Purim: The Importance of Democracy


One year ago, Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafy’s troops were marching toward Benghazi, the unofficial capital of the Libyan rebels. Kaddafy was calling the rebels “rats,” and a 10,000-person massacre seemed inevitable. But on Purim itself, in Libya (historically part of the Persian Empire), NATO made the decision to intervene, saving the pro-democracy rebels. “Nahafoch hu”—the opposite of the tyrant’s plan occurred. Fortunately, Purim has been a bad time for tyrants in modern as well as ancient times.

Yet strangely there are still some rabbis that question whether democracy is the best alternative to tyranny. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh in Israel recently said, "Rabbis aren't bound by democracy's restrictions." He stated that the democratic process "distorts reality," because it creates a false middle ground of compromise. To Rabbi Levanon, this is why rabbis are committed to the uncompromising “absolute truth” of Torah, and are not committed to democracy.

In the Book of Esther, we learn that the lives of tens of thousands of Jews were at risk in the Persian Empire because the whims of King Ahasveros and his minister Haman almost led to our destruction.  What we learn from the Megillah is the danger of unchecked power, as in any system of absolute dictatorship the welfare of the masses is subject to the whims of one person. A dictatorship may appear to work out on occasion. Ahasveros’ predecessor, Cyrus the Great, was a virtuous leader for his time, allowing the Jews to return to Israel, among other displaced peoples who were returned to their lands. However, because the Persian emperor was considered the prime deity, allegiance to the capable Cyrus was then transferred to his successor, the capricious Ahasveros. Together with the malicious Haman, Ahasveros emerges in the Purim story as an unchecked power that almost led to our destruction. In the long run, dictatorship never works, because the masses are subject to the whims of a few. There is no good alternative to a responsible democracy.

Contrary to Rabbi Levanon’s model—that we cannot support democracy since we must only be committed to an “absolute truth”—is the talmudic model, which demonstrates a discourse of argument, diversity, and collaboration.

In the democratic process of the Talmud, the rabbis held a very strong belief in the value of dissenting opinions. The Mishnah asks, “Why do we mention an individual view along with the majority (accepted position) unnecessarily?” One answer is, “That if a first person says, ‘so I have a tradition,’ a second will say to him, ‘You (first person) heard it as the opinion of so-and-so (an earlier third person)’” (Eduyot 1:6). The position will be eliminated based upon his historical dismissal. However, there is another reason given: “That a court may approve an individual view and rely on him” (Eduyot 1:5). The first explanation suggests that we preserve minority positions to set a precedent for their complete rejection in the future. However, the other opinion suggests that we preserve minority positions in order that future generations can be aware of them and rely on them. The latter opinion suggests a Talmudic democratic process, as the majority position is chosen but the minority position is still of great value.

Still another Talmudic position suggests that the unaccepted minority position is also true: “These positions and those positions are (both) the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). Yet even more than valuing truth, the rabbis value peace. In a cosmic battle between shalom (peace) and emet (truth), peace struck truth down to the earth (Bereishit Rabba). The rabbis teach via metaphor that the value of peace usually trumps the value of truth.

Rav Kook explained that a society of peace is only possible when the foundation is one of argument. Moses was the greatest leader, yet even he did not rule alone; he appointed a Council of 70 that evolved into the Sanhedrin—with its spirit of argumentation, representatives from every city, and local as well as national councils—which was eventually instrumental for the Talmud. There is an ethos of democracy and representative government underlying the foundations of Talmud. While dictators can carry out massacres on a whim, the Jewish idea is that one execution in 70 years evinces a “bloody court.” Only where there is collective engagement in policy can there be a strong enough foundation for the good and just society.

Majoritarianism, Economic Inequality, and Republicanism

Democracy has deep roots; however, the modern secular version of democracy has some liabilities. One primary danger is majoritarianism, where all decisions are made by a majority, regardless of its effect on people. Thus, in a majoritarian system, major laws can pass even if only 51% support a law and 49 percent strenuously object, without regard for whose rights may be infringed. Minorities (such as the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the secularists and Christians in Egypt) would be particularly vulnerable in this type of system.

The political scientist Arendt Lijphart offers a blistering critique of majoritarianism. He distrusts "straightforward majority rule in which both majority and minority would simply promise to behave moderately," adding: "This is a primitive solution to ethnic tensions and extremism, and it is naive to expect minorities condemned to permanent opposition to remain loyal, moderate, and constructive."  

Instead, Lijphart advocates for “consociationalism” to provide universal participation within a society. In heterogeneous societies, it is essential for 1) power to be shared and 2) group autonomy: “Power sharing denotes the participation of representatives of all significant communal groups in political decision making, especially at the executive level; group autonomy means that these groups have authority to run their own internal affairs, especially in the areas of education and culture.” These two core principles comprise “consociational” democracy. The Talmudic system, as we have seen, shows respect for minority opinions through procedural legitimacy (legal respect) and through treasuring these minority opinions (attitudinal respect), and is not merely dismissive. Conversely, democracy today runs a risk of majoritarianism.

