Monday, February 24, 2020

Impeachment and the Jewish Tradition

On February 24, 1868, a U.S. president was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time. Three months later, the U.S. Senate acquitted President Andrew Johnson. 35 senators voted guilty and 19 voted not guilty (36 guilty votes, representing a 2/3 majority of the 54 senators were needed for removal) on Impeachment Articles 2, 3 and 11. Over a century later, Presidents Clinton and Trump were both impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate. President Nixon resigned before the House had the chance to impeach him.

The Founders and authors of the Constitution made it difficult, by design, to remove a U.S. president. The Founders created a Constitutional mechanism involving all three branches of government, to remove an errant president. The Senate, sitting as a jury, was meant to be a “check” on the House. The Chief Justice of the United States presides over the trial of the head of the Executive Branch. 

Leadership in the Torah is not manifest in a “balance of power” and/or “checks and balances” but rather, is concentrated in the authority of the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, the king, prophets and the High Priest.

A prophet is someone who can receive prophetic transmissions from God, decipher them, and communicate them properly. Were a Jewish prophet to encourage the abrogation of a Torah law or to promote any form of idolatry, that prophet is judged by the Sanhedrin for the capital crime of being a “false prophet,” and if found guilty by a majority, is executed* (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah, 9:1).

A High Priest is officially appointed by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Temple Vessels 4:15). There is a preference, upon the death of the High Priest, to appoint a worthy son to assume his position (4:20). A High Priest can be judged, and can even be tried for capital cases before the Sanhedrin (5:8), and can receive lashes for malevolent behavior, and still remain as the High Priest (4:22).

A King is anointed with special oil by a prophet with the approval of the Sanhedrin (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 1:3). When a son succeeds his father as king, he is not anointed, unless the succession is challenged. Kings may be brought up on charges and sued in court for monetary disputes.

A well-known Talmudic anecdote confirms that a head of the Sanhedrin can be removed. Rabbi Gamliel II, was appointed the first Nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin after the Destruction of the Second Temple. There are three episodes where Rabbi Gamliel’s opinion came at odds with that of another great sage, Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah (Bechorot 36a; Rosh Hashana 24b-25a; Berachot 27b-28a). In one of these disputes, Rabbi Gamliel humiliated Rabbi Joshua, and the other sages who had seen enough, voted to remove him. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah, 18 at the time, was elected president. Eventually Rabbi Gamliel was restored after undergoing a process of introspection and asking forgiveness from Rabbi Joshua.

*Judaism has not supported religious capital punishment since the period of the destruction of the Second Temple almost two millennia ago.

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