Get access

Personal Ethics, Public Virtue, and Political Legitimacy in Biblical Kings and American Presidents


Shalom Carmy is the chair of Bible and Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva College. He is the editor of Tradition: The Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought.


A discussion among medieval rabbis about the contrasting careers of Saul and David suggests both the complexity of moral character and the uncertain relevance of personal virtue for political leaders. The story of King David's sin toward Bathsheba and Uriah illustrates the difficulties we still face in drawing a clear line between the private and public ethics of political leaders. Despite obvious differences between the jobs of a biblical king and a U.S. president, there are striking similarities between the moral and psychological qualifications prescribed for the former by rabbinic commentators and those prescribed for the latter by political scientists and philosophers. Moreover, both biblical and contemporary narratives suggest that however elusive a leader's character may be, it is no more difficult to discern than his policy, and may provide a more reliable basis for predicting his actions.