The Founding Fathers seemed to think that believing in God actually mandated democracy; today many of the world's most religious people seem to think that belief in religious laws make democracy undesirable. What does Judaism think?
There is no contradiction between Judaism and Democracy. I refer to Rabbi Menahem Alon's book Hebrew Jurisprudence, the chapter on "public regulations." (p. 558)". It should be noted that democratic regimes were not in existence in biblical times, or during the time of the Mishna and Germara. Reference to democracy does not exist in halacha until the10th Century. However, some aspects of democracies do exist, such as equality before the law. "And therefore man was created alone.." But the form of government in which authority resided with the people did not exist.
Rabbi Alon writes: "A deep and crucial change took place towards the end of the 10th Century, with the rise in power of the Jewish community. This community was a social unit, and it encompassed in its authority and supervision all areas of its members activities, and it was within the kehilla that the social and spiritual fabric of life was woven. It has a great deal of autonomy: internal leadership institutions that were made up of appointed and elected officials; it supplied the educational and social needs of its members; there was a court with judicial authority in civil laws and to a limited degree even criminal law."
From that point onwards, over hundreds of years, Jewish law developed to include the legitimacy of the public to enact regulations that acquire the authority of toranic law, when and if they ware enacted by majority opinion required the opposing minority to follow them as well. "It was permissible for those regulations to include orders opposed to existing halacha." (ibid p. 595).
Thus, it seems, that democracy has deep roots in halacha.
So much of the Tanach influenced the founding of our nation: “influenced” is the operative. America is not God’s given Promised Land. Today too many people look to religion as either the salvation or the disease. Just because people believe it does not make it so. Too many people use the text as a pretext for their own assertions. Looking at America’s laws and ideals, many of them stem from Torah ideals. Whether revealed or inspired, our Founding Fathers saw Israel’s experience as a template for this nation. Bruce Feiler, author of Walking the Bible, notes the Biblical influence on the Founders of our nation. He records the proposed symbol of America as designed by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Instead of the present seal of the eagle with an olive branch in one talon and a brunch of arrows in the other, the three founding fathers proposed the following: Moses [in the Dress of the High Priest] standing on the Shore, and his hand extending his hand over the Red Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and sword in his hand. Rays from a pillar of fire in the clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by the command of the Deity. Franklin also included the motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. Our tradition demands people to be self empowered with our system of mitzvot as a guideline. Just look at the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 to discover religious responsibilities as the essence of democracy. To be holy one must look to society's ills and heal them. That is Judaism; that is democracy!
The Founding Fathers and other liberal political thinkers of the early Modern period not only believed in a divinely mandated democratic political ideal, but arguably found their inspiration in Jewish sources. Prof. Eric Nelson of Harvard University argues as much in The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard U. Press, 2010). While the Founding Fathers did agree on the need to declare independence from England and establish a democratic republic, they did not speak with a unified voice on the precise contours of the political landscape of the new republic they were originating. Among the principal values in conflict in their impassioned debates, liberty and democracy can often be at odds. Liberty is the notion of self-determination and maximal autonomy. Democracy denotes majority rule, even at the expense of minority objection and suppression of individual rights. The new republic that came to become the United States of America has continued to negotiate between these two values: individual freedoms versus communal accord; state rights versus federal power, big versus small government, etc…
Judaism begins as a covenantal religion that binds its adherents to observance of God’s commandments. On the one hand, the Torah affirms that Judaism’s founding fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- bound their future descendents in covenantal obligation. On the other hand, the Talmud reads the Sinai narrative in the book of Exodus as one more of communal consent than Divine or covenantal coercion. And yet, even within Judaism’s heteronymous (i.e., authority from without, as opposed to autonomous) legal and ethical system, Judaism upholds at least partial autonomy on the individual level and a democratic form of decision making in the communal legislative and judicial arena, as it says in the Torah: “And you shall incline after the majority [ruling]” (Exodus 23:2; BT Sanhedrin 2a).
While the biblical tradition presents us with a monarchic ideal – think David and Solomon, some medieval thinkers, such as Don Isaac Abravanel understood the Deuteronomic charge to appoint a king (17:15) as mere license, rather than firm obligation. Having witnessed and suffered the mass expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 by the ignoble writ of ostensibly religious monarchs, Abravanel was convinced that democracy was of greater religious and moral integrity than any monarchic system. Alternatively, some modern rabbinical figures, such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, believed that a democratically elected government fulfills the Deteronomic commandment to appoint a king, which he more loosely understood as a governing leadership. For more information regarding such interpretive Jewish traditions in favor of a democratic ideal, please consult Rabbi Sol Roth’s Halakhah and Politics: The Jewish Idea of the State (Library of Jewish law and Ethics (KTAV, 1988).
In sum, Judaism can and has accommodated a democratic ideal, which in the words of Winston Churchill: “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
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