The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy

05-Jul-1999

10 Short Position Papers - X

Filed under: Democratic MethodsJudaism Papers — admin @ 1:52 pm

X - Democracy and Judaism
Professor Paul Eidelberg

If it be said that democracy is inconsistent with Judaism, no less than Spinoza would agree. Spinoza, the father of liberal democracy and of modern biblical criticism, deemed the Torah anything but democratic. Yet distinguished rabbis and jurists contend that the two are consistent. To resolve this contradiction, I shall distinguish between two types of democracy, “contemporary” or normless democracy and “classical” or normative democracy.

Democracy has two basic principles, freedom and equality. Whereas freedom, in contemporary democracy, means “living as you like,” equality legitimates all “life-styles.” This is why moral equivalence and hedonism now permeate democratic societies. Hence one may ask: “What is there about democratic freedom that would prompt youth to restrain their passions, to be kind, honest, and just? What is there about democratic equality that would prompt a person to defer to wisdom or show respect for teachers or parents?”

In contrast, classical or normative democracy derives freedom and equality from the Torah’s conception of man’s creation in the image of God, which provides freedom and equality with ethical and rational constraints. Recall the American Declaration of Independence. Since the Declaration proclaims “all men are created equal,” and refers to God as the “Supreme Judge,” it follows that all are obligated to obey the laws of their Creator (say the Seven Noahide Laws of Morality).

Admittedly, the Declaration emphasizes “rights,” whereas the Torah emphasizes “obligations.” Although the two are correlative—your rights are my obligations, and vice-versa—rights connote “taking,” while obligations denote “giving.” Still, if freedom is linked to obligation, and if equality is construed as an elevating and not a leveling principle, classical or normative democracy can be assimilated to Judaism.

Turning to Israel’s Declaration of Independence: while it proclaims “political equality” and “freedom,” these terms must be understood contextually. By acknowledging Israel’s raison d’être as a Jewish State, such that its being “Jewish” is the State’s paramount principle, the “political equality” mentioned in the Declaration must then be construed not as an absolute—the tendency of contemporary-normless democracy—but as a logically subordinate principle. Consider, too, the Declaration’s avowal that the Jewish State will be based on “freedom … as envisioned by the prophets of Israel.” Any intelligent and honest person, even if not religious, will admit that the prophets’ understanding of freedom differs from the permissive or normless freedom of contemporary democracy.

If we take the prophets seriously—recall how they admonish kings and denounce immorality—we may learn how to elevate democracy and render it compatible with a Jewish constitution.