Daily Israel Report

Rabbis: Judaism and Democracy Not Always in Sync

What is Judaism's position on referendums and, democracy? A panel sponsored by Herzog College explored those and other questions
By David Lev
First Publish: 12/20/2012, 7:39 PM

What is Judaism's position on referendums and elections? Does the Torah view agree with, or contradict the traditional Western view of “one person, one vote,” or does the authority of religious leaders trump the will of the people? Is it permissible for people who are not Torah observant to manage public policy in Israel?

These questions and others were explored at a special event on Sunday sponsored by Gush Etzion's Herzog College, which saw some of the most creative minds in the Religious Zionist movement come together to discuss issues that have come to the fore, in the wake of the upcoming elections in Israel.

Among those discussing the issues were Rabbi Ya'akov Medan, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Gush Etzion, and chairman of an organization that has researched the relationship between Judaism and democracy.

Speaking on a panel at the event, Rabbi Medan said that “there is a limit to the ability of the people to make decisions, because they have more disadvantages than advantages in making these decisions. The average person lacks knowledge in many areas and is thus unable to analyze issues to their roots. People vote for their personal interests,” he said, adding that overall, there were more disadvantages to making decisions by referendum for society than there are advantages.

Agreeing with him, Rabbi Yaakov Shapira of the Yeud Institute said that “only with Divine guidance can we seriously deal with many of the issues facing us. Democracy is not the source of authority for us, and we must examine how it can be integrated with Judaism.” However, he added, “there is a place in Judaism for referendums, on certain matters. There is no doubt that many people, like me, are happy to enjoy the fruits of a free and democratic society, but we must remember that first and foremost we live in a Jewish state.”

One of the topics broached during the discussions was the difficulty of teaching and studying civics in schools with a Torah curriculum. Both teachers and students have reported feeling uncomfortable with the contradictions between the democratic and Jewish point of view on resolving issues and instituting legislation.

Also speaking at the event was Professor Asher Cohen, chairman of a government committee on teaching civics. Cohen said that he was opposed to current laws allowing referendums. “You want to ask the nation its opinion, but there are two nations here, Jewish and Arab. Which nation do you ask what?”

Commenting on the event, MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) said that he was uncomfortable with the attitude displayed. “I don't see how you could say that any individual or group is to have ultimate authority, since there are many different religious opinions and approaches today,” Schneller said. “Judaism was given not to the rabbis alone, but to all of the Jews.”