This week we were treated to the conclusion of the usual bruising election campaign to determine the leadership of the country for the next few years. It is worth noting that there is almost no expectation within the electorate that this next government will serve its full term - none of them ever do as they are toppled by events, scandal and ineptitude. Nevertheless, people here take politics (though not necessarily politicians) seriously. Campaigning is vicious and personal and the competition is very intense.
I have often wondered whether the concept of elections as currently conducted is in any way consonant with Torah law and religious Jewish values. I am hard pressed to think that it is, and therefore the politically correct notion that is paid lip service here that this is a "Jewish democratic" society is quite ill-defined. In a campaign where slander and insult abound is there any way that this can be condoned under the laws of evil speech so emphasized in the Torah? And is the rule of the majority, when that majority decides for principles diametrically opposed to Torah law and Jewish tradition, to be accepted simply because there is temporarily a majority that has voted for it?
Many an evil and disastrous person and policy has been democratically elected to office with a later cost of life and individual freedoms. Yet, Winston Churchill was reputed to have remarked that democracy is a terrible form of governing but it still is the best one that human society has as yet created. In spite of all of my misgivings as outlined above, I grudgingly must concede the accuracy of his statement.
In First and Second Temple times the government of Israel was purely personal and in a sense dictatorial. With the establishment of monarchy by King David, it became dynastic even though the natural squabbles about succession were always present. However in First Temple times all of the kings were subject to the influence, if not sometimes even the control, of prophets. Even the string of wicked kings who ruled over the northern 10 tribes was subject to the withering criticism and powers of prophets such as Elijah and Elisha.
Prophets could be persecuted and punished, but they could not be ignored. Thus the people found their voice through the prophet who represented God, so to speak, and tradition and destiny. Even when the people chose to ignore the words of the prophets, it was their choice, and the consequences of that choice were clearly predicted to them by the prophet. So in a sense there was a rudimentary sense of democracy present then. People voted not through the ballot box but rather by their behavior and life choices.
And in effect this is always the basic democratic principle of life - people do what they wish to do. It is the task of government today to inform people of the consequences of their individual behavior much as the prophets of old did. The distortion of our political system is that it rewards those who knowingly give false promises and erroneous prognostications about their future plans, policies and what the true consequences of these behaviors and policies are.
In Second Temple times, the Jews lived under the rule of the men of the Great Assembly, a parliamentary body that was appointed but not popularly elected; the Hasmonean kings who ousted the Greek rule; and finally under Roman governors and domination. The counterforce to the rulers was the presence of the rabbinic scholars - the Tanaim, both early and late - who represented the populace and the traditions of Israel. Though they themselves were not prophets, they served as the substitute for the earlier prophets of First Temple times in forming public opinion and opposing tyranny and wrongheaded policies.
In the long exile of the Jewish people, popular democracy, in the sense of the modern understanding of the words including elections, existed. Though there always was a ruling upper class, the masses had the ability to either vote them out of power - 18th- and 19th-century kehila life in Europe - or by simply forming new movements such as Hassidism which circumvented the existing power structure. In early 20th-century Europe, the Jewish society fragmented into many different political parties, each vying with the others through popular elections for the leadership of the Jewish society. This system has been imported into our modern day country of Israel with its multiplicity of parties and its intense rivalries. But as we say here, this is what is, so let us hope for the best and be realistic and hopeful at one and the same time.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.