In recent weeks, the new US president has clashed with his federal judges by calling a halt on his travel ban. So, what does the Torah say about kings (or presidents) disagreeing with judges?
This federal case is an interesting one. The local federal justices in Washington State agreed the ban should be halted.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said: “We are a nation of laws, and as we have said from day one, those laws apply to everyone in the country. That includes the president of the United States.”
In Halacha a king is very powerful. He has the power of life and death over his subjects. However, his power was not untrammelled. He was, like every man, subject to God’s laws.
Judges have changed in nature over time. A shofet was a judge in biblical pre-monarchy times. He or she were prophets, military leaders and also judicial figures, with Moses the greatest of them all.
Their judicial function was part of their mediation of the divine. After the period of Judges, with the death of Samuel, this function changed and became purely judicial. The king took all the other powers.
Kings were limited in power, however, because we have all seen pharaoh and other kings abuse their absolute monarchy.
When King David has Uriah the Hittite killed, he is subject to moral punishment and loses a child at God’s hand – so even the most powerful king has to do what God says – and his judges are there to enforce the law. A king cannot, for example, alter the Torah or act arbitrarily.
In this sense, one could say the limitations of Trump’s presidency came directly out of the idea that judges act as a check on regal power. Today’s Dayyan is a legal judge, expert in the limits of halachic jurisdiction and power. Just as Trump is limited by the Constitution, and Theresa May’s Brexit plans are subject to review under British constitutional legal doctrine, so the king is subject to our law, the holy Torah, as mediated by our own legal minds.
The Torah tells us we should follow the rulings of our judges today and not hark back to better or more learned judges.
Would not this be a good lesson for the Donald to hear from his son-in-law?
υ Zvi Solomons is rabbi of the Jewish Community of Berkshire (JCoB)in Reading, www.JCoB.org