Limited Government

My reflections on a talk by Daniel Mark, of Villanova University, at Acton University.

Benjamin Franklin wanted the Great Seal of the United States to depict Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. The entire story line of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible/Tanakh) is a story of a journey toward freedom, coming out of bondage from under the Pharaoh (total authoritarian rule) and setting up a new society based on rule of law (the ten commandments).

A disclaimer before we begin: Jewish tradition almost never speaks with one voice on any issue. Three Jews = five opinions. And for some good entertainment, watch the Israeli Knesset in session…

Jewish thinking flows out of stories, commentary, and laws (together in the broadest sense called “Torah”), not systematic theology, philosophy, or politics. The Jewish world is a multiversity, not a university.

Moses Challenges Pharaoh

Let’s begin with Exodus chapter 5. The children of Israel are in captivity/slavery in Egypt under the Pharaoh (read: Dictator). Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go into the wilderness for three days to worship God. This seems reasonable to modern ears, but it is a subversive, dangerous challenge to any “total” government, because it assumes a higher power separate from the state. This is one reason the Jews have been persecuted by tyrants for millennia. What they are saying to Pharaoh is: “We do not belong to you–we belong to God.” In principle, this limits Pharaoh’s power.

The Sabbath is also a lifestyle with a message:

  • All of my labor does not belong to any one human.
  • You don’t own all of my time.
  • I will rest one day in seven because God said so, and you don’t get to vote on that.

Samuel’s Warning

Let’s move on a number of generations to the story of the prophet Samuel, found in the book of 1 Samuel chapter 8: The children of Israel, now living free in their own (promised) land, ask Samuel (prophet and judge) for a king. “Let us have a king like the other nations.” They are feeling instability and a lack of leadership. In all societies, the tension between instability on the one hand, and tyranny on the other is always in the background. We struggle with it today.

Samuel warns them: Having a king is a bad idea. He will draft your sons and enslave your children. He will lay heavy tax burdens on you. Are you sure you want a king?

But they continue to insist. So God compromises with them: You can have a king but I get to choose the king (Samuel anoints first Saul, and then David). The king must continuously write out the Torah and keep a copy with him. The Torah is like a constitution that limits his power. Rule of law is outside the reach of kings. Total wars are not allowed. In certain circumstances, the troops can choose to go home. Fruit trees are not to be cut down in battles.

Throughout the centuries, as the Talmud (ongoing commentary by the rabbis) was being written, the Jews, eventually scattered and having no political power of their own, became very skeptical of power in general.

Jews Return to Political Power (1948)

But then in 1948, with the advent of the State of Israel, the Jews for the first time since 70 AD, had political control (at least in one place) of their own destiny. They had to figure out what to do with power.

In many ways, Jewish thinking on limited government culminated in British common law (with its limited monarch), and since the UK ruled Palestine from WW1 through 1948, the British parliamentary system was adopted by Israel. History had, in a remarkable way, come full circle. A Jewish “Shariah” has not been imposed. Non-Jews can become citizens. Religious leaders, unlike in Iran, are not in power over secular leaders, although there is a chief rabbi in the government. But there is tension here–the Sabbath and kosher laws are fairly universal.

So What Do Jews (in the West) Want, and What Should They Do?

  1. Priority if Good Citizenship.
    1. May God bless the Tsar and keep him far from us. -Fiddler on the Roof.
    2. Pray for the welfare of your city. -The Prophet Jeremiah, during the Exile
    3. The law of the land is the law. Obey the civil law. This comes from centuries of survival thinking as a minority.
  2. Jewish Conservative Values (not necessarily political)
    1. The priority of the family.
    2. Nationalism and Zionism.
    3. Free market economics and limited government.
  3. American Jews should play a role in US government.
    1. More than just good citizenship.
    2. Making US a better country.


Judaism is something without which we would not have developed limited government (at least not in the same way).

The Jewish concept (from the Creation story in Genesis) that we are made in the image of God (imago Dei) is the source of all human rights. It is the best bulwark against oppression and fundamentalism.

Judaism Acton Institute

Daniel Mark teaches at Villanova. He is a practicing Jew and is a popular speaker at the annual Acton University, put on by the Acton Institute every summer in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The comments in this article, although inspired by Mr. Mark, are my interpretations of his talk in June of 2018 and I alone am responsible for the content.

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