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Government, the Rule of Law, and Applying David's Tehilim to the Real World
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch on a universal Torah message that points in every direction
More than most Jewish thinkers from the past two centuries, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch addressed the Torah’s universal message. That is, the message that the Torah expects all human beings to hear, and not just the Jews. But figuring out exactly what that message is - and how it should be applied - can be tricky.
Hirsch’s commentary to the second Psalm (see below for the full text) is a case in point. The chapter begins by accusing the nations of resisting obedience to God’s moral law and the teachings of His anointed one (“ועל משיחו"). This, despite the fact that a nation’s true success and happiness depend on adopting Torah values. They are, according to the text (2:1), fully aware they face existential problems, but vainly seek solutions (“יהגו ריק”) anywhere but where they’re found.
How, instead, are they expected to act?
It seems (2:6) that they should be sensitive to the teachings of the king who God appointed and to the values taught by the Temple. After all, the word “ציון” - used to describe the Temple - actually translates as “marker”, something used to widely identify something.
Hirsch specifically suggests that the ongoing repetition of David’s moral lessons (2:7) should have driven acceptance of the key moral values of God’s system to the point where they were formalized into law (“אספרה אל חק”).
What does all that mean in practical terms?
Does God really expect leaders of all the world’s nations to be familiar enough with Torah thought that they’ll voluntarily adopt His values?
What exactly was David’s role in world history and how was he expected to perform it?
What specifically is the behavior that the nations are to adopt? Is it the seven Noahide laws? The entire Torah? Something else?
Given that these principles are timeless, what would such a large-scale adoption look like in the current political climate?
What are Jews to think when we read this chapter?
In fact, Hirsch makes it clear that he believes the Temple is a teaching tool for all people everywhere and the prophet Isaiah (56:7) seems to have shared that belief. The remarkable global dissemination and popularity of David’s Psalms added potency to those teachings. God’s choice of David as His eternal representative was partly due do the king’s ability to create poetry and song that combine high art with moral clarity.
Hirsch thus felt that, at some point in history, knowledge of God’s will had spread so widely as to make ignoring it an act of willful rebellion. And, apparently, it was the songs of David - along with David’s personal and professional example - that were to carry this message to such powerful effect.
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Ideally, change should come voluntarily as a result of genuine inspiration (הַשְׂכִּילוּ הִוָּסְרוּ). But if necessary, progress should continue even in the face of opposition (עבדו את ד’ ביראה).
What must change? There are a thousand things going on today in Western societies that we can easily imagine angering God. But are those the topics informing David’s message here? Given all the contradictory “moral” voices that make up our current political discourse, is it useful to expect political leaders to latch on to David’s message when it directly conflicts with all the noisy prevailing trends?
Perhaps I’m just underestimating the power of Tehilim. But I suspect the primary focus here isn’t on Torah principles that conflict directly with corrupting social trends, but on a subset of principles that are much harder to reject out of hand. And, as a bonus, this subset will be just as applicable to Jewish internal communal life as to nation states.
That is to say that I suspect that the improvements that have been sadly missing but are within the practical grasp of all social groups involve lawlessness (רֶשַׁע). This is something Hirsch refers to both here and elsewhere in his writings.
But what is lawlessness? And while we’re on the topic, what is lawfullness? In Hirschian terms, the goal is to ensure that all members of a society have full access to their property and civil rights.
Sure, that’ll include protecting normal citizens from petty theft and violent crimes. But it also means protecting normal citizens from abuse of power. In a lawful world, the rich and politically connected will be unable to use their power to impose their will on the poor and helpless; on widows and orphans (and others like them). As I’ve written elsewhere, this kind of corruption has historically been a problem even at the highest levels of Jewish society.
Only when the rule of law is a government’s primary objective can it be said to be following the path taught by the Temple and by David.
תהלים פרק ב
א לָמָּה רָגְשׁוּ גוֹיִם וּלְאֻמִּים יֶהְגּוּ-רִיק
ב יִתְיַצְּבוּ מַלְכֵי-אֶרֶץ-- וְרוֹזְנִים נוֹסְדוּ-יָחַד עַל-יְהוָה וְעַל-מְשִׁיחוֹ
ג נְנַתְּקָה אֶת-מוֹסְרוֹתֵימוֹ וְנַשְׁלִיכָה מִמֶּנּוּ עֲבֹתֵימוֹ
ד יוֹשֵׁב בַּשָּׁמַיִם יִשְׂחָק אֲדֹנָי יִלְעַג-לָמוֹ
ה אָז יְדַבֵּר אֵלֵימוֹ בְאַפּוֹ וּבַחֲרוֹנוֹ יְבַהֲלֵמוֹ
ו וַאֲנִי נָסַכְתִּי מַלְכִּי עַל-צִיּוֹן הַר-קָדְשִׁי
ז אֲסַפְּרָה אֶל-חֹק יְהוָה אָמַר אֵלַי בְּנִי אַתָּה--אֲנִי הַיּוֹם יְלִדְתִּיךָ
ח שְׁאַל מִמֶּנִּי--וְאֶתְּנָה גוֹיִם נַחֲלָתֶךָ וַאֲחֻזָּתְךָ אַפְסֵי-אָרֶץ
ט תְּרֹעֵם בְּשֵׁבֶט בַּרְזֶל כִּכְלִי יוֹצֵר תְּנַפְּצֵם
י וְעַתָּה מְלָכִים הַשְׂכִּילוּ הִוָּסְרוּ שֹׁפְטֵי אָרֶץ
יא עִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה בְּיִרְאָה וְגִילוּ בִּרְעָדָה
יב נַשְּׁקוּ-בַר פֶּן-יֶאֱנַף וְתֹאבְדוּ דֶרֶךְ-- כִּי-יִבְעַר כִּמְעַט אַפּוֹ אַשְׁרֵי כָּל-חוֹסֵי בוֹ