chaim asked, “Observing the shenanigans of a Clinton or an Olmert is awe-inspiring?”

    No, you have to be selective!!

    It was awe-inspiring in America that in fact Clinton could be criticized, even prosecuted — and even then, acquitted — for his shameful acts. Prior to the Declaration of Independence it would be pretty unthinkable for the head of any state, much less a great power, to be similarly pilloried, ridiculed and subjected to legal process.

    As to Olmert, on the other hand, don’t get me started…

  25. Does the halacha saying we ought to exert ourselves to see kings limit it to the benevolent variety? If not, would Stalin “get” a bracha?

    May one pronounce the “King” bracha apply to the political figures that you mentioned?

  26. Last 30 years: Vaclav Havel, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan… compare well to most past monarchs.

    Stalin was way more deadly than Hank8. So? Some of the more infamous kings would have been equally bad if they had the technology.

  27. Fair enough. Kindly “select” a President or Prime Minister of a Western Democracy over the last 30 years who could serve as a allegory for the King of kings HKB”H ?

    Bob IYO is the only difference between Henry the VIII and Stalin is that the former wore crowns and ermine trimmed capes while the latter wore the uniform of a proletarian comrade?

  28. Chaim asked, “Observing the shenanigans of a Clinton or an Olmert is awe-inspiring?”

    No, you have to be selective!!

    As I intimated, history has more than its share of mad or savage kings.

  29. For example, my right to property isn’t inherent, it exists because HaShem forbade you from taking it from me!


    Not sure this is correct. Does Eretz Yisrael belong to the descendants of the Avos because he forbade other nations to take it (you will be hard pressed to find this prohibition in the Noahide Laws) or… did He grant it to to the descendants of the Avos and hence, other nations who are there become squatters, tresspassers or theives???

    What happened to “chaviv ahdahm shenivrah b’tzelem”= “precious is man for he was created in (Elokim’s)form”?

    Don’t forget that the founders of the USA also spoke of inalienable rights endowed to them by their Creator. There is a Divine right of kings but ALSO a Divine right of human beings.

    In your view, is there no hierarchal qualitiative difference in ones responsibilities towards ones fellow human and towards animals and plants?

  30. Really??

    Observing the shenanigans of a Clinton or an Olmert is awe-inspiring?

  31. For millennia before the American Revolution, kings and emperors around the world were acting badly and irresponsibly. Despite that, we were able to abstract from their bearing and behavior, and from the pomp and ceremony around them, some inkling of what a king COULD be. We can probably do the same exercise observing democratic (small “d”) rulers.

  32. Both the book and the essay seem to miss the point, at least as far as Orthodox Jews are concerned: “Rights” are not something that our tradition discusses much. Judaism is about responsibilities. For example, my right to property isn’t inherent, it exists because HaShem forbade you from taking it from me!

    As a result, the typical examples of what Ms. Elshtain describes as excesses of egotism don’t fall into the same neat categories as far as we are concerned: While we are quite opposed to sexual license, an abortion is actually mandated for Jews in some instances where many Christians would forbid one, and stem cell research has been enthusiastically endorsed by some of the greatest rabbis in the world.

    The reason why I from the perspective of a Jew would celebrate July 4 is that our people have suffered as much as any from the actions of governments that lack any check on their power and do not respect human rights. I thank HaShem for creating a place where we can live without persecution and observe mitzvot largely without interference. This has not come about by accident; rule by democracy can be just as abusive as rule by dictator and the authors of the Federalist Papers were very concerned with creating a workable form of government that would not leave identifiable minorities at the mercy of a malicious majority. (It should be pointed out that they did not suceed in that entirely — they tolerated the continuation of chattel slavery.)

    FWIW, July 4, 1776 fell on 17 Tammuz.

    Also, my mother z’tz’l was born on July 4, 1931.

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