Judaism's Democratic Tendency*

Whether we look to Canada, the United States, or Israel, the air is filled with election campaigning.

At first glance, this might appear like an entirely modern, Western phenomenon. Anti-democratic forces in Israel have even argued that the idea of democracy is inherently opposed to Judaism. The familiar political structure of ancient Judaism was generally monarchical, or even "theocratic," a term originally coined by the First Century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius to describe the priestly-dominated government of the Second Temple era.

Actually, even though as influential an individual as Maimonides asserts that the Torah commands us to appoint a king, the biblical sources (e.g. Deut. 17:24-20; I Samuel 8) are ambivalent about the subject. The talmudic rabbis, moreover, were far from certain that the Torah viewed monarchy as an ideal political structure.

It has been argued that Judaism does not actually recommend any particular political system. Provided that the leadership is guided by suitable religious and moral ideals, Jewish tradition has sanctioned a number of different political models.

A Jewish City-State

Among the most venerable of the Jewish political structures is the kehillah (community), a town-centered institution whose roots date back to the beginnings of the Second Temple era.

Talmudic sources describe the extensive authority exercised by the kehillah, and by its constituent members, the citizens or "b'nei ha'ir", in such areas as the allocation of funds for welfare, education and defence, as well as the supervision of weights, measures and prices, the fixing of salaries, and more.

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Star, Calgary

Some historians have argued that the kehillah originated as a Jewish response to the Hellenistic ideal of the polis, or city-state, which was the dominant expression of Greek culture in antiquity. Jews, at once accommodating themselves to the prevalent world-order and reacting to its pagan character, produced their own counterpart which, typically, outlived all the Greek-style cities.

In enumerating the far-reaching responsibilities of the kehillah, the Talmud refers only to the "citizens," meaning adult male residents--never to the king, Patriarch (Nasi) or even to the rabbinic court. In general, subsequent Jewish tradition has accepted these guide-lines at face value and, with certain qualifications, assigned legislative and executive authority to the town's lay citizenry.

Though the Talmud speaks at greater length of authoritarian structures involving rabbinical courts, a Nasi, and a king (to which it is often hostile), it is clear that in reality it was the local communities which constituted the dominant form of government. The relative silence regarding the kehillah has been attributed to the fact that the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud were edited at times when there was a strong (but unsuccessful) move towards centralized authority.

Nonetheless, it is evident that in Eretz Yisrael throughout the talmudic period and afterwards, and in Spain, Italy and Germany thereafter, the democratic communal tradition continued to thrive, long after the Roman Empire had become feudalized and the centralized rule of the Babylonian yeshivot had declined.

Characteristic of the authority entrusted to the kehillah is the fact that various privileges which the Talmud allotted only to official religious courts were transferred by medieval scholars to the lay community leaders. Accordingly the community was assigned absolute control over its citizens' property, an authority which the Talmudic sources restricted to the recognized Rabbinical courts.

Majority Rule

Basing himself on this analogy, the renowned 13th century Spanish talmudist Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret (Rashba) summarized the principle that communities should be governed by majority rule:

As regards the decisions of the people of a specific locality, the law is that whenever the majority agree to enact a law, and accept this law, we pay no attention to individual opinions, since the relation of the majority in each town to the individuals of the community is equivalent to the relationship between the Great Court to the entire Jewish people: Whatever they decree shall stand, and whoever disobeys is to be punished.

Dissenting Minority

At least one important medieval Rabbi, the noted French scholar Jacob ben Meir Tam (known as "Rabbenu Tam"), denied the power of the majority decisions to obligate the dissenting minority

Rabbenu Tam's view remained itself a dissenting minority position. One of his most distinguished successors in Germany, Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (the Rosh, or Asheri) rejected the view arguing, among other things, that unless we accept the principle of majority rule, no community will ever be able to come to any decisions.

Representative Democracy

Another principle which is accepted universally in Jewish communal law is that of "representative democracy," that is, that the actual management of the community cannot always be carried out by the whole population, but is placed instead in the hands of a small governing body.

The Talmud speaks of an institution called shiv'ahtovei ha'ir, the "seven leaders of the town." R. Solomon Ibn Adret, in explaining this term, observes as follows:

The "leaders of the city" mentioned in the sources are not men of exemplary learning or wealth or honour, but rather seven men whom the community has appointed as executives to oversee its affairs...

Elsewhere he explains that this institution exists not by virtue of any intrinsic superiority of the leaders, but merely because it would be too cumbersome to bring every question to a vote.

Otherwise [he writes] no community would ever be able to do anything--plan a budget or pass legislation--without assembling all the taxpaying citizenry (in questions that entail expenditures), until a consensus can be reached--a consensus which would have to include the women as much as the men, since how can anyone dispose of their money without their permission?

This has been only a small glimpse into the rich and vibrant world of Jewish political life. It should, however, be sufficient to demonstrate that such "modern" inventions as majority rule, representative democracy and executive responsibility all have long and distinguished roots in Jewish history and tradition.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca