Reclaiming King David

Jerusalem is being reclaimed, but the city needs its king. Meir Y. Soloveichik’s article, “King David,” in the January 2017 issue of First Things, should be required reading for any serious thinker trying to rotate his religious and political worlds in synchrony.

Unfortunately, after gracing us with the gift of David in First Things first, Soloveichik returned in the June issue of Commentary with a piece titled “David, We Hardly Knew Ye.” Therein he notes what he sees as a disturbing modernist tendency to compare ourselves to King David. He argues that David is too remote from the level at which we practice humanity.

The offending quotes he rejects are these. Dennis Prager: “As a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.”

Susannah Heschel: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”

Thomas Cahill: “In a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s. In David’s Psalms, we find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”

David Wolpe: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life.… We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”

We can empathize with Soloveitchik’s annoyance with some of this, because it all gives off a vibe of shrinking David to our size rather than growing ourselves to his size. The late Rabbi Joshua Leib Diskin described this phenomenon as “trying to fit our coats on our ancestors’ frames.”

But Soloveichik lets the season push his reason off its track. He quotes his great-uncle, Haym Soloveitchik, to say that David lived every moment with an intimate sense of God in his life that is beyond our ken. He adds that David is defined by being the ultimate penitent, not as a sinner, and that his greatness in accepting immediate responsibility for his transgression places him in a sphere which does not at all overlap with our own.

He concludes: “The truth may be the opposite (of Wolpe). We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own.… David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance — which lie at the heart of his story and success — defy any such engagement. And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.”

His admiration for King David is indeed admirable, and we do well to avoid facile parallels with the great personages of Biblical history, but his larger point is dead wrong. And Wolpe (who I have not read beyond the citation) is exactly right, supported by traditional Jewish sources and views.

Let us begin with the general notion of using Biblical characters as role models. The Mishna (Avos 5:19) says that one who practices “a generous eye, a humble spirit and an agreeable persona” is a student of Abraham. An earlier Mishna (1:12) exhorts each person to be a “student of Aaron” by loving peace and pursuing it, loving people and drawing them close to the teachings of the Torah.

Clearly, then, the ethical tradition of Judaism maintains that Biblical narratives are intended to have an emulable component. Furthermore, the role modeling is personalized, so that one who succeeds in adopting the behaviors — even allowing for the vast generational gaps in quality — becomes a “student” of Abraham and Aaron et al.

The Talmud (Brachos 6b) takes this a step further by saying that one who sets aside a place for prayer throughout his lifetime is to be eulogized as “a student of Abraham.” Here we establish a link to a patriarch through a quantifiable physical act, despite the fact that the contemporary prayer might be an infinitesimal fraction of Abraham’s in substance and inspiration.

If this is true of all Biblical figures, it is even truer of King David, as some of the authors cited above have argued. The Talmud (Psachim 117a) brings several views; the consensus opinion is that when David writes a Psalm in the plural he is referring to universal themes but when he uses the singular he is referencing the personal. If his autobiographical musings have entered the canon, using the first person singular, they are meant to be accessible to the striving individual.

As my late mentor, Rabbi Isaac Hutner, explained: King David speaks to the experience of all mankind because the ideal king, in the words of Maimonides, “his heart is the heart of the entire nation.” The king must relate to every citizen, from the most powerful to the least influential. And David does so throughout the Psalms, whether refracting humanity’s experiences through his own or observing the travails of others.

Indeed both models hold true. His own life covers an incredibly broad range of experience; beyond that, he encounters the lives of others vicariously and empathetically.

David himself was held in low esteem by his father, bullied by his brothers and rebelled against by his son. He was rejected by his father-in-law and hunted, first as a fugitive in his own country and then as an exile across the border. He had a moment of public heroism against Goliath while for years he kept secret that he had been anointed by Samuel as a future king. He won the hand of King Saul’s eldest daughter but she rejected him because she loved another man. The king’s second daughter loved and married him instead. For a while he was seen as a pretty boy redheaded musician, and then he succeeded as an army commander. He buried one child in infancy and another who was killed in a fratricide; the son who killed was later killed himself. His best friend stayed loyal, but one of his mentors chose betrayal. His cousin fought alongside him but often disregarded or superseded his orders.

So universal were the episodes in David’s life that most of them have been ripped off innumerable times to provide plots in literature and theater. The story of Cinderella is plagiarized from the scene of Samuel looking for a king among the respected brothers, only to find that God’s choice is the one child who was not deemed worthy of being introduced to the prophet. The tale of Robin Hood and his merry men eluding the Sheriff of Nottingham is a retread of King David and his band of four hundred debtors and divorcees serving as an impromptu militia while running from King Saul. The story of David riding back from battle to find that a roving tribe has kidnapped his women and children, followed by an exciting chase through the mountains to reclaim his charges, has been adapted countless times in fictional vehicles.

