Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Pirke Avot 2:3 and 3:2: Government as a Necessary Evil

Thomas Paine was one to say that "even in its best state, government is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." I think his words still ring true today, but I also find that his words were also true over 2,000 years ago. The Rabbis during the Talmudic era recognized that government was vital for society to live:

היו מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות
Pray for the welfare of the government. -Pirke Avot 3:2

The verse goes on to say that we should pray for the welfare of the government because if people did not fear government, a person would be swallowed whole. The Rabbis realize that government prevents total anarchy and wanton crime (Artscroll). I'm libertarian and I agree: government plays a role in keeping society in check. As Sir John Acton pointed out, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Government does have a purpose, even if I think that role should be limited. What's more is I think the Rabbis did in the vain of Sir John Acton's quote.

In Pirke Avot 2:3, we are warned to "beware of rulers since they befriend someone only for their benefit." The Rabbis had enough wisdom to realize that taking public office didn't make one immune from morally problematic behavior. If anything, this passage reminds us that politicians "act friendly when it benefits them, but [that they] do not stand by someone in his time of need." If anything, the Rabbis point out that government officials forget all the kindness that individuals perform on their behalf (Meiri). We see this at the beginning of the Exodus story when the new Pharaoh did not even know Joseph (Exodus 1:8)! Jews can recall that prior to the Spanish Inquisition, Jews helped build up Spanish society. The rulers forgot those contributions, and expelled the Jews from Spain. Many governments have oppressed Jews throughout history, not to mention the number of times that government have oppressed and slighted non-Jews. We are to be wary of government because it has its own agenda (Tiferes Yisrael), but at the same time, we are to pray for the government's welfare. This paradox reminds us where to place our ultimate trust. Government can only do so much good. While there are many people who go into government for noble purposes, the power amassed by government has the great potential to corrupt even otherwise good individuals. Government has a role, let's not forget that. But let's also not forget that we should not put our ultimate trust in government, but rather put our ultimate trust in G-d.


  1. Whenever I read the quote from Pirke Avot 3:2, I think back to an incident that occurred in Shul when I was growing up in South Africa, probably around 1979. A friend and I were having a discussion disparaging some aspect of the then-apartheid-government, when the son of the cantor, who was a friend of ours and was sitting in the row ahead, turned around and gave us a siddur open to Pirke Avot and told us to read 3:2. My question back to him was what one is supposed to do if the government is the entity that is swallowing people whole.

  2. I believe the cyclical welcoming/ expulsion of Jews was a deliberate government strategy back in the day. Jews were welcomed in when they were needed, but then expelled from their lands the minute they stopped being useful to the ruler or king or society.

    I mean, damn. Think of Poland. Poland was a wilderness with very few educated people when the Jews were invited to settle there. At the peak of their influence in that country, Poland was their goldene medina.

    I wish I could shout your last point from the rooftops. Although I'm more liberal-leaning than you, and do believe in government's positive role, I have relatives who elevate their faith in government to the status of a religion, and I don't really have the heart to tell them how misguided they are.