While the Jewish people certainly didn’t invent democracy, we should
Democracy’s ethics of equality and freedom of religion have allowed
us not only to survive as an otherwise often subjected minority, but to flourish
dramatically and fully participate in society. Far beyond these clear gifts of
the post-enlightenment world, democracy enabled the Jewish people to respond to
God’s original call to the first Jew (Genesis 12) to be a nation and a blessing.
As a people, the creation of democratic societies and our intimate involvement
in them allows us to be a powerful and direct cause of positive change in the
world. Simply put, without the protection and possibilities that democracy has
given us, we could not fulfill our destiny as Jews.
Aspects of the first
seeds of democracy were embraced by ancient Jewish sages who – both in Babylonia
and especially in the Land of Israel – were sensitive to the costs and benefits
of various forms of government, especially for minority cultures. It was not
only survival instincts that guided them.
The sages also knew they must
harness the power of the best ideas they encountered in order to fulfill a core
mission: to create the ideal ethical society that Judaism demands we build.
Rabbinic literature certainly includes some of the best elements of what much
later would be part of the culture of democratic societies: democratic-style
discussions, pluralistic legal interpretation and often a deep understanding of
the needs and rights of the individual to help shape his community and find
Whenever we had the chance, we not only embraced the
possibilities of democratic governments, but – more than most minorities – we
immersed ourselves in them, challenged them and ultimately made them better and
stronger. We made democracies better because we insisted that all minority
rights be protected, not just our own; because we generously contributed
intellectual, civic and financial resources; and we made them stronger primarily
because of our intensive committed involvement on every level. We embraced
democracy like a modern messiah.
But at what cost? Democracy has also had
a deeply complicated spiritual impact on the Jewish people.
By the late
19th century, American Jewish leaders expressed concern that our life raft might
also be the context for our spiritual and communal death. If the Jew is
completely embraced and – literally – married into American society, and in
living the American dream has the freedom to be and do anything and everything,
who needs Judaism, much less the hassles of Jewish communal life? These
questions continue to challenge some North American Jews while for others they
have positively shifted the discourse toward reimagining the possibilities for
Judaism in America.
Even though the 65-year reality of a Jewish
democratic state expands our capacity to combine the best of Judaism and the
best of democracy, thus enabling us to fulfill our destiny as a sovereign
people, the knowledge still lurks in every Jewish mind and heart that
democracy’s demons revealed themselves even in the “best” of Western cultures.
If a democratic society can also attempt to annihilate us, then, as Eugene B.
Borowitz teaches, the 20th century taught us a bitter lesson about the “false
messiah” of democracy and human progress.
With both disillusionment and
hope, we enter the voting booth once again. (That I can vote – freely choose the
party and candidate that my Judaism and my conscience guide me to choose and
without risking my life, is not something I should ever take for granted.) What
might change in the next government? Will the status quo continue or might these
elections help us build the society we were called to create? Or, as the great
modern Jewish thinker Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) taught, might democracy
still be the source of our salvation? In his teachings, writings and
institutional leadership, Kaplan helped American Jews rethink Jewish life,
prayer and purpose in radical ways. According to Kaplanian theology, “God is the
power that makes for salvation” and, alternately, the power that makes for
freedom and the power that makes for righteousness; thus God can also be found
in the positive power of democracy because it is a vehicle for our total
individual and collective realization.
Kaplan believed that while Judaism
is about the full realization of a people, it is no less about the fulfillment
and perfection of the individual. In celebrating the centrality of the
individual, democracy is a phenomenally Jewish value because it also recognizes
the individual’s need to participate in and be fulfilled in his or her greater
social context. Without this context, the individual cannot achieve the moral
perfection which Judaism seeks and which leads to salvation.
Kaplan’s biographer, writes in his forthcoming book, The Radical American
Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan
, that Kaplan saw in democracy similar goals to
those of Jewish life: a whole culture built upon the encouragement of certain
values and certain kinds of behavior essential to an ethical life. If we engage
fully in both, we will achieve not only a collective worthy of redemption but
our own personal fulfillment and salvation as well.
So, in these
pre-election days, we should anxiously and joyously stand as though we are
simultaneously in both the Hebrew months of Elul and Nisan.
month preceding the Days of Awe, because we ought not to cast our vote with out
a severe heshbon nefesh
(soulful self-critique) of where our previous votes and
political activity (or inactivity) has lead us in the years that have passed. If
we fail to participate, we fail to be engaged in our own salvation.
it is also Nisan, the month in which Passover, the Holiday of our Freedom,
falls: a time of joy and hope because we are engaging in the greatest of all
freedom rituals; the ritual that enacts the collective and individual salvation
that the Exodus from Egypt sought ultimately to achieve.
We can only be
fully human if we are fully free; and only in exercising our freedom to
influence our democratic culture can we find the possibility of redemption for
our society and for ourselves.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, PhD, is
a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at the Hebrew Union
College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Her column appears monthly.
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