Did you ever argue politics with an anarchist? How about theology with an atheistic communist? Well, I’ve done both and have learned a lot in the process.
It all goes back to a bench in Hester Street Park, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, near the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, where I attended high school. The veteran reader of these columns will remember my descriptions of the several disheveled older men who populated that park and spent much of their disrupted lives on those benches.
Their story goes back to 1917 and the Russian Revolution. The Communists were successful in overthrowing the czar and his regime, but were sharply divided among themselves about the direction that Russia should take. Two groups, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, fought for the leadership of the Communist Party. To make a long and bloody story short, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, prevailed. The Mensheviks, and an even smaller group who were not Communists, but anarchists, fled for their lives. Some made it to the shores of the United States and lived out their lives as exiles.
We high school students went to the park each day not to discuss politics, believe me, but to play basketball. But on the benches near the park’s entrance sat six or seven men who were among that group of refugees. They were desperately lonely and destitute, but they loved to preach their outdated and failed ideologies to us innocent yeshiva boys. Most of us passed them by, dribbling our basketballs to the nearest playing field. But I was numbered among those few who were so fascinated by these men that we passed up the opportunity to play basketball, so intrigued were we by their animated conversations, and so eager were we to test our immature intellects against their wizened debating skills.
I well remember the day that they brought up a passage in this week’s Torah portion. The passage reads: “After you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you … and you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.”
The old anarchist on the park bench proclaimed words that sounded harshly heretical to our innocent ears: “How can you hold such a passage sacred? How can you study this in your yeshiva as a holy text? Kings! Do you know how much brutality kings and emperors, czars and noblemen, have wrought upon this world? We may be exiled immigrants, but we will be forever proud that we overthrew the kings we knew. Yet, the holy book that you boys study advocates the appointment of a king!”
The old Menshevik Communist, who disagreed with the anarchist on almost every other issue, concurred with him on this one. But, being more knowledgeable about Judaism, he went even further. “So, you are taught by your rabbis that it is a mitzvah to appoint a king! To us, appointing a king and reviving the institution of royalty would constitute a vile sin, a horrible aveirah.”
I no longer remember the feeble adolescent arguments that we marshalled to counter these forceful older men. But I do remember that in subsequent discussions we had amongst ourselves, we considered the “controls” that the Torah itself places upon the Jewish king: “He shall not keep many horses. … He shall not have many wives. … Nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. … He will not act haughtily toward his fellows.” We wondered aloud as to whether these admonitions would be obeyed and whether they would be sufficient to assure that the king would not come to abuse his position of power.
One of us was able to recall the biblical passage in which the prophet Samuel rails against the people who ask to appoint a king: “He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen. … He will take your daughters. … He will seize your choice fields and vineyards. … The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen!”
In time, these heated debates faded from our consciousness as we became preoccupied with ordinary teenage concerns. But somehow the topic of legitimate government remains important to me, and still remains important to those friends of mine from Hester Street Park with whom I maintain friendships.
With time I have come to consider the ways in which leadership roles are achieved. There are those who attain those roles through violence and force. Others achieve them by virtue of their personal charisma. Some inherit those roles. There are even those who achieve it by the acclaim of their people.
I particularly remember a discourse delivered by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who distinguished between the person who performs the function of the king, leading the people and governing them, and the person who is in his very essence is a “princely” person, qualified because of his inner excellence to serve as a leader.
I am not entirely sure that the Rebbe would have agreed with my interpretation of his words. But I learned from him to distinguish, as sociologists do, between ascribed leadership and achieved leadership. In Jewish life there are those whose leadership roles are ascribed, or assigned, to them. An example of this is the Kohein, or priest, who is born into his role. He is entitled to various honors and privileges, and is even granted the spiritual authority to bless others.
There are others who are not born into positions of leadership, but go on to achieve leadership roles because of their own efforts, because of their distinctive intelligence, saintliness, and moral rectitude. For almost two millennia, the Jewish people have experienced no king of any sort. But we have been remarkably blessed with a wide variety of inspirational figures who have led us in diverse and trying circumstances.
They rose to positions of authority because of their ability to inspire, to encourage, and to educate us. They were not anointed, and not even officially appointed, into their roles. Rabbi Akiva taught us so much — from what it meant to be a loving husband to what it meant to die with honor — yet he was born into the humblest of families and achieved his remarkable intellectual feats through his own diligence. Maimonides had no royal role in Jewish society, yet his authority was revered throughout the Jewish world. The same can be said of Gaon of Vilna and the Baal Shem Tov, neither of whom were born into exclusively aristocratic families and neither was appointed to any formal position. They had royal capacities, which earned them the titles of kings of the Jewish people.
We learn from this week’s Torah portion that there are historical circumstances in which there may very well be a mitzvah to coronate a king. But, absent those special circumstances, the lowliest among us can become a king if he has the inner commitment to exercise his God-given skills and talents faithfully and creatively.