On Torah and democracy

Posted on January 23, 2010 in Default

By Stephen Handley

Matamim is a weekly sheet of divrei torah produced in Israel, which I have seen appearing in England, usually in Hebrew, but they are now beginning to be published in English. This piece is my response to the Matamim on Parshat Vaeira.

Matamim’s dvar torah ends with a lesson drawn from the fact that the list of the tribes of Israel in the Parashah ends with Moshe and Aharon. Nobody else needs to be mentioned, because nobody else deserves mention, and the fortunate are those who hold to the words of Moshe and Aharon, who were the wisest of their (or any) generation, and thereby merit redemption. What I find interesting is where Matamim starts from to reach this conclusion. Its principal theme is that of reflections on democracy.

The format of Matamim, for those who haven’t seen it, is that it is printed on two sides of one sheet of A4, and it begins with a colourful cartoon. The cartoon on the front of this particular Matamim depicts a polling station in Israel. In the centre of the picture a most vulgar character, mug of beer in hand, is casting his vote. To his left is standing an elderly rabbi, wearing a long black coat and a somewhat perplexed expression, with a voting paper in one hand and a Gemara in the other. Behind these two figures stand two vacant looking white boys, one talking on a mobile phone and one with an Ipod, and a sinister Arab man behind them in the shadows. In the far left of the picture are three bored tellers sitting at a table, and a map of Israel behind them.

Now, the people behind Matamim are presumably very religious members of Am Yisrael, who would surely have no truck with Darwin and his theory of evolution. None the less, in deciding how to depict an utter low-life, they seem to have decided to make him look like a monkey. Paradoxical, no? Well, wait until you see what’s coming.

In the written narrative accompanying said cartoon, Matamim begin by quoting, or misquoting, Churchill: “The least evil system of government is democracy”. They then proceed to tell the story of a young Jewish genius, word of whose exceptional wisdom reached the local baron, who decided to test this boy. He asked him to visit his castle at a certain time, hid himself and his servants out of sight, and waited for the boy to find him. When the boy duly did so, the baron asked him how he did it.

“I noticed that there was one room where the shutters were not drawn,” replied the boy. “I reckoned that you had to be in that room.”

“Very clever of you,” said the baron. “And what if all the shutters had been drawn?”

“I would have knocked on all the doors until some of your servants appeared, and I would then have asked them where you were.”

“And what if they had given you contradictory answers?”

“Well, I would have followed the majority, as it says in our Torah – After the majority you shall incline.”

“Aha!” yelled the baron. “Now I’ve got you. You must be aware that there is only a very small number of Jews in the world, and there are many millions of Christians. Why don’t you follow the majority and convert to Christianity?

“Because, Your Excellency,” replied the boy, “we only follow the majority in the case of doubt. I have no doubt that God gave us the Torah and that we are to follow the teachings of Moshe Rabbeinu.”

It’s a lovely story. Matamim then go on to spoil it by asking a number of questions – do the majority always know what is good for them, have they the necessary knowledge for informed decision making, are they able to foresee what will result from their decision, and so forth, and the answer to that question is a resounding No. That should come as no surprise at all. God has given us all free will. Can you or I, or indeed anyone, claim to always know what is good for us? Have we all the knowledge for informed decision making? Can we foresee the consequences of what we will do? Of course not. None the less, God does not withdraw free will from us.

Matamim make the point that we defer to the experts – doctors in particular – in the case of important matters. But that has not always been the case. We live in a world in which humanity in general has decided to produce goods and services on an industrial scale, and for that reason we have created a need for any number of medical, legal, engineering, scientific, and religious specialists, none of whom existed in Biblical, Mishnaic, or medieval times. Many of these specialists are creations of the last two centuries. In times past, if you were very ill you would either have to look after your own cure, or else if you were very fortunate you would get together the local healers who, in consultation with your family, would decide what to do. Modern life is an aberration from historic norms of conduct. I need hardly add that the experts are not always right: ask any thalidomide child. Examples could be multiplied.

Having embarked on the modern trail of trusting the experts in everything, Matamim go on to preach a gospel of absolute trust in the chachamim (wise men) of the generation. Not content with taking a verse from Scripture (Deuteronomy 17,10) which refers to specific cases of difficulty and making it apply to literally everything, they appear to put forward a view of man’s development which would make the most ardent disciples of Darwin draw breath. In their own words: “As every intelligent human being clearly recognises the difference between a person and an animal, all see the world of difference between the chachamim and “everyday” people. The chachamim are like a different species – a different category of Hashem’s creations, and the “everyday” man stands in awe of them, and submits to their superior vision and understanding”.

Well, that isn’t what my Bible tells me. My Bible tells me we were all made in God’s image. Let us go back to my earlier point about free will. Suppose God had engineered things in such a way that we all thought that we had free will, but only a few of his specially favoured ones, who have the kind of knowledge denied to the majority, actually did have free will. All the rest of us, me included, would be labouring under an illusion of freedom of action. How do I know that isn’t the way God made the world? The answer is precisely because the Torah tells us we were made in God’s image.

At this point Matamim start to mention the genealogy of Moshe Rabbeinu, as stated at the beginning of this piece.

This is my dvar torah on the Parashah, although it isn’t mine but, if I recall correctly, that of the Chatam Sofer. Why did God tell Moshe to throw his staff onto the floor before Pharoah? The staff was an extremely holy object. It would be like throwing a Sefer Torah to the floor. According to tradition, the staff was created by God and passed on to the Patriarchs, and it had holy divine names written on it. And why did it become a snake? The answer is that Pharoah did not believe that the Israelites could be redeemed. “Look at them,” he said. “Sinners, low-lives, nogoodniks. Why should God want to redeem such trash as this?” In response, Moshe threw the staff to the ground before Pharoah.

“Yes”, said Moshe. “Before you, we are all like snakes – the lowest of the low. That is because your culture makes us so. Here in Egypt, you are either the ruling class, or you are the slaves. But once we become free men, we will be holy again – like my staff.” With that, his staff swallowed up all the magicians’ staves.

In all non democratic forms of government, the ruler is like Pharoah. All his subjects can be enslaved at a moment’s notice. It is only when democracy rules that men can be holy. Please understand that in ancient Israel, although there was a king, he was elected by the people, and subject to the rule of law: see Deuteronomy 17, 14-20. In Britain, until we established a parliament, it was accepted that the king was the agent of God and thereby empowered to make or unmake the law as he saw fit. There is no hint of this in the Torah. Furthermore, there was no idea that kingship ran in families. The Torah is closer to the democratic ideal than many of us think.

My opinions on anything are subject to change. My love for you will not change.