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Judaism and Democracy (Part 2 of 2)


Adapted by Dr. Aviad Hacohen
Translated by Kaeren Fish 

The relationship between Halakha and democracy must be examined not only in terms of reconciling the contradictions. There are certainly contradictions between Halakha and democracy – particularly in the sphere of the rights of individuals. We must rise above – but not ignore – these points of conflict. We may see Halakha not only as facilitating the existence of democracy, but also – in certain senses – promoting it, according with it, and going along with it in the same direction and in the same spirit. 

The fascinating book by the American judge Edmond Cahn, The Predicament of Democratic Man, emphasizes how, in a democratic society, the gulf separating the ruler from the ruled is, to some extent, bridged. The significance of this idea extends beyond a contraction of the power that the ruler may exert over citizens. It pertains also to the division of responsibility between them. In a totalitarian regime, power and authority – and hence also responsibility – rest exclusively with the ruler. In a democratic society, in all spheres of life, authority rests – to a large extent – with the citizens and rulers alike. In a democratic society, despite the division of roles between the ruling entity and its citizens, the distance between them is smaller than the distance between the totalitarian ruler and his underlings. All citizens share the responsibility. 

This point is critical in the halakhic worldview. The whole world of Halakha is built on the concept of responsibility: a person’s responsibility towards himself, his environment, his society. Living as a Jew means living with a very high level of responsibility and obligation. While the western world – from the time of the French Revolution onwards – has focused on rights, the world of Halakha is based on a declaration of man’s obligation: both general commitment, and commitment that is expressed in tiny details. To the extent that democracy highlights the sense of responsibility of the citizen and towards the citizen, a democratic society is one in which the spirit and values of Torah can be realized on a higher and more meaningful level. 

The question of democracy as opposed to halakhic perception is not encapsulated by some or other law. When it comes to details, there exist no small number of problems. But in a democracy there is a positive spirit on the part of the government – not only on the political level, but also on the social and human level, and particularly in its attitude towards man. This is fundamentally in agreement with Halakha’s approach. 

We do not maintain the blind faith concerning mankind that sometimes prevailed in democratic theories. This faith characterized the nineteenth century. It contained a dimension of secularism, in contrast to the ancient tradition of Christianity, and also a certain lack of proportion. Our perception is a far more balanced one. On the one hand, we recognize the fact that “the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” but at the same time we speak not only of “human dignity,” but even “human sanctity” – the Divine spark within one. 

In Hilkhot Sanhedrin, Rambam warns the judge to exercise caution when it comes to people’s dignity, and to ensure that all his actions are for the sake of heaven and not to satisfy personal interests. Rambam also talks about human dignity on the universal level, as superseding negative commandments in the Torah, and the even greater obligation when it comes to the descendants of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov. The emphasis is on recognition of man’s inherent worth, his dignity and his sanctity. This is the spirit of Halakha, and it is reflected in many details. 

Hence, not only is there no contradiction between democracy and Torah thinking; rather, fundamentally, they largely share a common approach to relationship between the government and the public. 

Spiritual self-fulfillment is maximized to the degree that human free will finds expression. It is specifically in a democratic society, where man has freedom of choice in very significant areas of his life, pertaining to his lifestyle and the structure of the society in which he lives, that the human aspect – the aspect of the “Divine image,” as reflected, inter alia, in the freedom of choice – finds expression. This fundamental Jewish value – the ability to choose – assumes more significant expression specifically in a democratic world, just as democratic values find expression specifically in a Jewish, halakhic framework. 

At the same time, we should not ignore the fact that there are contradictions and conflicts on some points. On the one hand, society and the political structure exist for the benefit of the citizen, out of a recognition of his worth and his significance. Jacques Maritain, a prominent Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century, writes in his book Man and the State a key statement, according to which man does not exist for the sake of the State, but rather the State exists for man’s sake. Indeed, this is true – but it is only half the truth. To a great extent we uphold the teaching of Hillel in its entirety: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Here the emphasis is on the value of the individual. At the same time, though, “If I am (only) for myself – what am I?” If all of man’s existence finds expression only within the circle of his personal interests, then “what am I” – what value do I have? 

This balance also finds expression in other aspects of Halakha. Thus, for example, there are those who say that Shabbat exists for the sake of man, while others claim that man exists for the sake of Shabbat. Both are true. In the same way, the State exists for man, to nurture him and to serve him, out of appreciation for his value, but the same man exists – to a great extent – for the sake of values that are national, historical, and meta-historical, as viewed in a broad perspective. 

 There is sometimes a contradiction between the secular-democratic perception, which recognizes the good of the individual almost to the exclusion of anything else, and according to which the State is supposed to serve the individual, and the Torah view, which regards the two sides as existing in balance, and which adopts a more complex view. In one sense, our primary consideration is human dignity; on the other hand, individuals – and the society in which they live – aspire to repair the world in God’s Kingship, alongside the repair of individual, private man. 

There is certainly a difference of opinion between the democratic worldview and the Torah worldview regarding the balance between individual rights and Divine demands. The Jewish nation is a society that has objectives beyond improving the lot of the individual; its values and aims sometimes supersede and even nullify individual interests. We must grapple with this conflict both practically and philosophically. At the same time, this does not negate democracy and its values on the fundamental level, beyond the day-to-day questions. 

In this regard, it is worth mentioning another sphere in which we espouse a dual perception: social egalitarianism. On the one hand, the question posed by the Yerushalmi in Bikkurim echoes in our ears: “Is there ‘small’ and ‘great’ in Israel?” (i.e., are some considered more important than others?). On the other hand, we know that even if we are all “children of kings,” Halakha is built on both kiddush and havdala, sanctification and differentiation. This “havdala” includes the distinction between the holy and the profane, as well as between one level of holiness and another. There is a hierarchy, which does not always sit well with purely democratic views. At the same time, the theme of human dignity is basic and fundamental to our political and social thinking. 

In summary: we cannot assert that there is a perfect overlap between democracy in the broad, secular sense of the concept, and the world of Halakha. Let us not delude ourselves or our opponents by claiming that there are no gaps, no differences. But to the extent that we focus on the moral spirit, the human spirit, that should drive and characterize a society worthy of itself, a society that seeks to build a human world on a super-human foundation – here, the cloak of democracy certainly belongs to and suits the world of Torah. 

As people who believe in Torah, on the one hand, and in the human values of democracy, on the other, many challenges face us. We must grapple with these issues on the political and practical level, as well as within the beit midrash, in an effort to nurture and mold both Torah thinking and democratic thinking. In this task, we must constantly remain aware that, ultimately, the democracy within us is drawn from the world of Torah, and seeks to fulfill the world of Torah. 

(This speech was delivered at a conference sponsored by the Zomet Institute in Spring 2005, in honor of the publication of the 25th volume of Techumin.)


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