Judaism as a Source of Democratic Thought

September 3, 2012
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Rabbi David Saperstein

Many ethical values underlying democracy are rooted in what Judaism sees as key characteristics of the human condition. And while at no time in the classical period did Judaism create a system of govern-ment and laws fully equivalent to our modern democracy, in applying those values, we see clear manifestations of proto-democratic institutions — with some democratic features that greatly influenced key founders of our nation, from the Puritans to the rationalist (Deist) authors of our seminal legal and political documents.

Four key values necessary for democracy are found in Judaism’s view of human society:

1) The belief that all people (not just Jews) are created in the image of the divine and are therefore of inherent dignity and value.

2) The aggadic notion of the equality of all peoples. Why, the rabbis ask, was Adam made from the dust of the four corners of the earth? So that no people could claim that the merit of their ancestors was greater than anyone else’s. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) We are all equal before God. “Have we not all one parent?” asks Malachi. “Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10)

3) The belief in the rule of law to which even the highest rulers are held accountable.  Lengthy segments of the Talmud and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah are dedicated to the Laws of Kings. This principle is demonstrated clearly when Nathan the prophet confronts David over the incident with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:7) and when Elijah confronts Ahab over Naboth’s vineyard. (1 Kings 21)

4) Judaism’s clarion vision of the autonomy of human beings to choose between good and evil. In opposition to the Greek fates that played games with human destiny and the ideas of predestination in strands of Christian thinking, Judaism asserts the freedom of choice and the exercise of conscience that provide a moral justification for the right of people to determine their political destiny.

While embracing these values does not lead inevitably to the form of our modern democratic governments, each of these values is indispensable for modern democracy. They were integrated into American political thought via several sources. The Puritans, fashioning themselves as the “New Israelites” coming to a Promised Land to reestablish God’s laws, based many of  their laws and ideas of education and government on their understanding of biblical and talmudic norms.  When Jefferson scripted the words, “We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and when the words of Leviticus, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof,” were inscribed on the Liberty Bell, America was offered a vision of humanity inspired by these Jewish values.

Jewish tradition went beyond asserting values; our ancestors created institutions that began to exhibit characteristics of democracy. A few examples include:

• A rabbinate based on a meritocracy that rejected the hereditary priesthood. Thus, anyone (i.e., for many centuries, any male) could become a rabbi.

• The talmudic determination that a majority of scholars would determine the law. No longer could people appeal to heavenly intervention to determine what the law should be. (BT Baba Metzia 59b)

• The rabbis’ decision to include minority and majority opinions in the Talmud, which was one of history’s first efforts to institutionalize a free marketplace of ideas (which is vital for democracy to function).

• The synagogue as Judaism’s core institution, in which anyone (initially, male) with the requisite knowledge could lead services, read from the Torah, and give an interpretation of Torah.

• The opportunity for  members of a community, found in many medieval Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, to interrupt the service to appeal to the people to  resolve a grievance with communal leadership.

Yet, in the burning of the Rambam’s books, the excommunication of Spinoza, the Hasmonean destruction of Jewish communities opposed to their particular political and religious ideas, and the talmudic rabbis’ clear limits on dissent that ensured debate would stay within halakhic norms, we see Judaism grappling with questions that vex modern democracies today: What happens when the majority votes to deny core rights to minorities? What happens when a person or community cannot in good conscience accept a decision set by a democratic government?

Asserting our core values today, as we see democracy so in flux around the globe, remains an urgent task for the Jewish people. And learning from our own failures to live up to these values provides an urgent caution to others who are in danger of repeating such errors — in countries deciding whether to allow democracy to flourish (Burma, Arab Spring countries) or even in established democracies like the United States and Israel where, in the ebb and flow of political life, democratic norms are still being challenged and require vigilant protection.

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