The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


Judge Aharon Barak on Judaism and Democracy

Filed under: GeneralDemocratic MethodsJudaism — eidelberg @ 5:26 am

In a speech at Haifa University, former Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak declared: “It may already be said that the term ‘Jewish and democratic’ is not a contradiction, but rather a completion.” Judge Barak obviously has a permissive view of Judaism as well as of democracy. On the other hand, perhaps he was just being “politically correct.” Let’s examine the issue candidly.

The Torah divides the Jewish people into Kohanes, Levites and Israelites. To these divisions it applies, in various instances, non-egalitarian laws. For example, if the wife of a Kohane is raped, he must divorce her. This is not so for the spouse of a Levite or an Israelite.

In procuring their release from captivity, “A Kohane takes precedence over a Levite, a Levite over an Israelite, and an Israelite over a bastard … This applies when they are all [otherwise] equal; but if the bastard is learned in the Torah and the Kohane is ignorant of the Torah, the learned bastard takes precedence over the ignorant Kohane” (Mishnah, Horayot 3:8).

Similarly, under Jewish law “a scholar takes precedence over a king of Israel” ( B.T. Horayot 23a). Again: “If a man and his father and his teacher were in captivity [for ransom], he takes precedence over his teacher and his teacher takes precedence over his father, while his mother takes precedence over them all [if only because of her greater vulnerability]” (ibid.).

Clearly, the order of precedence is determined by learning, unless a woman’s life or honor is at stake. This is also true in less precarious situations. Thus, when a court has many cases on its docket, then, as Maimonides points out, the case of a widow is tried before that of a scholar, a scholar’s before an illiterate’s, and the suit of a woman before that of a man, because the humiliation is greater in the case of a woman.

These examples indicate that Judaic equality does not involve the leveling of distinctions characteristic of democratic equality. This is not to suggest that the Torah does not embody laws of arithmetic equality. But what we see in the above examples is that the principles of Judaism are more subtle, more realistic and comprehensive than those of democracy.

Besides, unlike democracy, Judaism is an all-embracing way of life. It involves deference to wisdom, respect for parents, modesty in speech and conduct—hardly typical of democracy, as television makes painfully clear. Consider the programs and commercials that stultify the mind and arouse the paltriest desires. Notice the pandering to youth by making parents appear ridiculous. Notice, too, the emphasis on sex and violence. All this is consistent with democratic freedom of expression, not with Judaism. Is Judge Barak mindless of the contradiction?

Then let me ask him: What Prophet of Israel ever advocated democratic freedom of speech? We read in Isaiah 9:16: “Therefore God will not rejoice over their youths … for … every mouth utters obscenities” (9:16)? Contrast Judge Barak who, tainted by democratic relativism, nullified a law permitting the Film Censorship Board to ban pornographic movies by ruling that nothing can actually be declared pornography, as one man’s pornography is another man’s art.

Now let us consider the politics of democracy. Political scientists define “politics” as a struggle for power among groups seeking to control the institutions of government. This means that democratic politics is an arena of self-aggrandizement or egoism. While this may be the norm of democratic politics, it is a norm diametrically opposed to Judaism.

At this point, someone may say Judaism is democratic because, down through history, Jews have opposed kingship. Even if this was true, it is fallacious to mistake history for law or theory. The Torah not only prescribes the appointment of a king, but Israel reached its highest perfection under King David. Would anyone be so bold as to say that Israel today—reputedly democratic—is a light unto the nations? Where are the democratic poets and philosophers who can approach the heights of the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job?

Israel was never a democracy—certainly not in the contemporary sense of the term. When the Prophets chastised kings, they never did so in the name of democracy. What Prophet ever advocated “one person/one vote”—a principle that endows idiots, perverts, criminals, and even the disloyal with the same voting rights as intelligent, decent, law-abiding, and patriotic citizens!

Unlike partisans of democracy, the true friends of democracy recognize its shortcomings and try to minimize them by pointing to higher standards of human excellence. To say with Judge Barak that Judaism and democracy complete each other is either moronic or disingenuous.