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Judaism And Democracy

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Having survived the Knesset elections with all of the uncertainty that all elections provide for the so-called winners and losers, perhaps it is time to take a cursory look at the democratic process of elections from a perspective of Jewish history.
At first glance, Judaism does not seem to favor the electoral process for choosing its leaders. Moses was chosen by God to lead Israel, not by any sort of popular vote. The priesthood was reserved for Aaron and his descendants by Godly fiat. Joshua was appointed by Moshe, again under God’s instruction, to succeed him as the leader of the people. The Judges were self-appointed, but some of them – such as Jephthah, Gideon, Avimelech and even Samson – were popularly confirmed because of their exploits in defending Israel against its enemies.

The strongest objection to an empowered, dynastic monarchy was voiced by the great prophet Samuel, who objected to the way the people demanded a king to rule over them “just as all of the other nations.” Saul proved himself to be a failed and flawed monarch, and only David proved to be the ideal king of Israel. Even his son, Solomon, was no longer viewed favorably at the end of his rule, and the record of the kings of Israel and Judah, even those anointed by God’s prophets, proved negative and spotty at best. The entire period of the Second Temple, with only rare exceptions, saw tyrannical rulers and corruption at the highest levels.

It was in the field of Torah education that democratic ideas and ideals took hold. A woodchopper such as Hillel could become the nasi, the head of the yeshiva and the Sanhedrin. Halachic decisions were made by majority vote. Raban Gamliel was temporarily deposed from the office of nasi – impeached, if you will – because of his undemocratic behavior toward other scholars.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya opened the study hall to the attendance of all, and not just the elite or the aristocrats. The heads of the main yeshivot of Babylonia during the period of the composition and editing of the Talmud were chosen by popular opinion among the students and the other scholars. The yeshivot of France during the time of Rashi were noted for their openness and tolerance of differing views and styles.

Since in the European exile there really was no independent Jewish government (with the limited exception perhaps of the Council of the Four Lands in 16th-, 17th- and part of 18th-century Eastern Europe), Jewish leaders were chosen and recognized by popular approval and approbation. Elections, often very divisive and contentious, were held to choose rabbis of the communities.

In the yeshivot, the students pretty much ruled the roost, deciding who should be the main scholars delivering the lectures and heading the institutions. The history of the yeshivot of Eastern Europe is marked with incidents of student revolts, and the students always had the option of voting with their feet and leaving one institution to study somewhere else.

The chassidic world was, for its first century, fiercely meritocratic. The opponents of chassidut mocked the chassidic communities of the 18th century by saying “If one says he is a rebbe, then he is a rebbe!” To a certain extent, however, this was a form of a backhanded compliment, for chassidut opened the field of participation in the public arena of Judaism to millions who could not meet the elite standards of high Jewish scholarship. Only in the middle of the 19th century did chassidut become overwhelmingly dynastic, though even then there was room allowed for new dynasties to be created and become popular.

In the 20th century, Jewish life was governed almost completely by elections, different parties and non-stop campaigning, a situation that obviously pertains today in the State of Israel. In all facets of the Jewish world, popular opinion held sway, for better or for worse. Many of the great religious leaders of the Torah world were not people who held major public positions, but rather were people who were “elected” to be followed by popular acclaim and recognition.

Jewish life is therefore quite democratic – one could even say too democratic, for it tends to be fractious and chaotic. But as Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is a terrible and inefficient way to govern. But it is far better than any other way that man has devised until now.”

Rabbi Berel Wein is a noted author, educator, historian and speaker. His website is www.rabbiwein.com.

About the Author: Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. Formerly an executive vice president of the Orthodox Union and rabbinic administrator of the OU’s kashrus division, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997.

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