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Judaism and Democracy (Part 1 of 2)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Adapted by Dr. Aviad Hacohen
Translated by Kaeren Fish

My position concerning the relationship between religion and state was expressed in an article published decades ago (“Religion and State: The Case for Interaction,” Judaism 15, Fall 1966, pp. 387-411; reprinted in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living [Jersey City, 2004], pp. 1-32), and it has not changed much since then. I wish to present here my view concerning the relationship between Judaism and democracy, which is slightly different from the relationship between religion and state.

This subject used to be a popular one in our circles. In essence it is immanent to the wider western society within which we live. The crown of democracy has traditionally been accorded a fair degree of prestige. There was a period when even fundamentally totalitarian states – such as East Germany or Communist China – called themselves “democratic” countries. The term “undemocratic” or “anti-democratic” was perceived as something to be ashamed of, as opposed to the stamp of democracy, which became a sought-after commodity. Thus, there are many who seek to grasp this crown, regardless of whether it suits their reality or not.

The world of Torah, too, seeks inclusion within the sphere of democracy. This is understandable not only from the practical, pragmatic view – the public relations perspective. Fundamentally speaking, democratic perception and thinking include values that are very close to our hearts.

But can we wholeheartedly claim that we are democratic in the broad, secular sense of the term? Are we really able to abide by total democracy, in which this value is supreme? I believe that the answer to this question is in the negative.

We approach the subject from a dual perspective. On the one hand, there is the philosophical, theoretical ideal. On the other hand, we must address the political and social reality in which we find ourselves.

We are not speaking of a merely theoretical subject. This issue cuts deep; it descends to the depths of the reality of our lives. If we are talking about constructing a political system within a framework – both ideal and practical – that is characterized by its religious aspect, then the question of the relationship arises and deepens as the two elements collide in internal conflict.

Our situation is different from that of most western countries in which the religious and democratic aspects are more or less balanced. In these countries the matter underwent debate for many years. There were social and political developments, and they arrived at some sort of balance in the battle against clericalism, against the rule of religion, and in the matter of the conflict between religion and democracy. All of this happened in France, for example, some two hundred years ago.

Once we merited, by God’s mercies, to return to the Promised Land, many good minds deliberated the issue and treated it both from a practical point of view and from a point of view that sought to clarify our ideological and political beliefs in this regard. However, our reality is one that is developing and changing all the time, in contrast with a process that took place over hundreds of years in other countries and other cultures. Thus, the question is a burning one both because of our devotion to certain democratic values, and as a result of our profound connection with society in general, and the society in which we find ourselves in particular.

I shall not focus here on the practical, immediate reality, but rather on the more general perspective. I start with the negative aspect: in one sense it is clear that there is contradiction and opposition, in moral and philosophical terms, between democracy as it is perceived by many of its adherents, and our Torah world in particular, as well as the world of religion in general.

The most basic foundation of all political science is the question of the source of authority and its roots: from whence does it derive its values and draw its power, on the practical level, but also – more importantly – on the level of ideas? In this context, it is clear that if we compare our world view to that of western democracy, there is a contradiction. Democracy maintains that the source of authority, its root and basis, is the vox populi – the voice of the public. The public decides, for better or worse; the public determines what is desirable and what is not, both in legal and in moral terms.

We, on the other hand – and I refer also to those who cleave to universal religious values in general, and to our world-view in particular – highlight the idea that the source of authority is the Holy One and His will. “He is our God and there is no other.” We are His servants; we are happy to serve Him, and we proclaim – like any believing Jew – that “They are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt.” God’s command comes “first” both chronologically and logically. In this sense, then, it is clear that our world view differs from the democracy espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.


At the same time, however, one thing must be clear. While we differ regarding the roots of authority, this does not necessarily place us in opposition to the democratic perception of government, namely, how it is structured and how it is elected. The contradiction between “they are My servants” and a view of authority as emanating from a human, secular power is one that would exist even if we were speaking of an oligarchy or monarchy.