It might be a stretch to say the Talmudic model is consociational. However, the Talmud definitely takes steps away from majoritarianism and toward consociationalism. The idea of procedural legitimacy, with "participation of representatives of all significant communal groups," is hinted at in the Talmud's requirement to include minority opinions. This inclusion ensures that majorities cannot simply ignore minorities forever. Second, the idea of representation by one's "own community" is suggested in the Sanhedrin's inclusion of a representative from each community. The point is that good intentions are not enough; to believe that intentions are sufficient is "naive." Rather, respect for minorities must be institutionalized (albeit in their own way) in consociationalism and the Talmud.

To be sure, the Torah demands that we reject perversions of justice even within a democracy: “Do not be a follower of the majority for evil; and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert (the law)” (Exodus 23:2). We must engage in civil disobedience when society goes astray; however, society ultimately must have procedural legitimacy and the rule of law, as espoused by Max Weber’s secular concept of rational legal authority. In a commentary on the previous Biblical verse, the rabbis promote some level of conformity to the majority (where the majority rules by procedural legitimacy): “Follow the majority! If the majority rules ‘impure,’ it is impure; if the majority rule ‘pure,’ it is pure” (Midrash Psalms 12). Civil disobedience, on the other hand, is a protest against the seemingly unfair and arbitrary measures that lack procedural legitimacy.  Civil disobedience has deep Jewish roots from Abraham protesting God’s decision to destroy Sodom to the civil rights and Soviet Jewry movements.

On an individual level, freedom is attained through spiritual means (Avot 6:2), but on a collective level, freedom is attained through political compromise. While the personal religious realm is one of ideals, the public political realm is one of pragmatics, where the perfect is the enemy of the good. Pragmatism and compromise are necessary to ensure that things get done. The Midrash teaches that there is the heavenly Jerusalem (an ideal of ideals) and the earthly Jerusalem (embedded in messy difficult discussions). Being a modern Jew requires that we balance our most idealistic commitments with the need to create change in a complex, ambiguous world. We must always remain committed to procedural legitimacy, because the ideals we hold must be enacted in a valid manner, with complications and compromise.

Democracy is not perfect, but it is the best model we have for navigating a messy human society in modern times. The right to live with freedom is rooted in the Torah itself: “Thou shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). This passage concerns the Yovel laws (jubilee year). However, while democracy ensures that everyone has equal civil and political rights, it makes no assurance for economic rights, and economic inequality results. Thus, everyone can vote and run for office, but they are not constitutionally guaranteed an economic livelihood to support their families. To ensure such a guarantee, something else is needed: government health care, soup kitchens, and other social services. The Torah has this unity: “liberty” refers not only to political liberty, but also to economic liberty from landlessness and indebtedness.

Columbia University Professor Alfred Stepan, a leading political scientist on democratization, has contrasted "democratic transition" with "democratic consolidation." Democratic transition involves the replacement of dictatorship with a polity that fulfills all formal characteristics of democracy ("free and contested elections"). But after democratic transition, democratic consolidation is still necessary to ensure that democracies are "the only game in town." Once democratic consolidation has occurred, "the behavior of the newly elected government that has emerged from the democratic transition is no longer dominated by the problem of how to avoid democratic breakdown."

Professor Stepan lists "economic society" as one necessary supporting condition for democratic consolidation: "Modern consolidated democracies require a set of sociopolitically crafted and accepted norms, institutions and regulations—what we call 'economic society'—that mediate between the state and the market." He goes on to say that "even the best of markets experience 'market failures' that must be corrected if the market is to function well. No less an advocate of the 'invisible hand' than Adam Smith acknowledged that the state is necessary to perform certain functions."

Professor Stepan then quotes Smith’s assertion that government has "the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice." Here we see Professor Stepan echoing the Torah's double meaning of "proclaiming freedom." For example, the creation of a permanent and hereditary slave underclass inhibits democratic consolidation, even if some slaves might achieve a skilled job, or if selective emancipation is possible. While freedom in its formal characteristics might refer only to political liberties, freedom can only be "consolidated" with economic liberties (or "economic society") as well. The Yovel laws can count as part of the governmental consolidation of economic society, in that they "protect…every member of society from injustice.”

From a Jewish perspective, we know that even more than granting rights, the Torah gives us obligations. Maintaining a free and just society is not easy and requires the effort of all. In addition, even when the democracy is not in a Jewish state, we are called upon to support the government: “Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray for it to G-d, for through its peace will you have peace” (Jeremiah 29:7). Furthermore, the state protects us: Rabbi Chanina, the deputy Cohen Gadol, says, “Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow one’s fellow alive” (Avot 3:2). This is why we are bound by the laws of the land via Shmuel’s mandate of “dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the country is law (Bava Kama 113a).

