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Friday, 3 October 2014

Is Democracy a Jewish Value?


Daf Yomi Chagigah 25

Israel shines a ray of progressive light in a region that is plagued by authoritarianism and theocracy.  We pride ourselves on our Jewish state that is not only a democracy, but a liberal democracy.  

Illiberal democracies are those regimes that shout about everyone getting a vote but then once they do, the elected mighty majority proceeds to drive out the weak, as we saw in Nazi Germany and recently in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood.  In contrast, a liberal democracy respects and protects the rights of minorities – ethnic, religious and political.  And that is what is so special about the State of Israel that sets it apart from all other countries in the region.

But is liberal democracy truly a Jewish value or is it merely a concession to the demands of post-Enlightenment international society?

The Mishnah states: In Judea, regular folk are trusted with regards to the purity of wine and oil.
The Gemara asks: In Judea, they are trusted but not in the Galilee?  Why not?  Reish Lakish answers: Because there was a strip of non-Jewish territory that divided the two regions in the middle.
Rashi explains: The Sages decreed that any produce coming from non-Jewish territory is deemed impure.  Jerusalem is in Judea, and one must pass through the Cuthean strip to get there from the Galilee.  Therefore, it is impossible to get anything there in a state of purity. 

Asks the Gemara: But Ulla taught that they would prepare pure wine and oil in the Galilee!  Why would they bother if it is impossible to bring it to Jerusalem?
The Gemara answers: After preparing it, they put it aside, hoping that one day Elijah (the proclaimer of the messianic era) will arrive and show them a kosher path through the non-Jewish territory.

Wait a sec!  If Moshiach comes, why must Elijah show us a path through the gentile territory?  Let’s just get rid of the strip and solve the problem!  Can’t the other Arab countries just absorb their Palestinian brothers and sisters from Israel?    Clearly, the Gemara is teaching us that even in the messianic era, there will be non-Jews in the land of Israel – not only will they be tolerated, but they might even continue to enjoy some measure of territorial autonomy! 


Liberal democracy is not a new idea.  The Torah espoused it already thousands of years ago.  Ethnic minorities have rights.  They pay taxes to the central government but are by no means compelled to become Jewish, just because they live in the Jewish state.   And certainly, nobody should ever be so much as suggesting that they might consider leaving.  Judaism respects and protects the rights of all people.  That is the model of true liberal democracy – a Divine theocracy, because the Almighty tolerates all peoples created in His image.