The Enemy Within


The Enemy Within


Search our Archives:

» Home
» History
» Holidays
» Humor
» Places
» Thought
» Opinion & Society
» Writings
» Customs
» Misc.

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 dishonesty.

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 Judaism.

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, Horayot, 3:8).

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




The Jewish Magazine is the place for Israel and Jewish interest articles
The Current Monthly Jewish Magazine
To the Current Index Page
Write to us!
Write Us
The Total & Complete Gigantic Archive Pages for all issues
To the Big Archives Index Page