How about these scenes? While the police surround his home and watch from vantage points, his wife puts bulky objects under the blanket and pretends he is sleeping alongside her, as he makes his escape through a rear window. He starts on his fugitive odyssey unarmed, so he takes a museum piece (Goliath’s sword) as a weapon, While he crouches deep inside a cave, King Saul slips inside the aperture to urinate, leaving afterward without detecting the presence of his target. At night David steals into Saul’s camp while everyone sleeps and he cuts a swatch off Saul’s garment to show he could have killed him. When captured by the Philistines, he impersonates a drooling lunatic until the Philistine king deports him, saying: “Do I have a shortage of crazies?” With scenes like this, a fiction writer can stay busy for years without straining his imagination.

How about this bit of dialogue? His elder brother, thinking erroneously that David came to the battlefield without permission says (Samuel I 17:28): “Why did you come down here? Who did you leave our sheep with in the desert? I recognize your insolent behavior and your bad judgment at work. You neglected your work to come see the excitement!”

David bridles (17:29): “What have I done now? Isn’t this really something?” Most of us have used almost identical phrasing at some point in our lives, whether to an elder sibling, a parent, a teacher or an employer.

Yet David is no less moved by the plight of others. Perhaps the most telling episode comes when David thinks his son Absalom must be banished for killing another son, Amnon. To convince him otherwise, David’s cousin hires an actress to cry to him about her two sons being lost to her, the first through murder and the second through exile. When David sympathizes with the woman, he catches the error in his own behavior. The cousin has shrewdly anticipated that David’s empathy must be enlisted to inform his self-awareness.

The Talmud (Brachos 10a) revisits this theme of universality in David’s role by saying he “lived in five worlds and wrote devotional poetry to God about each one”. The “five worlds” are the womb, birth, dependent childhood, independent adulthood with its conflicts and, lastly, death itself. It is hard to know whether there is a claim being made here that David achieved some conscious cognition of what life was like inside the womb. But this much is clear: he is expanding the zone of devotion to include the entire gamut of human experience.

Indeed there is a tradition in the Midrash that King David’s 70 years are actually the completion of Adam’s 930 years to add up to a round number of 1000. Whatever layers of meaning may be packed into that notion, it underlines the theme of David embodying the aspirations of all mankind.

Interestingly, the Talmud (Bava Basra 14b-15a) endorses a Mishnaic Era text that David did not write all the Psalms himself, but compiled some of them from writers throughout the ages, including Adam, Abraham and Moses. This view seems to dispute the contention of Rabbi Meir (not Soloveichik but his Mishnaic namesake) elsewhere in the Talmud (Psachim 117a) that all the Psalms were original to David. Perhaps this difference of opinion should be seen in this context: whatever David cannot glean experientially he works to obtain empathetically. He always seeks to understand — and celebrate — all of humanity, all of Creation.

There is much more foundation for this principle imbedded in the semiotics of the Psalms. For example, the Talmud (Brachos 9b) notes that “David wrote 103 Psalms before he saw evildoers get their comeuppance and he said Hallelujah!” Apparently his life experience is burgeoning throughout the work, with each subsequent epiphany building upon the sum total of every insight expressed previously.

Shortly thereafter (10a) the Talmud mocks the surface reader who thinks the date each poem is written is more important than context in interpreting David’s work. The physical universe may contract, but David’s spiritual universe expands.

Let us return to David’s penitence, which Soloveichik invokes to distance him from our ambit.

Quite the contrary is true. In fact, this very aspect of his persona is specifically intended for our consumption. The Talmud (Avoda Zara 4b-5a) maintains that the historical purpose for David’s sin with Bathsheba was so that “an individual who sins can go to an individual who sinned” and find a role model for repentance. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan, David established the imperative for making one’s way from missteps back onto the straight-and-not-so-narrow path.

In a way, this section of Talmud (“the individual, unlike the collective… his sins are not publicized… his merit is not too strong…”) dramatizes like no other the paradox of David’s role. He must be the all-encompassing Adam while still functioning as Everyman. We are meant to see him as a role model for our personal inner conflicts, to count him as a private person much like ourselves, despite his being the most public person imaginable. If God could take him back, He can take us back; it remains that simple. We cannot say — we are not permitted to say — that David is in a league of his own and that his circumstances are utterly incomparable to our own.

King David has no nobler champion than Soloveichik, who has written of him with poignancy and profundity. But Soloveichik does not get to keep David for himself. He belongs to us, each and every one of us, despite our failings and limits… or perhaps, because of them.

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