This is another important critique of democracy: republicanism. It is not enough for everyone to vote for policies that specifically benefit them. There must also be some spirit of patriotism and community, as in John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The great Harvard Professor John Rawls taught the “Veil of Ignorance,” in which a hypothetical citizenry votes on the laws in their society, without knowing where they will be in society—rich, poor, strong, weak, etc. This forces people to consider the general good instead of their own specific interests. Along these lines, Adam Smith cites the government's "duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and public institutions which it can never be in the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society."

When Adam Smith writes of the government’s duty to erect public works, institutions and other laws that would never be in the interest (or ability) of a single individual, he also is asking something of the government and its citizens. He is asking for the government and the people to not only vote by considering their individual interests, but to research the issues, become informed citizens, and do what is best for the polity. As the institution of Yovel did in ancient times, so we should do today. While Judaism does have a notion of representation (shaliach adam k’moto), the appointee is still expected to be knowledgeable and accountable.

Unlike Smith, some capitalist economists such as Milton Friedman have criticized democracy on the grounds of efficiency. They claim that voters are irrational and unknowledgeable, and make the government and country less efficient through their voting patterns. This criticism dates back to the earliest democracies. In the Republic, Plato critiques democracy through the narration of Socrates, as “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike." A more recent criticism is that democracy does not provide adequate political stability, since power shifts so frequently. More cynical critics claim that democracy is merely an illusory façade masking an elite oligarchy.

On a more positive note, one of the greatest endorsements of democracy is exercising our freedom to vote at all possible opportunities. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a letter written in 1984, explained that all American Jews must vote, since we must express our hakarat hatov (gratitude) to the leaders of the great nation we reside in.  Rabbi Kaminetsky dismissed those who doubt the impact of their individual vote, noting that recent elections have been decided by just a few hundred votes. "Therefore, I urge all members of our community to fulfill their obligation to vote for those who strengthen our nation—whether materially or spiritually.”

Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik went further in explaining our commitments to rights and obligations to ensure that we pursue justice for all in society. “While contemporary civil law has evolved from the Torah (from the mishpatim, in which humanity is in the ‘image of God’), the Torah maintains a core distinction from civil law: whereas modern jurisprudence is completely and exclusively grounded in human rights, Torah jurisprudence is additionally founded upon the pillar of duties. In terms of human rights, tzedek and mishpat are used together (Tehillim 89:15). Thus, we do not inflict an injury on others because it would violate their human rights. Their rights come first, and from this comes our duty to not harm others. This is a universal duty: When one delves into the halachah, one can readily see that the Torah does not make a distinction between Jews and non-Jews within the realm of mishpat and tzedek…. A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whatsoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed.”

Democracy today is far from perfect. The three main challenges addressed here are majoritarianism, economic inequality, and republicanism. The Talmudic tradition helps to alleviate these problems and should be looked to for its wisdom on these matters. The first critique, majoritarianism (mob rule), is addressed by the Talmudic respect for minority opinions and the Torah requirement for procedural legitimacy. The second critique, economic inequality, is addressed by the Torah’s recognition that liberty has political and economic elements. The third critique, republicanism, is addressed by the Torah’s sense of duties in addition to rights.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that all people are equally a part of redeeming the world in what he uniquely coined “Judaic democracy.” He points out that we all can serve G-d in our own way: “Every person possesses something unique, by virtue which he differs from the thou, making him or her irreplaceable and indispensable – the inner worth of a one-timely, unique, never-to-be-duplicated existence, which can and must serve God by self-involvement in the drama of redemption on all levels.”

Thus, the core value of collective freedom is Judaic democracy, which compels us to grant all individuals equal opportunity to create change in society. While communism, notorious for restricting individual opportunity, did not succeed, there are still many other government models that are antithetical to the spirit of Judaic democracy. This Purim, as we reflect upon the dangers and pains the Jewish people have undergone over centuries while living in totalitarian regimes, let us remember that hundreds of millions of people are still not free today–and that they may have an opportunity to expand their freedoms. Concomitant to our search for personal spiritual liberation, we must advocate for the physical freedom of all others. What is at stake in our activism to bring freedom to all people around the world is nothing less than the dignity of humanity.

The world has undergone tremendous changes since last spring. Mubarak went down, Tunisia has fallen, Yemen is in turmoil, and Hezbollah is embroiled with instability in Lebanon and Syria. This past year may actually have been one of the great revolutionary years in modern history. Political commentators have reached back to the 1848 revolutions to draw comparisons, and Time named “The protester” the person of the year. Major protests occurred not only in the Arab World, but also in parts of Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa. No one could have expected that global governments would have changed in the ways they have. There is an opportunity for Jews today to unequivocally call for the freedom of all people and the abolition of totalitarian regimes.  Living in a democracy requires all to engage in collective matters and to educate ourselves to the most pressing contemporary issues beyond our parochial sphere. Further, we can look to our core Jewish values to educate us on the moral values needed in every democracy to value every person in addition to the system itself.

This Purim, as we learn about the dangers of tyranny, may we learn to convert our gratitude for living in modern democracy into action that helps to make others free.

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.