Thus, even before we get into the details, we approach questions of society and politics with a different perspective. Democracy is not more of a threat to religion than are other forms of human rule. When the nation demands that Shemuel appoint them a king, this is taken as a rejection of God: “It is not you that they reject, but Me that they reject from ruling over them” (I Shemuel 8:7). There is a conflict here not between democracy and Torah, but rather between human authority and divine authority. Similarly, the battles between Church and State in western culture, from the Middle Ages until modern times, were not conducted against democratic regimes, but rather against monarchic ones.

Our perspective is that, under all regimes, human commands may not nullify Divine commands. This is Rambam’s ruling, in keeping with the Gemara. This is true concerning a king, and it is also true concerning Congress, or the Knesset. This question does not pertain specifically to democracy: “The words of the Master and the words of the disciple – to whom do we listen?”

We may ask whether the Torah advocates a specific type of government. The Gemara debates the meaning of the verse, “You shall appoint a king over yourself” (Devarim 17:15). Many authorities are firmly committed to the view of the Rambam, who counts the appointment of a king as one of the positive mitzvot; in his view, this represents not a possibility but rather a normative, obligatory instruction. Abarbanel disagrees (as do others); his position in this regard must certainly have been influenced by the vast experience that he gained during the period of the Renaissance, with all the intrigues that characterized the royal houses. In his view, the appointment of a king is permissible, but not obligatory.

In any event, the question goes beyond whether we accept Rambam’s ruling on the matter; it also involves an understanding of the mitzva of appointing a king, on the most basic level. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik quoted his father as saying that even if there is a commandment to appoint a king, the commandment is dependent on there being a demand for one. The nation has to make its voice heard – as we see happening in the days of Shemuel. Only when there is a demand that arises from the masses, to adopt the royal model – only then does the mitzva apply.

Rav Moshe Soloveitchik based his innovation, inter alia, on the fact that during the SecondTemple period there was no great demand to reinstate the kingship. At that time it was specifically those who were not among the great students and teachers of Torah who wanted it. An echo of this is to be found in the Ramban’s commentary:

“You shall say: Let me appoint a king…” (Devarim 17:14) – according to our teachers … this is a positive commandment, obligating us to make this declaration following the inheritance and settlement of the land, similar to the formulation of [the commandment], “You shall make a parapet for your roof” (ibid. 22:8), etc. The Torah specifically uses the expression, “you shall say,” for it is a commandment that [the people] come before the kohanim, the leviim, and the judge, and tell them, “We want to appoint a king over us.”

In other words, according to the Ramban the Torah is providing instruction and guidance for the public that is interested in pursuing this possibility, but the mitzva to appoint a king is only in response to public demand. Ramban does not address the question of whether there are circumstances in which the public may refrain from asking for a king, but the obligation of the kohanim, leviim and the judge applies only when such a demand exists.

A sharper question now arises: if, indeed, the public does choose a monarchy, what weight – if any – is awarded to public opinion in shaping this royal regime and determining who stands at its head?

From the Gemara in Sanhedrin it is clear that, concerning the kings of the ten tribes (i.e., those not of the Davidic dynasty), the person coronated as king was chosen by the public. Although he was not called the “president” or the “prime minister,” he was subject to the will of the people and their election.

The Keren Ora (in his commentary on Horayot 11) goes a step further. He believes that if the public has had enough of the king, the public is entitled to remove him immediately and replace him with someone else. This is a rather revolutionary view, and it certainly reflects so a very democratic perception.

Even if one were to advocate monarchy – and in the future, the dynasty of the House of David is destined to be reinstated, as part of our vision of the redemption – this still does not mean a kingship that sows fear and rules by tyranny. The monarchy must certainly be sensitive to the public will, and the public will must be able to find practical expression.

In this context, the question is not only whether or not there exists a monarchy, but also the status of the king, his powers, and the extent of his authority. Some of his spheres of authority are listed in Sanhedrin, on the basis of the narrative in Sefer Shemuel, but there is no full answer regarding the extent to which other individuals or bodies can be part of the political and national landscape. By choosing a middle path, one may reconcile what could be perceived as a contradiction between democracy and the Torah world view.

But we should not suffice with this. 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.  [This will be the subject of next week’s sicha.]

(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.)

Continue to part 2 >>



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