Monday 6 June 2022

385) Civil Infrastructure and a Torah State


How should a Jewish state manage the mundane tasks involved with administering daily life?

This article also appeared on the B'chol D'rachecha publication

For any complex modern society, keeping the lights on and the chaos at bay is no simple job. Imagining how the Torah would expect us to handle things is not only an interesting daydream, but a question of immediate and practical concern for many growing communities - especially in Israel.

How you answer such a question will to some degree depend on your political and ideological leanings. At one extreme, some might argue that the ideal Jewish nation should be run by scholars whose Torah knowledge will provide them with ample guidance. The Talmud (Pesachim 112a) disagrees.

אל תדור בעיר שראשיה תלמידי חכמים

“Do not live in a city whose leaders are Torah scholars.”

That, according to Rashi, is because scholars are distracted by their learning and would fail to give their civic duties sufficient attention. But there's another source that, while perhaps lesser-known, inspires some big questions.

As part of its detailed description of the construction of Solomon's temple (and personal palace), I Kings (7:13-14) describes the role played by a fascinating man who lived during a fascinating time.

"And the king Solomon sent instructions for Chiram to be brought from Tzor (Tyre, Lebanon)."

"He was the son of a widow from the tribe of Naftali. His father was a coppersmith, a man of Tzor. He was filled with wisdom and understanding and knowledge in all manner of copper work. And he came to the king Solomon and did all his work."

Who was this Chiram and what was he doing in Lebanon?

It seems he was born in Lebanon. His parents, we're told, moved away from Israel to live among non-Jews. They even seem to have named their son after Tyre’s non-Jewish king!

(In modern terms, that would be like a religious rabbinic family naming their son after a famous non-Jewish philosopher, moving to the capital of a deeply antisemitic country, and subsequently enrolling him in a secular university. Whoops. That would be the early biography of Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits. Never mind.)

Let's remind ourselves that we're talking about the golden age of Jewish history. Solomon's Jewish nation lived in immense prosperity and unparalleled peace, free to build an ideal Jewish world virtually without constraints. If there was ever a time in our past that we could look to for inspiration and guidance, it would be the flowering of our first commonwealth.

So then why, when looking for the principal technical expert to lead the design and construction of his temple, did Solomon select Chiram? Could Solomon (or his scholars) not find answers to their technical questions in Torah?

Apparently not. Chiram's parents would almost certainly have set out for Tyre during David's reign. In fact, given his obsession with doing all he could do in preparation for the temple construction, it's likely that the idea for the journey was David's. We do know (see 2 Samuel 5:11) that David and King Chiram enjoyed a close relationship. It's not hard to imagine that the family settled in Tyre under the patronage of the king himself.

What can we learn from all this? That the greatest practical success of even the most religious social undertaking is most assured when you employ the greatest technical experts. And if that means sending Jews across the world to study at the feet of the masters, then that's what you'll do.

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