Dear Jew in the City,
How did Jewish law handle unjust governments in past eras and how does that apply to America in modern times?
I’m going to be honest, I’ve sat on this question longer than I’d normally like. I kept kicking it down the road because I didn’t want readers to assume that I was answering it with any particular political conflict in mind. I kept waiting for a less contentious time but the reality is, it doesn’t look like that’s coming anytime soon. So please keep in mind that I’m not surreptitiously commenting on January 6, the Supreme Court, gun control or anything else. I’m also not suggesting that the current administration is just or unjust, nor am I commenting on previous administrations. I’m just answering the question that was asked: “How did Jewish law handle unjust governments in past eras and how does that apply to America in modern times?” (The questioner may have had someone or something particular in mind but if they did, they didn’t share it with me.)
Jewish texts have a number of interesting thoughts on government. Avos 3:2 seems to cynically consider government to be a necessary evil, saying, “Pray for the welfare of the government because if not for fear of it, people would swallow one another alive.” Similarly, Avos 2:3 warns us, “Be cautious when dealing with the authorities because they only befriend a person for their own advantage. They act like friends when it suits them but they don’t stand by a person in his times of trouble.”
You may be aware of the principle dina d’malchusa dina – “the law of the land is the law.” This principle, stated several times in the Talmud (Baba Basra 54b-55a, et al.) requires that we obey civil law, in effect rendering it a religious obligation to do so. But while we must pay our taxes and observe speed limits, we draw the line when secular law impedes our performance of God’s mitzvos. For example, the Romans once prohibited the study of Torah but Rabbi Akiva continued to teach publicly. When asked why, he responded with a parable about fish. In the water, they might be in danger of the fishermen’s nets but they’d be in much bigger trouble on land. Similarly, with Torah, the Jews might be in danger from the Romans but they’d be in much bigger trouble without Torah! (Brachos 61b)
You may be familiar with other cases in which Jews violated civil laws that equaled government persecution, be it the Biblical Daniel in Babylonia, Jews at the time of Chanukah, Marranos during the Spanish Inquisition, or Jews in Europe during the pogroms and the Holocaust. In fact, if the intention of a law is to persecute the Jews, we’re not allowed to acquiesce to even the smallest concession (Sanhedrin 74).
An interesting view of differing ways to view a corrupt government appears in Talmud Shabbos (33b). One time, while discussing their Roman occupiers, Rabbi Yehuda praised the Romans’ works, Rabbi Shimon criticized their motivations and Rabbi Yosi expressed no opinion. It turns out that their conversation was overheard by a government informant, who reported it. The Roman authorities rewarded Rabbi Yehuda for his praise, they sought to kill Rabbi Shimon for his criticism, and they exiled Rabbi Yosi because they weren’t big fans of political detachment, figuring “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
The way Jewish law handled unjust governments in the past varies significantly from America in modern times because of one important difference: historically, from Biblical times until the modern era, governments were (with rare exceptions) absolute monarchies. In America, we have a democracy. (Well, actually, we have a representative republic, but our representatives are democratically elected.) In an absolute monarchy, your courses of action are limited. They generally boil down to like it or lump it. Sure, you could always overthrow the government. That’s the course of action generally favored when it comes to occupying forces like King Eglon of Moav and Antiochus of the Chanukah story. It’s not called for just because you don’t like the rightful government.
It’s okay to speak truth to power as Yeravam (Jeroboam) did to Shlomo (King Solomon), though that has obvious risks in an absolute monarchy. And in an extreme case, secession is an option as ten Tribes did in I Kings chapter 7. (This wasn’t even the first civil war in Israel. The Tribe of Efraim went to war against the national government in Judges 12, and the other Tribes all declared war on Binyamin in Judges 20. Those disputes, however, were ultimately resolved, unlike the secession of the ten Tribes, which never was.)
One thing we’re not down with is the assassination of a rightful ruler. First of all, it’s murder, which is prohibited. Second, doing so rarely brings about the desired result. (See, for example, the assassination of Gedaliah in I Kings 25, a truly boneheaded move for which we still fast today.)
David, who was anointed king, adamantly refused to assassinate his predecessor, King Saul, despite multiple opportunities to do so and the fact that Saul was actively trying to kill him. David wisely knew that killing his rival would set a bad precedent for him as king. (He even executed someone who tried to curry favor by claiming to have killed the mortally-injured King Saul.) It turns out that David’s instinct was correct because, throughout the book of Kings, most of the rulers who ascended to the throne by assassination were themselves assassinated in pretty short order.
Nowadays, we in America (as well as those in Canada, Israel, the UK and elsewhere) live in a democracy, so our options are completely different. We vote. Many halachic authorities consider voting to be an obligation, for a variety of reasons:
With the possible exception of Rav Moshe, who was speaking specifically of America, the above rationales apply everywhere that one can vote. Beyond these, there are additional reasons that obligate those who live in Israel to vote.
So if you think the government is unjust, don’t take your cue from how Ehud assassinated Eglon, or how the ten Tribes seceded. There are limited ways of dealing with an absolute monarchy. In a democracy, you not only have the ability to change a corrupt government – by voting – according to many authorities you have the responsibility to do so.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent