The Problem With Democracy

Natan Sharansky, in his book The case for democracy, makes an effective argument that wars are never fought between two democratic nations.


Therefore, if we could turn the various dictatorships or communist countries into democracies, there would be an end to wars. Sharansky’s ideas became known as “the democratic peace theory.”


During the recent AIPAC convention, the various presidential candidates repeatedly praised Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East. In the Western world, democracy is idolized as the ideal for every nation that wishes to treat its citizens fairly.


The Talmud relates that legislation in ancient Israel was decided by a majority vote. The Mishna speaks of a case where 18 decrees were enacted according to the teachings of the students of Shamai as they outnumbered the students of Hillel.


Cases of capital punishment were decided by a court of 23 and a vote. Similarly, decisions by the highest court of 71 judges, as well as money matters in a court of three were conducted in a democratic fashion.


Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during the Second World War, once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


Israel epitomizes the problem with democracy. The constitution of Israel is self-contradictory. How is it possible to be a “Jewish” democratic state? If it is Jewish, it must remain that way despite the demographics of the population. In a democracy, the majority rules. Why couldn’t the majority vote that Israel ceases to be a Jewish state, God forbid? Another problem that Israel faces is a highly hostile domestic population. We are constantly faced with questions of the limits of free speech. This is especially problematic when free speech leads to incitement and threatens the security of Israel’s citizens.


A further dilemma is how far do we carry one’s rights in “pursuit of happiness”? If the majority rules that there be a breakdown in morality, the sanctity of the family, and for a value system where there is no clear definition of right and wrong, democracy must be the decider.


Democracy in some respects has become today’s Golden Calf. When the Pew Report came out with some troubling findings regarding the Israeli population’s solution to solving the current wave of terrorism, the democracy worshipers were up in arms. Israel’s citizens, 48 percent of them according to the report, were acknowledging that democracy wasn’t working.


Religion has taken a beating for quite a while. Many have dismissed the possibility that answers can be found in the Torah. Perhaps matters are cyclical and it’s time to give traditional values a second look. Although much of Judaism is based on democratic principles, there are absolutes that are taught to prevent the problems of democracy.


Jewish law does not tolerate a lack of morality. There are definite guidelines as to how Jews are expected to behave. And there are clear expectations for the Jewish population and the non-Jewish population living among us. There is a low level of tolerance for those who violate the law.

On an international level, Sharasky’s theories make a lot of sense. Churchill did not have a solution for the weaknesses of democracy. It’s time we realize that there is no system more just and sacred than the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai. We need to relearn it and find leaders who will show its value by the example that they set. The Jewish people will again be “a light unto the nations,” shining far brighter than any democracy.

And there are clear expectations for the Jewish population and the non-Jewish population living among us. There is a low level of tolerance for those who violate the law.


On an international level, Sharasky’s theories make a lot of sense. Churchill did not have a solution for the weaknesses of democracy. It’s time we realize that there is no system more just and sacred than the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai. We need to relearn it and find leaders who will show its value by the example that they set. The Jewish people will again be “a light unto the nations,” shining far brighter than any democracy.

It's All About Sinai

Many years ago, I was approached by a young man from El Salvador, who wanted me to help him get an Orthodox conversion. He told me that he didn’t fully understand why he needed the Orthodox conversion, as he already had a non-Orthodox conversion. Apparently he was told it was a good idea that his Jewishness be recognized wherever he was to travel and it would be good for his future children as well.


I examined his conversion document and it looked pretty serious. In it, the young man confirmed his “commitment to God, Torah and the People of Israel, and acceptance of the sacred obligation of the mitzvot.”


He affirmed his belief in the principles of the Jewish faith and declared his determination to maintain a Jewish home. He pledged to circumcise his future son and raise all of his children in loyalty to the Jewish faith. I was impressed with the document and kept a copy for my records. It was dated August 15, 1996. I then proceeded to ask the following question: “In your conversion program, did you learn that there were 10 plagues in Egypt, and there actually was a miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, and there was a Revelation at Mount Sinai?” The former El Salvador native replied, “We learned that if we want to believe it really happened, we can.


But if we want to believe these stories are fable, we can believe that, too.”


I told him that this is exactly the reason why he needed the Orthodox conversion.


This story illustrates why Orthodox Judaism has a problem with the other branches of Judaism. The acceptance of the events at Mount Sinai is critical for one simple reason: Mount Sinai proves that the Jewish faith is divine. This acceptance of Mount Sinai is an affirmation that both the Oral Law and Written Law were given to us by God Himself. The Oral Law is a specific set of guidelines handed over to the spiritual leaders of every generation to interpret, safeguard and protect the Judaism that was first taught to us by Moses during Israel’s 40 years in the desert. The boundaries in interpreting Jewish law have been carefully handed down from generation to generation. Each generation understood that there were certain lines that must not be crossed.


