Political Leadership and the Law in Maimonides' Thought: Flexibility and Rigidity

Menachem Ratson

Abstract: The responsibilities of political leadership, in Maimonides’ thought, were once concentrated in the hands of Moses, the prophet-legislator. However, from Moses’ time on, a strict separation of powers was to be preserved. The law was “not in heaven,” and prophecy was to play no role in its interpretation or amendment. The prophet and the great court of law were two distinct branches of political society, and there was also an executive branch, represented by the king. The law, given at Mount Sinai and ratified by the people, was rigid: its origin was divine and its nature unchanging. Still, rigid law cannot satisfy the needs of political society at all times, so Maimonides finds that each branch of government has limited tools with which to enact changes in the law without harming the integrity of the divine constitution. Maimonides’ approach to law includes, then, a high degree of flexibility, and the tension between this flexibility and the rigidity of the law is found in all his writings.

Biography: Dr. Menachem Ratson lectures in the school of politics and government at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev and at Israel's Open University, on the topic of political theory. He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He specializes in Jewish political thought and has published an article on this topic entitled "The Political Attitude in Two Commentaries of R. Abraham Ibn Ezra on Jethro's Advice (Exodus 18:13-26)," in Beit Mikra 182 (2005), pp. 281-292. His Ph.D. thesis was on the topic "The Political and Social Principles in the Thought of R. Abraham Ibn Ezra." The article published in HPS is an extension of Ratson's master thesis, completed in 1997.

Volume 2, Number 4 (Fall 2007) pp. 375-423