Democracy and the Jews: Democracy, its demons and interplay with religion

Though the world is not yet ready for the Torah’s version of utopia, we are grateful for even gradual improvements, as society evolves ever closer to that vision. Democracy is a Divine gift.

Democracy, illustrative (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Democracy, illustrative
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
Democracy and its values have revolutionized human experience and terminated thousands of years of suffering, persecution and the general inertia of the human condition. Democracy ousted unjust and suppressive monarchies which perennially had crushed the human spirit and had also stripped the general population of its wealth.
The emergence of a more equitable political system which more effectively advances human welfare is ample reason to celebrate. Torah isn’t merely a prescription for ideal personal experience but also designs a model society of justice and prosperity. Though the world is not yet ready for the Torah’s version of utopia, we are grateful for even gradual improvements, as society evolves ever closer to that vision. Democracy is a Divine gift to humanity.
As Jews, we are even more grateful, as democracy has granted us unprecedented freedom and self-expression. After centuries of religious persecution and social discrimination, Jews have been afforded religious autonomy and socioeconomic equality.
Appreciating the emergence of democracy mandates us to ardently protect its values and to actively participate in the democratic process. We hope that democracy continues to safeguard our way of life and to deliver welfare to humanity.
However, democracy poses many significant challenges to the religious imagination. For centuries, democracy has been enshrined and almost hallowed to the point that we seldom pause to question its perils and its challenges – particularly the challenges to religion. The very word “democracy” has become a conversation killer; we cherish it so deeply that it tends to overshadow any other value in a conversation or in a moral dilemma. Our honest assessment of democracy demands inspection of its risks even as we embrace its values.
Rampant individualism
Perhaps the greatest challenge of democracy is its emphasis upon the individual and his liberties. For centuries, basic human liberties were curtailed and human talent, potential and dreams were suppressed. The modern era has unleashed personal talent by protecting individual liberty.
However, it has pivoted human identity upon the individual and upon individual liberties at great cost to a more networked lifestyle, in which we are connected with various orbits of experience beyond the narrow realm of the individual.
Ideally, we should attach our lives to at least three broader “orbits” – the communal orbit, the historical orbit and the Divine orbit.
Firstly, we should connect with larger communities – for example, family and society – which enrich our experiences. Secondly, as Jews, we should live with constant historical awareness: how has the past shaped our mission, and how will the future be influenced by our actions? Thirdly, and most importantly, we should submit our lives to God, sublimating personal pleasure on behalf of a larger calling.
Theoretically, at its best, democracy can free us from oppression, ignite our imaginations and propel us toward these broader horizons and wider callings. However, in reality, democracy’s fixation upon the individual has shrunk our lives into small-minded individual spaces, detached from community, disinterested in our history and apathetic to religion. Democracy has created narrow prisons of self-interest, locking us in the withered realm of obsessive individualism.
A life of rights or a life of duty
A second challenge of democracy stems from its emphasis upon our inalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For centuries, these rights were denied, as the human spirit was crushed under the weight of tyranny. Indeed, protection of basic human freedom augments potential and unleashes creativity.
However, it also transforms us into creatures of “rights.” We aren’t placed on this planet to campaign for our “rights” or to fulfill our “rights.” We are born as creatures of “duty,” duty bound to fulfill the will of God and mission-bound to reshape the world in His image.
The famous ethical work Mesilat Yesharim begins by challenging readers to identify “hovat ha’adam be’olamo,” man’s duty in his world. Instead, modern society has fixated upon our “rights.”
In the legal arena this leads to excessively litigious societies and endless legal battles over the presumed invasion or violation of our basic human rights. In the religious arena the fixation upon rights nibbles away at our sense of “metzuveh ve’oseh” – that we should live our lives as summoned individuals, submissive to Divine command and attuned to the nobility of duty.
The tyranny of moral relativism
A third potential clash between democracy and religious values is the distortion of moral clarity. Democracy bestows universal equality and empowers each citizen with equal influence in the election process. By definition, democracy must be nondiscriminatory and asserts the uniform and equal value of each citizen and each political opinion.
However, this notion of equality has produced a dangerous assumption: if everyone is equal in the ballot box, they are also equal in the moral conversation. This has created a confusing world without absolute moral opinions and without clear divisions between right and wrong moral behavior. Suffering under the spell of moral relativism, society is unable to assign morally absolute and fixed positions – every viewpoint must be acknowledged and accredited, and every perspective respected.
A terrorist is no longer a homicidal murder; from “their” perspective – and theirs is an equivalent perspective – terrorists are merely freedom fighters restoring violated national pride.
Perennially fixed values, such as religious authority, family, and social etiquette, are no longer fixed, absolute or universal, since every value can and should be questioned.
The extreme and sometime cartoonish expression of this moral equivalency is extreme political correctness where any comment expressing any opinion is banned, and conversation becomes flattened into empty slogans and meaningless but safe speech.
Fake news and misinformation
In the 18th century, democracy liberated politics while capitalism emancipated economic potential. In the past century, a third arm of democracy – the Internet – liberated the manner by which we exchange information. We are no longer subject to “information control” or thought control, which in the past was exerted by both governments and media outlets.
Though the elimination of thought control is welcome, we face a potentially greater hazard – fake news and misinformation. The information highway is free, but it is also unregulated and untamed. Social media have empowered every individual with the ability to broadly publish information. The sheer volume of information has led to “information inflation,” which of course devalues all information. The inability to sift fact from fiction has cheapened information in general, and we impute less credibility to the information we do access. This “information swirl” – a direct product of democratized information – creates uncertainty and confusion.
Democracy is the most elegant and equitable form of governance that human beings have crafted. The evolution of democracy came at great cost to human life and well-being. As Jews, we appreciate the opportunities that democracy has afforded us, while also celebrating the benefit it has delivered to humanity at large.
However, man’s greatest distortions aren’t his forgeries of truth; our greatest failures occur when we embrace a value that is “partial” and convert it into an all-encompassing and exclusive value, without fully examining its potential hazards.
In the absence of formal gods, the modern secular city has deified democracy without sufficient inspection of its inherent flaws. Periodically, we must carefully gauge the challenges of democracy to religious identity.
Despite our unqualified support for democracy, we continue to pray for the ideal form of human governance – a Jewish monarchy seated upon a throne in Jerusalem.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a hesder yeshiva. He has rabbinical ordination and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.