Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Midbar and Shavuot

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Be-Midbar and Shavuot 5761/May 26, 2001

Are Torah and Democracy Compatible?

Rabbi Dr. David Mesheloff
Department of Talmud

G-d's revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai changed the course of human history. On the first day of Shavuot (May 28), the festival celebrating our receiving the Torah, the Torah passage describing the theophany at Mount Sinai is read (Ex. 19-20) in synagogues throughout the world. The Torah describes how the Israelites prepared for this momentous occasion: "Moses led the people out of the camp toward G-d, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain" (Ex. 19:17). Though the plain sense of the Hebrew, va-yityazvu be-tahtit ha-har, is as rendered here (cf. Rashi), they also provided the basis for the following homily, cited in the Talmud (Shabbat 88a):

R. Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, forced the mountain on them like a barrel, and said to them: "It would be best for you to accept the Torah; if not, there shall be your graves."

The message is simple: the divine revelation was such a powerful experience, that they felt they could not face up to it. However, in Talmudic literature this homily was viewed as expressing the idea that the Torah was given by coercion. This perception led to many attempts at reconciling the contradiction between coercion and expressions of free will in connection with receiving the Torah (such as "we will faithfully do," Ex. 24:7). For example, Tanhuma suggests that the written Torah was accepted willingly, and the oral Torah by coercion.

A surprising new interpretation of this homily was presented several years ago, when Rabbi Hayyim David ha-Levi, former chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, expressed a widespread opinion concerning democracy and Halakhah: "There is no room for talking of democracy in a Jewish state. In a state that governs itself according to the Torah everyone is obligated to observe the commandments of the Torah as they were given at Sinai. Whoever thinks differently does not comprehend the significance of accepting the Torah" (Aseh lekha Rav, 8.89).

Nevertheless, many great Jews have thought otherwise, understanding differently the meaning of accepting the Torah. After all, "everyone is obligated to observe the commandments of the Torah as they were given at Sinai," even in a state that does not govern itself "according to the Torah." This obligation stems from a certain eternal relationship between the Giver of the Torah and the people of Israel ever since the theophany at Mount Sinai; and the existence of a democratic Jewish state, even a state that does not force its citizens to observe the Torah and its commandments, does not derogate from the independent and everlasting validity of this obligation. Before we examine how R. Avdimi's homily was understood by Rabbi ha-Levi, let us briefly consider several questions which he raised (loc. sit.):

How can [an authentic Jewish state, based on Torah] be democratic? In a democracy, founded on the "rule of the people," ... the majority makes decisions concerning the life of the people, sets the laws and ordinances, and is even entitled to change these laws. It elects the governmental bodies and rulers, and the majority makes decisions using its power of thought and human intelligence as to what appears best for the nation and the society. The Torah of Israel, on the other hand, is the diametrical opposite of all this. The Torah regulates the life of the individual and the lives of the entire nation within the context of laws and ordinances set down in the written Torah and passed down in the oral Torah from Mount Sinai, with no possibility of alteration... How [an elected leader] is to rule, and what shall be his laws and ordinances - all this is explicitly stated in the Torah, and nothing is to be added or detracted from it.

Does the Torah indeed deny the idea that governmental authority stems from the will of the people? According to the Netziv, the commandment to appoint a king depends on the will of the people, because one cannot impose on the people a type of government that they do not want (Ha'amek Davar, Deut. 17:14). According to R. Abraham I. Kook, when there is no king in Israel, the people are the source of governmental authority (Resp. Mishpetei Kohen, 144):

It seems reasonable that when there is no king, since the laws of kingship also concern the general state of the nations, that these rights of government revert to the people in general ... whoever leads the nation relates to the laws of kingship, for they are the general needs of the nation in accordance with the time and state of the world.

