This week’s Torah episode is entitled ‘Shoftim’ – ‘Judges’ and indeed the focus is the establishment of the basic bureaucracy – authorized leadership, judicial matters, and the establishment of the Jewish Monarchy. The official Biblical party line in regards to Royalty is one of ambivalence – on the one hand the recognition of this symbolic importance, and on the other – fear of too much control in the hands of the few. From the get go, the future kings are warned – not too many horses, or wives, please, Your Majesty, and oh, also – Judaic literacy is highly recommended. In the Book of Words, chapter 17:18 the following instruction appears, and with it, the premiere of the first Torah Scroll in history, linking power to religion and absolutely ignoring any future possibilities for the separation of Synagogue and State:
‘When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the priests of the tribe of Levy.’ (JPS translation)
This is the first mention of the Holy Book being used by a human in a ritualized form. But what exactly is the king holding in his royal lap? The Hebrew for ‘copy of this teaching’ is Mishne Torah – translated as ‘copy of the teaching’, or ‘Duplicate of the Law’, or ‘repetition of the instruction.’ Some use ‘book’ and some use ‘scroll’, but all translators agree that we have no idea what the is the actual content of this ‘data bearing device’. Further complicating the story is the fact that this is regarded as a copy of the original, and the big question is – what and where is the original version of the Torah???
When it comes to official representations, translations, and usage of the sacred teachings by appointed leaders – these questions are both historical – and very current. A recent Gallop poll claims that over 1/3 of Americans believe that the Bible is the Word of God, to be taken literally, preferably as the Authorized Version – the 17th century King James Bible (to be found in a bedside table drawer in a hotel near you)
The King James translation actually adds a curious twist to our verse, very much in line with the original Hebrew, clarifying this theological challenge:
‘And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites. ‘
Just to make sure, the king does indeed have access to the Holy Word – but the Religious Authorities are in control and have custody of the original…William Tyndale, the original translator of the King James version, was executed for his ’subversive’ contribution to the first ever English Language version of the Bible, and it is not difficult to discern some subtext in his translation of this potent verse. The tension in the 17th century between Church and State seems to have only gotten more complicated as the centuries advance and more and more copies, repetitions, and doubles of the Word are quoted or misquoted by world leaders who clutch gospels to their bosoms.
Imagine for a moment that you are the king (or queen) in this passage. What is it like for you to hold this sacred text and touch it? What is your connection to it and which of the biblical stories is the right one for you to read or have read for this occasion? Given a choice – what ONE word from Scripture would you cherish above all others and share with us, your loyal subjects today?