This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Judges), begins with a commandment: “Judges and officers you should give yourself in all your gates, which the Lord thy God give you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.”
Indeed, since then, there has been a broad buy-in into a world order based on rules, with officers that execute them, and judges who judge the people. The only question is: Who are those judges?
For most of human history, it was clear that the rules are that of God; and the judges, directly or indirectly, judge based on God’s will. Such was the case in Europe until at least the late 18th century and mostly through the mid-20th century, operating under the system of divine-right-monarchy in the belief that God chose the monarchs, and they performed God’s will.
Such was also the case in Jewish communities during that time, guided by the Halacha (Jewish law), with rabbis and dayanim (rabbinical judges) leading the community and judging its people.
However, in recent centuries, there has been a swift departure from this, with the introduction of secular democracy. The rulers are no longer appointed by God but by the people, and the judges base their decisions on laws legislated by humans, not by God.
This new experiment is now facing unprecedented challenges in various global arenas, the keys to which is the question: What are the rules and who are the judges?
Once again, Zion is at the epicenter of an emerging debate, and the world is watching, just as it looked up to innovations and global trend-setting that came out of Zion throughout history.
Levis as a light upon the nations (Judaism 1.0)
The question of who the elite are is dealt with in the Torah itself, when a shift occurs in the nascent nation of Israel’s power structure, moving from the firstborn to that of a new elite, the Levites.
The system of firstborn was not only used in Israel. We learn through Laban in the Book of Genesis that it was used by local nations as well. And yet the shift to a new elite in Israel was emulated by other nations. It became acceptable that priests, not the firstborn, were in charge.
Another application of the concept of Judaism as a “light unto the nations” occurred over 1,000 years later, with the spread of monotheism.
Monotheism as a light unto the nations (Judaism 2.0)
Jewish monotheism was spread to pagan Europe in the form of Christianity, and later to the Middle East in the form of Islam. And so, the specific mission set by Judaism to spread light unto the nations through monotheism has been fulfilled. Yet, Theodor Herzl concluded that it was time for Jews to spread a different type of light upon the nations. He wrote in 1895: “God would not have kept us alive so long if there was not a role left for us to play in the history of mankind.”
That light has been spread through the Zionism that he fathered. Indeed, innovations produced in the Jewish state Herzl envisioned advance humanity, such as medical breakthroughs, new technologies, safety innovations, productivity, and lifestyle advances.
However, one of the biggest contributions of Zionism to humanity might be in the works today in 2023 as Israel deliberates proposed changes to its power structure.
Zionism as light upon the nation (Judaism 3.0)
Herzl understood that democracy without an elite is problematic, and hence advocated a system of “aristocratic democracy.” However, he did not define that aristocracy.
Indeed, the daunting challenges faced by democracies worldwide stem, to a large extent, from attempts to shift power away from old elites. This manifests in New York/Los Angeles vs “flyover country”; in Paris vs France; and more broadly around the world in what some call culturally “white vs brown.”
While much of the debate around the world is theoretical, in Israel it is “live.” Indeed, Israel has turned into the world’s laboratory experiment.
The Israeli elite arose in the 1930s, when an adamantly secular party led by David Ben-Gurion, later the Labor Party, won elections to Zionist institutions, and then consolidated power, wielding control over government institutions, the media, the education system, the economy, business, and the Zionist ethos. Israel was ruled in an l’etat c’est nous (“the state is us”) type of way.
This tight control worked. Thirteen years after Ben-Gurion’s party took over Zionism, the Jewish state was established.
But in 1977 came Labor’s shocking election defeat. Forty years at the helm came to an abrupt and traumatic end. Since then, there has been a gradual shift of power, accompanied by natural resistance, from the secular minority to the religious/traditional majority, and from Tel Aviv – or more specifically the neighborhood of Ramat Aviv, home to four of the five center-left prime ministers since the late 1960s – to Jerusalem.
Israel is again on the global stage as another round in this long-term shift of power is unfolding.
“The first part of your plan to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court passed into law,” CNN presenter Wolf Blitzer said as he opened his recent interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
That first part, the canceling of the Reasonableness Clause, was triggered by the Supreme Court’s overruling of Netanyahu’s appointment of Arye Deri, leader of the Sephardi Shas party, to a ministry in his government. The court ruled that such an appointment was unreasonable, given a plea bargain Deri had made related to tax offenses, which included his resignation from the previous Knesset and ambiguity about his intentions to return to politics.
Sephardi religious Shas voters felt disenfranchised. To them, it is perfectly reasonable for the leader of a party, which won nearly 10% of Knesset seats, to be allowed into the government, especially given his rich ministerial experience.
Their sense that the court has repeatedly overreached its power was only aggravated when former chief justice Aharon Barak explained that Sephardim are radically underrepresented in the courts because, someone said, “we could not find a [suitable] Moroccan judge.”
Blitzer apparently believes that changing the composition of the court, or defining its mandate, weakens it.
Herzl said “elite” but was careful not to specify who the elite should be. God said “judges” but did not specify who they should be.
Whether one supports or opposes the proposed legal reforms, the debate in Israel is not only a legitimate one but also a testament to a thriving society.
Jewish Israeli society is rooted in the ideological bedrock of Zionism, which allows debates like this to be argued passionately, yet safely. Indeed, both sides of this debate walk with Israeli flags and view their side as doing the right thing for Zionism and for democracy.
The world is witnessing a debate in Israel that is based on content, with a highly engaged population that is well informed, passionate, disciplined to their side’s messaging, and highly patriotic – operating in the realm of mutual assurance.
Blitzer proceeded to highlight the damage that, in his view, the debate causes to Israeli society, economy, military, relations with the United States, and stability with the Palestinians.
Yet, in reality, one needs to also recognize that the way the debate is deliberated, as well as its future outcomes and lessons, are once again rays of light beaming from Zion, from which the world’s nations are set to benefit as they go through similar deliberations. ■
The writer is author of Judaism 3.0 – Judaism’s Transformation to Zionism (Judaism–Zionism.com). For his geopolitical analysis, see: EuropeAndJerusalem.com