Are you sick of it yet? The barrage of commercials, of cable tv pundits talking incessantly, and of news and social media being obsessed with every little political sound bite? Alas, with the Presidential campaign season officially beginning with the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and with each side planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to connect with each one of us, we are sure to hear even more about the virtues and vices of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney over the next two months or so.
So how do we sift through the cacophony of political commentary out there and actually pick a candidate? Is there any sacred wisdom that we can draw from as we try to make an informed decision about the 2012 Presidential election? In one of those delicious moments of serendipity, it turns out that the biblical reading in the Jewish lectionary for this past week, Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9), provides precisely such guidance.
In Deuteronomy 17, the Israelites are instructed that, when they enter Israel, they have the option of being ruled by a king if they so choose. Several key prerequisites are then established for sovereignty. First, the king must be an Israelite, not a foreigner. Second, the sovereign shall not keep many horses or send people to Egypt to get him additional horses. Third, he shall not have many wives nor amass excessive amounts of silver or gold. Finally, when he sits on his throne, the king shall have a copy of the Torah written for him that he frequently reads and observes faithfully.
What are these prerequisites all about? I see at least three considerations emerging from the biblical text. Initially, the notion that the king must not be a foreigner suggests that the sovereign must share a connection with his subjects; he should see himself as one of them, not as different from them. Additionally, the prohibition against keeping many horses, having many wives, and amassing excessive amounts of silver or gold all speak to the need for a sovereign not to focus on issues of personal self-interest such as the accumulation of wealth, nor take actions that require others to consolidate wealth for him. Finally, the requirement that the king read and observe the Torah constantly reinforces the notion that the sovereign must rule not according to his subjective desires but subject to legal and moral constraints and in a spirit of humility.
So where does this leave us today? Obviously, we are not picking a king but a president. Moreover, we are not picking a Jewish president but an American one. Nevertheless, I think the points above once again demonstrate that the Bible is far more than a repository of ancient rituals and practices. It is a font of wisdom and tradition that has much to offer our contemporary reality.
Deuteronomy 17 elucidates values and perspectives that can help us identify the type of candidate that is consistent with the biblical understanding of a proper leader. We should look for a candidate who sees himself (in this case) as one of, and therefore beholden to, the people, rather than someone who comes across as haughty or aloof. To govern us, a candidate should be able to understand us; to connect mentally and emotionally with our struggles as millions of Americans continue to be mired in economic woes. Second, and relatedly, we should make sure that the candidate is not interested in policies (wealth accumulation or otherwise) that only benefit those like him. Third, we should seek a candidate who sees his role as part of a constitutional process in which he is beholden to the rule of law and the constraints of morality. We should look for a candidate who doesn’t think he has a monopoly on the truth but is willing to learn and grow as a leader—someone who exudes humility rather than hubris.
I leave to you to determine which of our two candidates best embodies these values. And, in the end, may God bless us with a President who will look after the best interests of this country with intelligence, compassion, and morality.
Image by Vectorportal, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Josh Ratner is a 37 year-old rabbi in Connecticut. Josh is originally from San Diego, California, and spent time working as an attorney for five years prior to commencing rabbinical school. Josh presently lives in Woodbridge, CT, with his wife (Elena) and three children (Dimitri, Elijah, and Gabriella). Josh is particularly interested in sustainability and other environmental issues, particularly from an interfaith perspective.