Does the Torah indeed not acknowledge the duty to apply one's human intelligence in order to establish laws appropriate to running a society, state and economy, and to change such laws when it becomes clear that a change is needed by the "state of the world"? In a Jewish state should every social, political, economic, legal and administrative matter that can be decided in democratic ways indeed be resolved by binding dictates of the Torah, "with no possibility of alteration?" Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinsky, rabbi of Vilna, wrote to Rabbi Isaac Herzog, shortly before establishment of the Jewish state, as follows:

At first I considered that perhaps one could have financial matters between one Jew and another adjudicated by rabbis, ... and cases between a Jew and a non-Jew by general law. Regarding theft, robbery, and other ... penal matters, it appears from the responsum of the Ran that judgment rendered by the king (mishpat hamelekh) was special, a system apart from the Bet Din that ruled by the laws of the Torah, for that is indeed difficult for a properly run state. [Here R. Grodzinsky cites several examples of Jewish laws that make it difficult to administer a modern society; D. M.] Thus, whether we wish it or not, in this regard one must establish laws of the State." (Ha-Hukkah le-Yisrael al pi Ha-Torah, p. 31, n. 19)

Further on in his remarks Rabbi ha-Levi maintained that, in contrast to a democratic state in which governmental authority depends on the will of the people, the Torah is binding even if the people do not willingly agree, for the Torah was essentially given by coercion. In support of this argument, he cited the homily of R. Avdimi:

Moreover, this Torah was primarily and essentially given to Israel against their will, and therefore its inception and birth were through coercion. Thus our Sages interpreted the verse, "and they took their places at the foot of the mountain": "Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said..." It was all essentially by coercion, for even if we suppose that it was an auspicious moment and that Israel accepted the Torah willingly on that day, this act of acceptance cannot, according to human perceptions, bind them for their entire lives and surely it cannot be binding on all generations to come. The Torah itself relies on the tradition of a covenant with blessing and curses and severe punishment should they violate the covenant from Sinai; hence we conclude that the Torah was forced on Israel.

In our view, there is no contrast between the Torah and a democratic state in this regard. Both are founded on mutual obligations, by free consent of the various parties. The concept of "obligation" by its very definition indicates willingness to stand by what was desired at the moment of undertaking, even if later one's will changes. The persons who accept the obligation undertake in advance to have imposed on them (within bounds) the duty to uphold their obligation even if what they wish changes (within bounds). Recognizing that it is the nature of human will to change, and recognizing that one cannot plan steps for the future with any sort of reliability if one cannot trust in consistency in one's fellow person, an "obligation" that people can be forced to uphold is essential to the existence of stable human society. Hence, the obligation is essentially entered willingly, but its continuation might require coercion if the wills of the parties change.

Thus a democratic government forces people to keep the law and punishes criminals against their will, including people who did not participate in the legislative process and people as yet unborn when the state and its institutions were formed. Perhaps it was this sort of coercion to which R. Avdimi was alluding in his homily; by accepting the Torah the Israelites agreed to have the laws of the Torah imposed on them by G-d, for without this it would not have lasting value.

On the other hand, the Torah, like the modern state, also depends on willing acceptance of obligation. In the Talmud, Rabbi Aha bar Jacob responded to Rabbi Avdimi's homily in the continuation of the Talmudic discussion (loc. sit.): "Thus great notice [heb. moda'ah rabbah] is given concerning the Torah!" Moda'ah means a pronouncement concerning cancellation of an obligation since it was made under coercion; Rav Aha bar Jacob argued that Rav Avdimi's homily provides an excuse to all those who might wish to avoid punishment for not adhering to the Torah! Rabba was compelled to respond (loc. sit.) that the Torah was re-accepted willingly (according to some: the oral Torah) in the time of Ahasuerus, when the Jews were saved from annihilation.

Without the Torah having been voluntarily accepted by Israel, it would not be binding. Accepting the Torah is essentially making a covenant in which both parties enter mutual obligations. The obligations are binding on both parties and include the people's consent that G-d impose its terms on Israel. By fulfilling its obligations Klal Yisrael, the body politic of Israel, achieves the objectives of the Eternal Lord and also assures its own eternal existence.
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