It is commonly believed among Orthodox Jewry that the Messiah (Anointed One) will be a king from the Davidic dynasty, and that the ideal Jewish government is therefore a monarchy. In light of this, it seems obvious that there is no way to reconcile Judaism with Democracy, so that whenever these two values meet, they must clash until one beats the other.
It is interesting to note that Don Isaac Abravanel is in disagreement with both of these points, and holds that democracy is the best possible form of government until the Messianic Age, at which point the Jewish people will not have a king at all.
Abravanel and Monarchy
Abravanel opposes the monarchy completely, and holds it is never the preferred form of government. In his opinion, you may “observe the countries ruled by kings, notice their idolatry and abominations. Each king does exactly as he sees fit, and the earth is full of violence on their account. And who can tell him what to do?”1
In fact, Abravanel’s opinion of kingship is so low, that he goes so far as to argue with King Solomon’s comments on it in the Bible! Whereas Solomon praises the monarchy, since “The king’s smile brings life” (Prov. 16:14), Abravanel says that having a king is considered nothing less than “abandoning the leadership of God2.
But how could Abravanel argue with Solomon, the wisest of all men and a prophet?
He simply explains that “Even if Solomon praised the institution of kingship- he spoke on his own behalf. But how can we ignore what is self-evident (that is, the dangers of monarchy)?”3 In other words, Solomon was biased towards kingship because he was a king, but an objective bystander would understand that monarchy is a bad form of government4.
In short, Abravanel finds in scripture that “a king per se, whatever type he might be, constitutes a great evil and a serious transgression5.” This in mind, he takes his positions to their natural conclusions, and describes both the kind of regime we should have in the end of days, and the kind of regime we should have until then.
Until the End of Days
As to the practical question of the form of government now and until the Messianic Age, Abravanel tells us of a system will probably sound very familiar to all of us:
“Why shouldn’t any government be temporary, from year to year, more or less?…And why shouldn’t their prerogatives be limited and ordered according to law?…It is more likely that that an individual ruler will sin and transgress…than that many will transgress when they are jointly appointed rulers. For if one of these should transgress, the others will protest. Since they are destined to give an account of their behavior, they will be fearful of other people…”6
In other words, Abravanel supports the idea of a basic from of a responsible, representative, and democratic government. While this political vision is far from the utopia he envisions for the future, it is the best we have for now.
The Utopian Age of the Messiah
Abravanel holds that God’s rule will be complete in the Messianic era, when human politics will be uprooted altogether. This means the end of all human political dominion, including democracy7. God will be the only king as far as the Jews are concerned, but that doesn’t mean there will be no human leadership in any for whatsoever.
In summary, Abravanel holds that the utopian age of the Messiah will not include a monarchy, since kingship is incompatible with Judaism. Rather, we will recognize God as our only king.
However, until that time, we should be ruled by the best government currently possible9. This is a limited and responsible government with a separation of powers, since this is the most trustworthy form of leadership.
With this last point in mind, we may rely on Abravanel’s to argue that democracy and Judaism are not so incompatible as other forms of government in an imperfect age.
Why Were There Kings in the Past?
It is not lost on Abravanel that his opinion seems to directly contradict our past, as the Jews had kings in Biblical times. Furthermore, are we not commanded to have a king?
Abravanel answers that having a king was not commanded, “but was only a matter of permission, though an act of sin”. This could be compared to other laws where God granted permission to act on the evil inclination, such as the commandment regarding the “Eshet Yefat Toar”, or the law of the “Beautiful Captive (Woman)”. Having chosen a king, however, the people must eventually engage in repentance, since it is still a sin10.
1 Commentary on 1 Samuel 8:6, “Ha-Dibbur ha-Rishon” (From now on: “1 Samuel”). Translation Abravanel’s writings were taken from Aviezer Ravitzky’s book “Religion and State in Jewish Philosophy” (Israel Democracy Institute, 2002), pp. 85-121. The post follows his interpretation of Abravanel’s political positions.
7 Abravanel holds that political dominion is a sin, and arose from man’s rejection of the perfect and natural Eden. Now that we have it, he holds that we are commanded to govern in the best way possible, but only until the time o fhe Messiah. See his commentary to Gen. 1:1