The Leading Enemy of Democracy and Judaism
By Paul Eidelberg
Some years ago Aharon Barak, currently President of Israel’s Supreme
Court, delivered a speech at Haifa University where he declared: “It
may already be said that the term ‘Jewish and democratic’ is not a
contradiction, but rather a completion.” Evidently, Judge Barak is
unaware that Spinoza, who rejected Judaism, is the father of liberal
democracy. Strange that such a philosopher, famous for his logical
acumen, should have seen contradictions between Judaism and democracy
where no such contradictions exist -- according to Judge Barak.
It’s rather amusing to see how many Jews feel they can earn no honor or
respect unless they contend that Judaism is consistent with democracy.
Such people have reduced Judaism to a juggler’s bag out of which
anything can be produced on demand. Let’s dispel this intellectual
Political scientists define democracy as a “process” or the “rules of
the game” by which individuals pursue their private interests and
“lifestyles.” Hence democracy does not entail any particular ethnic or
religious character. This is why there are no ethnic or even ethical
qualifications for voting or holding office in any democratic regime
(with the exception of Japan).
In contrast, Judaism is a nationality, a prescribed way of life. In
addition to endogamous marriage laws and ethical precepts, Judaism has
its own holy days, its own system of education, its own literature, its
own kind of economy. And because Judaism is a nationality, only Jews
can hold public office in an authentic Jewish polity. All this is quite
foreign to democracy.
Consider democracy’s two cardinal principles, freedom and equality.
Freedom, especially freedom of expression, is the heart of liberal
democracy. In his judicial decisions, Judge Barak has adopted the
libertarian predilections of the American Supreme Court. There freedom
of expression enjoys a “preferred position” over considerations of
public morality, in consequence of which obscenity and pornography are
rampant in the entertainment media. Consistent therewith, the Barak
court nullified a law permitting the Film Censorship Board to ban
pornographic movies by ruling that nothing can actually be declared
pornography, as one man’s pornography is another man’s art. This
democratic permissiveness or relativism is hardly consistent with
As for equality, the Barak court not only ordered the Interior Minister
to recognize homosexual adoptions, but rendered decisions affirming
gender equality in rabbinical courts. Whatever one’s views on these
matters, such decisions, so typically democratic, are not consistent
with anything distinctively Jewish. Fortunately, there are alternative
conceptions of democracy.
Unlike contemporary democracy, which is normless, classical democracy is
normative and can be made consistent with Judaism. Viewed in terms of
18th century American political thought, classical democracy derived
freedom from man’s creation in the image of God. Freedom thus had moral
constraints (such as the Ten Commandments). In contemporary democracy,
freedom is based on human will and is devoid of moral constraints.
Because classical American democracy was still close to the aristocratic
and religious tradition, it recognized standards of human excellence and
thereby fostered an elevating equality. This is not the case of
contemporary democracy which levels the moral and intellectual
distinctions among men.
Contrast the Torah. Although the Torah embodies many egalitarian laws,
it also contains many non-egalitarian laws. For example, in procuring
their release from captivity, “A priest takes precedence over a Levite,
a Levite over an Israelite, and an Israelite over a bastard... This
applies when they are all [otherwise equal]; but if the bastard is
learned in the Torah and the priest is ignorant of the Torah, the
learned bastard takes precedence over the ignorant priest (Mishnah,
Similarly, under Jewish law, “a scholar takes precedence over a king of
Israel” (Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 23a). Again: “If a man and his
father and his teacher were in captivity [for ransom], he takes
precedence over his teacher, and his teacher takes precedence over his
father, while his mother takes precedence over them all” (ibid.)
Clearly, learning determines the order of precedence, unless a woman’s
honor is at stake. These examples indicate that Judaism does not
involve the leveling of distinctions characteristic off contemporary
democracy. This is not all.
Judaism cultivates respect for parents as well as modesty in speech and
conduct. All this is diametrically opposed to contemporary democracy,
as television makes clear. Notice the pandering to youth by making
parents look ridiculous. Notice the mindless emphasis on sex and
violence. Is Judge Barak unaware of this moral decay? If not, his
denial of any contradiction between Judaism and democracy obscures the
grandeur of the former and hinders the rejuvenation of the latter.
Judge Barak’s view of democracy is devoid of moral law, and many of his
decisions violate the cherished beliefs and values of most Jews in
Israel. Indeed, many of his decisions, though often couched in
democratic language, strike the candid observer as rather personal and
arbitrary. Paradoxically, such decisions can hardly be “democratic.”
One may therefore conclude that Judge Barak is an enemy of “democracy”
as well as of Judaism.
from the May 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine