As the incumbent US president continues to challenge the results of last week’s election, what does the Torah say about democracy?
The concept of democracy as we have it in western nations is essentially a Greek one. Every male citizen in Athens was allowed to vote and participate in civil decisions. The word we use comes from the Greek, meaning “rule of the people”.
Yet the Bible also talks about
a primitive type of democracy.
The Sanhedrin was designed with this in mind. There were
73 rabbis sitting in court. Even today, the decisions in any Beth Din are to be made by a majority, with those who are junior voting first, in order to avoid their being intimidated.
The rabbis base our customs on majority decisions, using the verse that we should incline after the majority – but only to do good.
Majorities, however, can tyrannise and cause problems: look at the story of the 10 spies who gave a bad report of Eretz Yisrael or the large number of people who followed Korach in his rebellion.
In the days when there was a head of the Beth Din and a head of the Jewish community (Nasi) in Israel, they might hold different views
Where there were matters in dispute, they would have a vote.
The story is told that the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were in such a dispute.
The owner of the venue put armed guards at the door, and Beth Shammai, having a majority, refused to allow anyone out until the votes had been forced through.
This, of course, was undemocratic.
A similar story of the two Houses in dispute ends when a voice finally came from Heaven saying: “These are both the words of the living God, but the law is according to Hillel.”
The reason why is because Hillel’s school always listened to and taught their opponents’ opinion first, allowing them to develop
The example of Hillel would perhaps be a good one to follow in the current US elections, as indeed in all politics today.
- Rabbi Zvi Solomons serves the Jewish Community of Berkshire JCOB.org
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