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meimad.gif (1382 Byte)Halacha and Democracy

Of late, and especially since the assassination of the Prime Minister, we have heard that there must be an unavoidable conflict between Judaism and democracy.

We cannot remain blind to the disastrous consequences to Israel as a Jewish state if Israelis were to begin to believe that the halacha opposes democratic rule. It is frightening to think of what would happen to relations between religious and non-religious Israelis, and especially to our own children who would grow up thinking that they must make an "either-or" choice between Torah and Israel.

The religious Zionist community has made a crucial contribution to modern Jewish life by showing that there need be no contradiction between commitment to Torah and living in the modern world. Just as our community demonstrated the compatibility of Torah and science, of halacha and technology, of Torah and modern Jewish nationalism, we must now show that we can both be committed to Torah and remain full partners in building a democratic Jewish state.

The relationship between Torah and democracy may be examined on a number of different levels. On the ideological level, we must examine the fundamental principles of democracy in light of fundamentals of Torah. We shall undoubtedly encounter tension between the two. And yet, on an operational level, the implementation of democratic principles and living a life of Torah can go hand in hand. We recall the well-known opinion of the Netsiv that the Torah did not dictate any one system of government because conditions vary from time to time and from country to country, and that we may accept a system of government from non-Jewish states if it proves to be best ["seder yoter nachon"]. In his opinion, the basis for any ruling authority must be popular support ["haskamat ha-am"]. This surely is consistent with modern political theory.

Even those who disagree with the Netsiv and believe that an ideal "Torah state" cannot be democratic, must realize that given present conditions the only realistic way to maintain the Jewish State of Israel is to keep it a democracy. With all that separates the many different sectors of the population, and with each sector believing (sometimes absolutely) in the exclusive right of its own position, we have no choice but to agree that all must abide by the democratic principle of "majority rule". There is simply no other way for us to live together. And from a Torah perspective, our not living here together would be disaster.

This being said, we must also dismiss demagogic pronouncements about the "supremacy of the laws of the state over the halacha". It is perfectly obvious that a believing Jew is bound absolutely to the halacha, just as a secular Jew may have moral principles which he sees as more compelling than state law. But this need not constitute a conflict between Judaism and democracy. On the individual level, one of the important characteristics of modern democracy is its commitment to maintaining the rights of the individual--including his freedom of religion. And on the public level, we have shown that the Torah itself has sanctioned the authority of a government that rules with the consent of the people.

Of course, the Torah's scope is not restricted to the realm of the individual. There is more to Torah than kashrut, shabbat, or tefila. Indeed, the Torah has much to say about public matters. Fashioning a society on the basis of the values of Torah has always been one of the goals of religious Zionism.

However, halachot that apply to individuals are the result of a long and continuous process of halachic rulings, a process which does not exist in halachot that could apply to a modern state. A posek today has a rich tradition of precedents concerning questions of kashrut or shabbat, for example. By drawing on those precedents, he can be reasonably confident when deciding questions of kashrut and shabbat. There is no comparable tradition of halachot on how to govern a modern state. There is no Shulchan Aruch, and certainly no ShaCh or TaZ on "hilchot medina". The halacha has not dealt with matters of state long enough to allow a posek to give an unequivocal "psak" in this area.

As such, declarations by Torah scholars on public issues may be respected as statements of values and moral guidance, but they are not binding halachic rulings. Anyone who has taken a serious look at what was presented over the last few years as "piskei halacha" or "daat Torah" on political issues, will readily see how shallow and unconvincing are the halachic arguments brought in support. The central argument of virtually all such "rulings" has been the posek's own interpretation of the facts at hand and his projection of the political/military implications of the situation. Such interpretations or projections are the subjects of legitimate public debate and are usually so complex that even political or military experts cannot agree on a single conclusion. As such, no posek--no matter how well schooled he may be in hilchot shabbat, basar b'chalav' or nida and mikvaot--can give an unequivocal, universally binding halachic ruling on such matters.

Seeing as how "Daat Torah" or "piskei halacha" are based on only one of what could be any number of legitimate interpretations of a military/political situation, their accuracy and authority is no greater than the interpretation on which they are based. To the degree that the military/political interpretation is open to debate, the "psak" cannot be seen as having the kind of universally binding halachic authority that would allow it to overrule state law or the authority of the military command.

In conclusion: It must be understood that if one chooses to be a responsible citizen of the state, and to take part in the democratic process by voting in state elections, he/she has agreed to abide by decisions made in accordance with the principles of democracy. As such, it is Torah, and not "just" state law, that obliges him/her to accept the rule of the Knesset in all public matters over which the government has authority.

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Meimad - POB 8067 Jerusalem 91080 Tel:+972 2 612240 Fax:+972 2 612340
© Copyright - Rav Yehuda Amital - Rabbi Michael Melchior


We supported Mr. Peres for Prime Minister because of our long-standing support of the Oslo Accords and the peace process, as well as evidence of our view that commitment to Torah does not imply support for one particular political stance. The monolithic support of the religious parties for Binyamin Netanyahu, and the nature of the campaign material implied it was a religious imperative for every observant Jew to vote for the right wing. This made Meimad's position all the more important as a message to religious Zionists.


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