If one fails to accept the message and authenticity of Mount Sinai, then his Judaism is a religion of folklore, traditions and customs that are essentially man made. In a man made religion, everything is up for grabs. Certainly men should not be bound by laws that other men instituted. Judaism then becomes a religion where each person does what is right in his own eyes.


If he likes some of these traditions and laws, he will follow them. If they don’t make sense to him, he will reject them. This is not the case when one believes that everything originates from God and that there is a clear set of rules, with serious consequences for the non-observance of these laws. After all, what right do we have to argue with the Master of the Universe? The point that is missed when speaking of the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is that the issue is one of theology and nothing else. Simply put, one group feels the religion is divine and therefore, bigger than we are, and that there is only room for maneuvering within those traditional guidelines. The other groups do not see the religion as absolute and coming from God, and believe they are entitled to make changes to their heart’s content. This is the reason why it’s so difficult for Orthodox rabbis to sit with non-Orthodox rabbis. It’s also difficult to carry on a debate when one side sees Sinai as the symbol of a God-given Judaism and the other does not. The common bond is that we are all Jews and we must stick together even when we don’t see eye to eye on theological issues.


A further fallacy that is probably magnified by intolerant Orthodox Jews is that followers of the other branches of Judaism are not authentic Jews. This is absolutely false. It does not matter what affiliation any given Jew has, or what type of synagogue he is a member of. Every Jew is holy in the eyes of God and the commandment to love every Jew applies to every Jew. However, if an organization, or a movement, or an individual expresses views that are contrary to the Torah given on Mount Sinai, these views must be challenged. Maimonides explains in his classic work, Mishna Torah, that certain scoffers, heretics and non-believers will not be able to repent so easily and their lack of faith can cause them to lose a share in the next world. Specifically, there is a group called “kofrim” or deniers, whose major sin is their inability to accept that the Torah is directly from God.


Twentieth century scholars such as Rabbi Yeshaya Karelitz, also known as the Chazon Ish, and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook both were quoted as saying that there are no longer heretics in our generation. Most of the blasphemous comments are made more out of ignorance than with malice. This should further bridge the divide so that we learn to be more accepting of every Jew. This acceptance is still limited to where Torah from Sinai’s authenticity is scrutinized. Nevertheless, it will help a great deal if these points are clarified. On a personal level, we have to learn how to get along. We must learn not to take one’s theological beliefs personally.


Judaism has managed to survive primarily because of the faith and determination of Jews in every generation, in the most trying circumstances, not to waver from that which began on Mount Sinai. We continue to hold fast to this commitment. We cannot be expected to waver in this commitment. What has not been done sufficiently is to attempt to express views in a more patient, understanding manner. Communication is the first step toward bridging gaps. It may not solve all of our problems, but it is a step in the right direction. Without communication, each side sees the other as much more stubborn and unyielding than it is. After all, the conversion candidate from El Salvador was told he had a pretty good conversion and was not insulted for his attempt. What was missing is that it’s all about Sinai!

A Salute To The Convert

There is a special commandment in the Torah to love the convert, also referred to as the stranger among us. We are to be sensitive to the stranger for we were strangers in Egypt. There is another verse in the Torah that says that we are not to mistreat our fellow Jew. The commentators explain this to mean that we are not to taunt someone by reminding him that he is only a convert and that he comes from such humble beginnings. Instead we are to treat every Jew equally and fulfill the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”


The question to be asked is why is there a separate commandment to love the convert if we are not allowed to mention that he was once not a Jew. Shouldn’t the love of converts be included together with loving every Jew, since he is now a Jew in every way? The answer to this question is that we are obligated to take special care in our treatment of the convert. He does not fit into any game of Jewish geography. He is neither an Ashkenazi nor Sephardi Jew. He cannot trace his family background to any particular country with its distinct customs. Every convert is a world unto himself. Virtually every convert has his own unique story as to how he fell in love with the Jewish religion and yearned to be counted among the fold.


I have been privileged to have been working with converts for nearly two decades. Each story is more remarkable than the next. The only recurring story is that of a young man coming to Israel on a Birthright trip only to find out that he’s not Jewish according to strict Jewish law, because his mother is not Jewish. Similarly, we have had a number of cases where some families were so assimilated they neglected to tell their child he was Jewish. After recovering from the shocking news, these young men enter the conversion process or begin practicing Judaism as Jews.


Over the years, we have welcomed to our program individuals from all over the world. Last year a couple from China remarried as Jews after both completing the conversion process. I have known two clergymen formerly of the Christian faith, one from Ireland and the other from Texas, who both gave up comfortable positions in their respective churches, because they were convinced that Judaism was the only true religion.


