The Trump trial reflected Jewish ideals

(RNS) — It happened this past Thursday — late in the afternoon.

It was simultaneously one of the saddest moments in American history and one of the most joyful.

I am referring, of course, to the conviction of Donald Trump on 34 felony counts.

The sadness: This is unprecedented in American history. A former president convicted by a jury of his peers and found guilty of recklessly flouting legal norms. Not to mention, his courtroom behavior, his arrogant and shocking insulting of the judge, his utter lack of remorse. And there’s the fact that many of his supporters are sticking with him, rehashing the manufactured narrative that Trump is a victim of a corrupt system.

What must the world think of us? What does history think of us? Is it possible for the silent visages of Mount Rushmore to shed tears?

The joy: This is unprecedented in American history. A former president convicted by a jury of his peers, and found guilty of recklessly flouting legal norms. The system worked.

How do I, as a Jew, view what happened?

With sadness, with joy and with understanding.

Here is what Judaism has to say about kings.

In the ancient world, and until the modern era (and in some places, even today), kings had absolute power of life and death over their subjects. As the Israeli scholar Menachem Lorberbaum has written: “In the ancient Near East, the king was believed to be ‘the image of God.’ In ancient Egypt, the king himself was a god. In ancient Greece, the king had a special relationship with God. Roman emperors referred to themselves as sons of God.”

Ancient Judaism chipped away at those ideas.

First: the idea that the king — and no one else — was the image of God.

The book of Genesis blows this idea out of the water and makes a subtle change. All people, and not just the king, reflect the divine image.

Second: the idea that the king was a god or had a special relationship with God.

The book of Deuteronomy likewise blows this idea out of the water. It specifies who and what the king must be — “one of your people, achecha,” “your brother” — your peer. The king cannot have many horses, which is a symbol of military power. The king cannot send people back to Egypt to procure those horses — not only because the Israelites cannot return to Egypt, but they cannot revert to “Egyptianism,” the worship of raw power. The king cannot have multiple wives (which was probably a bit of anti-King Solomon snark). The king cannot amass huge riches (ditto).

And then:

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)

What do we learn from this?

The king is not the source of the law. The king does not write the laws, and because the king does not write the laws, he must faithfully study those laws.

The king cannot be on a power trip. Many centuries later, the medieval sage Maimonides wrote, “The king must not exercise his authority in a ‘stuck up’ manner. He should deal graciously and compassionately with the small and the great, conduct their affairs in their best interests, be wary of the honor of even the lowliest. When he addresses the public, he shall use gentle language.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 2:6).

Finally, what is the role of the king — and government itself?

Of Solomon. O God, endow the king with Your judgments, the king’s son with Your righteousness; that he may judge Your people rightly, Your lowly ones, justly … Let him champion the lowly among the people, deliver the needy folk, and crush those who wrong them. (Psalm 72)

Biblical Judaism did not love kings. It vastly preferred prophets — especially those, like Nathan, who rebuked King David and Elijah, who rebuked King Ahab.

Those contrarian voices survived and echoed over the centuries. Even when kings believed in their divine rights, and those divine rights were unquestioned, there was a nagging Jewish counter voice — silent, unheeded, but present. The king had power, but by no means absolute power. He was subject to external controls. He, himself, had to follow the laws.

This idea transformed the world. As the Israeli intellectual Micah Goodman has written, “The ideal of a king who obeys the Torah and rules according to the Torah — without any political, diplomatic, or military power, and without being regarded as the founder of his nation — is Deuteronomy’s great contribution to political discourse and Western culture.”

There are echoes of these ideas in the American political system. As Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times:

The revolutionary hero Patrick Henry knew this day would come. He might not have anticipated all the particulars, such as the porn actress in the hotel room and the illicit payoff to keep her quiet. But he feared that eventually a criminal might occupy the presidency and use his powers to thwart anyone who sought to hold him accountable. “Away with your president,” he declared, “we shall have a king.”

That was exactly what the founders sought to avoid, having thrown off the yoke of an all-powerful monarch …

Back to Donald Trump — who, even though he once posed with a Bible, betrays no evidence of ever having opened it. Again, Baker:

Mr. Trump would still have to operate within the constitutional system, analysts point out, but he has already shown a willingness to push its boundaries. When he was president, he claimed that the Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want.” After leaving office, he advocated “termination” of the Constitution to allow him to return to power right away without another election and vowed to dedicate a second term to “retribution.”

That should terrify all Americans. In particular, it should terrify American Jews, whose response to rulers who have claimed the right to do whatever they want — and then did it, to Jews — should be: “been there, done that.”

I am looking at you — American Jews, their organizations and their leaders who still support this now-convicted criminal. 

To be Jewish means to inherit texts; to inherit history; to inherit memory.

It is time. It is way past time. 

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