Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Leadership
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

Elul 5768
Both here in Israel and in the United States we are preoccupied with the upcoming elections, be they national or local. Elections per se as we are accustomed to them in democratic countries are a relatively modern phenomenon. Not until the idea of the Divine Right of Kings was eradicated from Europe and the founding of the United States in the eighteenth century did the idea of elections truly take hold in Western civilization. In the Torah we find no mention of elections per se. In the biblical period, the rule of kings was prevalent, though in the period of the Judges of Israel that preceded the reigns of Saul and David, leaders arose spontaneously or were called to public service by popular demand. Yet the idea of the necessity for public approval of the policies and personalities of their leaders was always engrained within the Jewish psyche. We see this in the rebellions against David and Shlomo, in the words of opposition of the prophets to wrongheaded governmental policies and to corrupt social and national behavior and attitudes. Jewish society, if not exactly a democratic parliamentary society in our current sense of the system, was nevertheless always a society that the leaders were subject to recall and responsibility by the people. Dictators and tyrants were always abhorred in Jewish life and everyone, the kings, the priests, the scholars, all were subject to some sort of popular judgment. This was true in Second Temple times as well when the Hasmonean dynasty was constantly subjected to popular unrest and even rebellion.

In the world of the Torah scholars a meritocracy and democracy prevailed. All matters of halacha were decided by majority vote in the Sanhedrin. When the Sanhedrin was unable to meet to decide on important issues because of the heavy hand of Rome on the country, important issues remained unsolved and unanswered. Hillel and Shamai disagreed on three issues. The Houses of Hillel and Shamai, their students of the next few generations, when the Sanhedrin no longer met regularly, their disagreements grew to three hundred twelve in number. Again the matters were eventually decided democratically by the majority votes of the House of Hillel (this majority opinion was confirmed so to speak by a voice from Heaven itself.) Throughout the system of halacha we see that this basic rule of majority prevailing guides Jewish practice and Torah behavior. There is always a reckoning and remembrance of minority and dissenting opinions (and sometimes in later times when circumstances have changed, the minority opinion becomes itself the new majority opinion) but the principle that the Torah itself enunciated to always follow the majority opinion has always remained paramount. Throughout the long generations of halachic discourse this principle has remained the guiding rule in arriving at halachic decisions. There is always room for halachic innovation and individual opinions but the weight of history almost invariably takes into account the majority precedents in these matters. This may not be an example of democratic parliamentary behavior but it certainly is an example of the democratic spirit that pervades Judaism and Jewish life.

Jewish life, at least in Eastern Europe, also operated on the basis of democratic principles. In most cases the choice of the leaders of the community and of its rabbi was subject to public approval. Because of this perhaps overly democratic process the society of Eastern European Jewry was continually racked with bitter disputes and disagreements. Since there was really no way to settle all of these disputes they festered under the surface of Jewish life there. There was a sort of autonomous Jewish parliament that operated for a number of centuries in Eastern Europe called The Council of the Four Lands (Congress Poland, Galicia, Lithuania, Volhinya). However the delegates to this council were not elected by popular vote but rather represented the then current elite leadership of Jewish society. In the twentieth century Jewish political parties appeared in Eastern Europe that were subject to the popular vote and official elections. Choices for rabbis, and later here in Israel for the Chief Rabbinate became subject to the mechanism of elections, at least of voters from representative bodies of the general public. The issue of the vote for women, originally opposed by Rav Kook and others was eventually decided in favor of the women as women’s suffrage became the norm in all Western countries in the twentieth century. Winston Churchill once remarked that democracy and elections are an awful way to run a country. But it still remains the best way that man has yet devised to do so. Jewish practice over the centuries agrees with this political diagnosis
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