With election campaigns ongoing in Canada and the Unites States and quite possibly soon in Israel, we have an opportunity to reflect on the wonderful freedoms that Jews enjoy throughout the world. Many tend to think that Judaism is indifferent or even hostile to the concept of democracy preferring instead a monarchy. This is both a misunderstanding of democracy and of Judaism. It was the Jewish people who brought the concept of freedom, the central tenet of democracy, to the world. Notions such as protecting minority rights, a transparent justice system, social safety nets, privacy rights, freedom of speech and thought have their antecedents and are rooted in the Jewish tradition.
Democracy derives its authority from the people themselves; a similar concept exists in rabbinic law. A rabbinic law that is not accepted by the community at large is rendered void based on the Talmudic principle “we do not impose strictures on the community that they can not endure”.
While the Torah records the setting up of a monarchy many of our commentaries saw this as less than ideal situation, one modeled after the not so noble desire “to be like all the nations around us”. Even Maimonides who views the setting up a monarchy as a Biblical obligation, states that the king must actually be appointed by the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, in addition to its role as the highest judicial body is also the representative body of the Jewish people, much like Parliament in Canada or Congress in the United States, serving as legislators of Jewish law in addition to their interpretive role.
Rav Abraham Issac Hakohen Kook zt”l the first Chief Rabbi of pre state Israel, notes that absent a king the representative body of the Jewish people i.e. the Knesset, has the legal status of king. In fact one who rebels against a Jewish king is guilty of a capital offence. The fact that many Jewish leaders do not represent the best that Judaism has to offer is irrelevant. A cursory reading of the Bible will aptly demonstrate that compared with many of our kings, our political leaders look like paradigms of virtue, and their authority is to be respected and followed.
Historically Jewish communities were governed by an elected body (usually consisting of seven people) whose duty it was to represent the Jewish people to the governing authority. They could pass binding legislation, set tax policy and the means to enforce it, running a parallel but independent court system. Traditionally communal policy was set by lay leaders with Rabbis serving as spiritual leaders but having little authority on the running of the community. Spiritual leaders were in fact elected by the community and it was extremely rare for a son to inherit the rabbinic position of his father.
Living in a democracy means a fundamental shift in our relationship to government. In pre-modern times Jews were obligated to follow the laws of the monarch even when the citizens lacked basic rights. Taxes went to enrich the king and not to provide services for the “taxpayers”, nonetheless we were obligated to pay them. In a democracy our relationship is one of equals. All citizens, including government officials, are considered to be partners and must pay their fare share of to keep the business i.e. the county running smoothly.
The obligation to vote is so basic to being a responsible citizen that Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l the foremost halachic authority to grace the American shores ruled that one may enter a house (though not the actual sanctuary) of idolatry to cast ones’ ballot. Being a participant in the democratic process is a not just an act of responsive citizenship but one of responsible Judaism.