A King in Israel
In a provocative and profound essay in this magazine (“A King in Israel,” May 2010), the late Michael Wyschogrod proposed that the Jewish state define itself as a democratic, constitutional monarchy. Israel, Wyschogrod suggested, should rename its head of state—the president elected by its legislature, who already plays a largely ceremonial role—and give him or her the title “Regent of the Throne of David.” This would not, he wrote, involve changing anything about the Knesset and other aspects of the political process. Without redefining its democratic nature, “Israel nonetheless can be declared a Davidic monarchy without a reigning king.” This symbolic action, Wyschogrod argued, “would build into the self-understanding of the state of Israel the messianic hope of the Jewish people, while excluding a messianic interpretation of the present state of Israel.”
Israel is a Jewish state but has not succeeded in defining just what that means in a national constitution. Although the 1948 Declaration of Independence called for the enactment of a constitution within months of the state’s inception, nothing has been achieved beyond a fragmentary “Basic Law.” Israel finds itself in the uncomfortable position of fighting for its status as a Jewish state without a clear vision of what that entails.
There appears to be an unbridgeable gap between three millennia of Jewish religious thought and the exigencies of modern governance. Yet Judaism’s defining concept, the covenant, is inherently political, and a proper understanding of biblical and rabbinic theology might identify a solution to Israel’s constitutional vacuum.
To discuss theological criteria for the constitution of a secular republic runs against the grain of modern political thought, even though constitutional restrictions on popular sovereignty imply reliance on an authority that is greater than human. In a republic the people are sovereign, yet the purpose of a constitution is precisely to restrict the power of any future majority. If popular sovereignty is absolute, what right has a constitution to frustrate a future majority by, for example, imposing some form of supermajority? In the extreme case, suppose a majority of the delegates to a constitutional convention enacts a constitution that forbids any change forever, or requires a 98 percent majority of the future legislature to enact any constitutional change.
This is no different in principle from the two-thirds supermajority that the United States requires for constitutional amendments. The only basis for a polity to accept severe restrictions on popular majority rule is the conviction that the founding constitution derives its power from a higher form of sovereignty than the voters in any given legislative session. Without such a theological foundation, a republic cannot feel bound by the rules laid down by its founders. A purely secular republic would self-destruct because it could not protect its constitution from constant amendment.
To propose a constitution, in other words, is to ask the question: What form of sovereignty is higher than that of the present voters? America’s Founders appealed to “nature and nature’s God.” Judaism has an answer to this question, elaborated in the oral and written Torah—however remote they appear, at first consideration, from the practical requirements of the state of Israel.
Judaism is founded on a covenant between God and Israel. Instead of unilaterally imposing his will on Israel, God enters into a relation of mutual obligations with a people. This relation is, in content, not only religious but political and legal, and it is understood in this fashion in the Bible and rabbinic literature, where God is called “the King of all Kings” perhaps more often than by any other appellation.
God, moreover, exercises his kingship through proxies. There are three religious institutions and persons in the biblical polity who are divinely sanctioned: the king, the prophet, and the high priest. But of these three offices, only the term king is routinely applied to human beings as well as to God. This is noteworthy because, of the three, the prophet and high priest hold religious functions while the office of king is largely secular. In the presence of a human king, the following blessing is recited: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.” A human king thus participates in the glory of God. To see a human king is, in a sense, to see a proxy for God.
The crowning of an actual Davidic monarch today would require prophecy to select the proper person. In the absence of prophecy, this is impossible—and the sages of Israel declared almost two thousand years ago that prophecy was gone from Israel. Israel nonetheless can be declared a Davidic monarchy without a reigning king. This action would build into the self-understanding of the state of Israel the messianic hope of the Jewish people, while excluding a messianic interpretation of the present state of Israel.
The solution that I propose is by no means unusual for a constitutional monarchy. It is a common occurrence in monarchy that no king is present or that the present king cannot rule, for example, due to youth. In such situations, a regent is appointed as a placeholder for a king. Such a placeholder can either be appointed or elected. A regent safeguarding the Throne of David until such time that divine intervention identifies the rightful heir to the Davidic kingdom would thus assume the functions now performed by Israel’s president, the symbolic head of state.
It would be quite possible for Israel’s parliament to elect the regent who safeguards the throne just as it now elects Israel’s president. None of the other mechanisms of parliamentary democracy in Israel would need to change. What is important is not the specific mechanism by which the Israeli polity might choose a regent, but, rather, for Israel to understand itself as a monarchy, albeit one without a reigning king.
This would acknowledge God’s will that Israel be ruled by the House of David, and it would define the Jewish character of the Israeli state. If we concede that any constitutional constraints on popular sovereignty derive from an authority higher than the people, we must conclude that a constitution uniquely suited to a Jewish state should embody the political form through which this higher authority has been manifest in the Jewish concept of polity for the past three thousand years. To be a constitutionally Jewish state, Israel must understand itself as a monarchy temporarily without a king.
Such a constitutional monarchy is quite as compatible with modern parliamentary democracy as are the monarchies of Holland and England. But there would remain a fundamental difference between Israel and the European monarchies, which exist as a matter of historical happenstance. For Israel to establish its claim to be a Jewish state—the core issue of contention between Israel and many of its Muslim neighbors—it must do so in the unique way specified by the Bible and the undivided view of Jewish tradition.
Collateral benefits might ensue from such a declaration. For example, the fact that several Arab countries are monarchies (including Israel’s eastern neighbor) raises the prospect that a Davidic monarchy in Israel might elicit a certain degree of respect. The symbolic importance of acknowledging the House of David as Israel’s rightful ruler, moreover, would be a source of inspiration to many Christians who are favorably disposed towards the Jewish state.
The possible practical benefits, though, are incidental to the purpose of giving expression to the deep Jewish longing for Davidic restoration, expressed so frequently and with such deep emotion in the daily liturgy that Jews have recited for thousands of years, in which we beseech God to see a descendant of David on the throne of Israel.
Michael Wyschogrod is professor emeritus of philosophy at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of The Body of Faith .
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