2020 Civil Disobedience in a Torah State
Chananya Weissman

May 19, 2020

The coronavirus plague has brought the issue of civil disobedience to the forefront in many countries around the world. Authoritarian and even totalitarian governments have faced uprisings from desperate citizens. One cannot help but hope that this will lead to greater freedom and liberty for oppressed people around the world.

More democratic countries have employed draconian measures to limit the spread of the virus, in many respects resembling authoritarian regimes. Leaders have had to straddle the line between public safety, economic collapse, preventing citizens from panicking, and unjustified power grabs. Citizens in these countries have had to straddle the line between social responsibility, financial ruin, obeying authority, and fear of punishment. In these cases there is a great debate over whether harsh measures from governments will ultimately cause more harm than they will prevent.

As always, the Torah provides a model for how we should respond to every situation. Our divine treasure waits quietly to be sought, allowing those who think they can devise a better way to fumble and stumble. Perhaps social fabrics across the world must fray, perhaps Man must experience epic failure before he surrenders and turns to God's instruction manual.

The Torah provides a unique model for the relationship between citizens and authority figures. Most people – even, sadly, religious Jews – view the Torah's system of a monarchy and religious tribunals as primitive and unenlightened. Let us take a closer look and then compare with the best of what our modern, enlightened world has to offer.


We tend to view monarchs as ruthless dictators commanding unflinching obedience and lopping off heads right and left for their own amusement. This is for good reason; the archetypical monarch throughout history has been such a character, and there is no shortage of world leaders today who follow that tradition sans the crown and title.

Ancient Israel contributed many members to this dubious club, yet the vast majority of “bad” monarchs belonged specifically to societies that rejected the rule of the Torah. This includes the Davidic kings who embraced idol worship, the kings who broke away from the Davidic dynasty, and the kings during the second Bais Hamikdash. All of the non-Davidic kings except for Shaul and Yerovam derived their power strictly from force and rejected the Torah. This is not a coincidence – the two go hand in hand.

The Torah's description of a king's powers is unique among all man-made systems. Man-made systems invariably describe a leadership position by outlining the powers of the one who occupies it. The Torah, on the other hand, describes a king specifically by restricting his powers! He must not have too many wives, lest they sway his heart. He must not have too many horses, just enough for the needs of his army. He must not even have too much silver and gold, just enough to cover his expenses and bring appropriate respect to the kingdom. He must carry a Torah with him at all times to remind him that he is merely an ambassador of the King of Kings. He must learn from the Torah all his days so that he will fear God and not exalt himself over his fellow Jews. The Torah utters not a single word about the glory and power a king – only limits him and humbles him.

Indeed, the “good” Davidic kings, beginning with David himself, were extremely humble and responsive to the common people, despite wielding enormous power. We find throughout the books of Navi that they derived their power from the consent of the people, and were ever-mindful of that. The same David who inflicted unparalleled terror on Israel's enemies responded meekly when Jews rebelled against him. This is the prototypical Jewish king.

Compare and contrast to our modern, “enlightened” leaders, who tend to take a reverse approach.

At the same time the Torah humbles the Jewish king, it commands the people to accept his authority. The king is not a mere figurehead, but a powerful ruler who represents the entire nation, and one who rebels against the king even slightly can be put to death.

Yet just as the king must balance his broad power with humility and prudence, the Torah balances the people's subservience with the right to disobey a command that violates the Torah. In fact, they are obligated to do so. For example, Avner, the powerful general of Shaul, refused an order to murder the people of Nov. Avner is praised for this and suffered no repercussions for disobeying this order. On the contrary, the Gemara says he was later killed by divine punishment for failing to dissuade Shaul from pursuing David. The message is very clear: obeying a corrupt order from a king is ultimately far more hazardous than disobeying the king.

The Torah strikes the perfect balance for us, and if things are less than perfect, it is only because we have failed to adhere to this balance.


We find something similar with rabbinic leadership, which also gets a bad rap by secularists who consider themselves too sophisticated for religion. The Torah grants enormous power to the religious courts as well. Obeying their rulings is one of the 613 commandments. The Jewish courts have the power to levy fines, appropriate property, and even administer corporal punishment beyond the letter of the law if they deem it necessary to repair moral breaches in society.

Yet here too we find that they derive their powers entirely from the people. Judges and officers are appointed by the people, and once again the Torah goes to great lengths to warn judges against any form of corruption or negligence.

The Talmudic sages viewed themselves as divinely mandated to serve the people by virtue of their knowledge, against their personal best interests. Their calling was a wearying burden, and they lived in terror of the repercussions for ruling incorrectly (Sanhedrin 7A and many other places). A judge who ruled incorrectly would in many cases have to make restitution out of his own pocket! Again, compare and contrast to any religious or secular court in the world today.

Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yishmael were on their way to be martyred by the Roman government. Rabbi Shimon said to his teacher that he could not fathom the divine cause of his execution. Rabbi Yishmael asked him if he had ever kept litigants waiting momentarily for him to finish his drink, put on his shoes, or wrap himself in his tallis before adjudicating them. Rabbi Shimon was consoled by these words, accepting his death as a heavenly punishment for inconveniencing ordinary people who came before him to be judged! (Mechilta, Mishpatim Chapter 18)

As if that's not enough, the Jewish courts were literally powerless to impose laws on society without the people's cooperation. When they passed a gezeira, they would keep the reason behind it a secret for a full year even from their students. Furthermore, the courts were prohibited from passing a law that society could not tolerate. If the public voted with their feet not to accept the law, it was repealed, not forcibly imposed. (See Avoda Zara 29B, 35A, 36A)

We find here a truly divine balance between respect for authority and the power of the people. The court could not pass a single law without the trust of the people. This trust was earned by their track record of faithfully serving the people, to the extent that they would follow a new edict even if it was difficult and the reason for it incomprehensible. If the people accepted the law, nothing less than unswerving obedience was required. On the other hand, if the people felt the law was too constraining, they would simply disregard it, and the power of the courts would automatically be checked.

The rabbis know best, but the people know best, too. They serve each other, and the power flows between them to create a healthy, stable society.


Today in many parts of the world there is great tension between the rulers and the common people. Do the leaders have wisdom and integrity? Are they going too far with their authority? Can the people be trusted to behave responsibly? Do they have the right to disobey? Should the orders of governors and judges be obeyed even if they are misguided and immoral, simply to preserve the rule of law? These are questions millions of people are grappling with as their society teeters on the edge of both authoritarianism and anarchy.

The Torah provides a system that is far superior to anything Man has ever created, a perfect distribution of power between political leaders, religious leaders, and regular citizens. One doesn't have to be religious to appreciate this system.

It's high time we seriously discussed it.