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MAY 2006

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Living Judaism

Judaism Has Never Been Scared Of Democracy

For nearly 2,000 years the original monotheistic faith has embraced and been bettered by it 

Having survived the Israeli 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 G-d to lead Israel, not by any sort of popular vote. The priesthood --- the status of being kohanim --- was reserved for Aaron and his descendants, also by Godly fiat. Joshua was appointed by Moses, again under G-d's instruction, to succeed him as the leader of the people. The Judges however, were self-appointed but some of them such as Yiftach, Gideon, Avimelech and even Shimshon 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. He objected to the manner in which 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, at the end of his rule was no longer viewed favorably and the record of the kings of Israel and Judah, even those anointed by G-d'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 the great sage Hillel could become the nassi --- the head of the yeshiva and the Sanhedrin. Halachic (Jewish legal) decisions were made by majority vote. Raban Gamliel was temporarily deposed from the office of nassi --- impeached if you will --- because of his undemocratic behavior towards 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 yeshivas (rabbinical academies) of Babylonia, during the period of the composition and editing of the Talmud, were chosen by popular opinion amongst the students and the other scholars. The yeshivas of France during the time of Rashi, the greatest of the biblical commentators, 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 sixteenth, seventeenth and part of eighteenth 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. Even the lay leaders of the communities were subject to popular approval and always faced the threat of recall from office if the populace was sufficiently disgruntled with its rule. 

In the yeshivas, 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 yeshivas 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 Chasidic world was for its first century fiercely meritocratic. The opponents of Chasidus mocked the Chasidic world of the eighteenth century by saying "If one says he is a rebbe, then he is a rebbe!" However to a certain extent this was a form of a backhanded compliment for Chasidus 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 nineteenth century did Chasidus become overwhelmingly dynastic, though even then there was room allowed for new dynasties to be created and become popular.

In the twentieth century, Jewish life was governed almost completely by elections, different parties and non-stop campaigning --- a situation that obviously pertains today in our State of Israel. 

In all facets of the Jewish world, popular opinion held sway, for good or for better. Many of the great religious leaders of the Torah world were not people who held major public positions but were rather 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 once 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 — Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at 

Previous Features  

The Living Judaism feature in each issue focuses on Jewish spirituality, meaning and activism with invited columns written by rabbis belonging to the various movements of Judaism. Jewish clergy interested in writing for Living Judaism are invited to make contact with Rabbi Goldie Milgram at judaism @