A West Point graduate serving in the US military is grounded in a sandstorm in Afghanistan for several days one September. Out of sheer boredom, he learns that it is the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana. His curiosity leads him to the Jewish chaplain who invites him to participate in the prayer service of that holy day. His army service lasts 10 years, with the last two having him donning a kippa, on his way to becoming a Jew.


A martial arts expert from Kenya is invited to Israel to learn Krav Maga, the Israeli method of self-defense, and is so intrigued by Israel that he is granted a scholarship at IDC Herzliya, and completes a master’s degree in counter- terrorism. The young man lived in a hut until the age of 14, then going to high school in Nairobi, where he witnessed what electricity and running water were for the first time. Today he is a fine gentleman in the final stages of his conversion.


In our current program, we have conversion candidates from England, South Africa, Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Holland and the United States.


The American is an African American from Detroit.


They study for a year intensively until they are taught all aspects of what is expected of a Jew. When the end of their journey is complete, they stand before a Jewish court of three judges, and declare their loyalty and willingness to be part of the Jewish nation. The emotions are so high that a box of tissues awaits them alongside the table where this declaration is made.


What is common to these brave young men is that their decision usually comes with a great deal of resistance.


Sometimes their biological family disowns them as they are convinced that they are going to burn in hell. They usually give up a great deal of comfort and job security by making this courageous decision. They often go through periods of great loneliness at having to say good by to their old lifestyles. The bureaucracy involved in the process doesn’t make things easier. In short, their lives are on hold as they can’t work until they get their identity card. They do not have relatives to lean on and yet, they persevere. They are so enthusiastic about their decision that the adult circumcision that is required in many cases does not seem to faze them.


Perhaps it is necessary to explain to the public that there are numerous heroes of a different kind living among us.


This information should certainly make an impression on those born to the Jewish faith. If these people make such sacrifices and go through such hardships because of their burning desire to be Jewish, shouldn’t it move us not to take for granted how fortunate we are to be part of the Jewish people? Shouldn’t it make us want to reach out and be better role models to these new additions to our people? And isn’t it now so obvious why God, in His abundant wisdom, commanded us to love the convert? From this point on, we must salute the convert and do all in our power to lighten his load.

Hatred As A Wasted Emotion

Many years ago the students of Machon Meir were addressed by a unique couple. They were “Noahides” from the “Bible Belt in the Southeastern part of the United States.”


They had abandoned Christianity and joined the numerous other Noahides by observing the Seven Noahide Laws as described in the Torah after Noah left the ark following the flood.


The address of the couple was meant to tell our students how fortunate they were to be living the special way of life of observant Jews. They said, “ Our job is to be righteous. Your job is to be holy.” In essence, this was an explanation of the special role the Jew was given on Mount Sinai. Jews were given 613 commandments with the goal of creating a “holy nation.” The non-Jews were given seven laws to create righteousness. Hence the expression “righteous gentiles.”


The primary reason that Judaism is not a racist religion is that it accepts converts, regardless of race or color. In other words, Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors, as do non-Jews. The only difference is which system of laws each accepts. The Jews made a covenant on Mount Sinai to observe the 613 and live a life of holiness and the non-Jew the seven Noahide laws.


There is nowhere in the Torah that allows the Jew or encourages the Jew to hate anyone; not a fellow Jew or a gentile.


There is a commandment in Leviticus that prohibits us from hating another Jew in our heart. We are commanded to rebuke our fellow Jew and not harbor ill feelings. This is the same chapter that tells us to “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” There is a reference in Psalms where King David says that he will hate those who hate God, but that seems to be more of an expression of David’s passion for the Almighty. There are many references to destroying our enemies, but nowhere does it say that we are to hate them. If it is necessary to go to battle, the motivation should be love of family and land, and the need to protect it and keep safe that which we hold most dear.


In the early eighties, I was privileged to know the late Rabbi Meir Kahane on a personal level. I was one of a few pulpit rabbis who was willing to host him in my synagogue. I was able to get to know the man from up close. He was thoroughly enjoyable to be around as he had a great sense of humor, and he was a great Torah scholar. On many occasions, I pleaded with him to change his image as a racist rabbi so that people could see the side of him that I got to know and admire. For some reason that I will never understand, he felt it necessary to keep his image of “macho rabbi.” Despite all of this, Rav Kahane, the so called “racist rabbi,” often said, “I don’t hate Arabs. I love Jews.”


Hatred is a wasted emotion. It is counterproductive.


It accomplishes nothing to rant about how much one despises certain individuals or peoples. It is against Torah values. If there is an individual who has character traits that are difficult to love, keep a distance from that person. If a nation threatens our survival, destroy them and fight with tenacity.


Do not sit around talking about how much you hate. It serves no purpose. The emotion of love is much more powerful and productive.


The classic work Orchot Tzaddikim devotes an entire chapter to the subject of hating. The author writes that people hate for foolish reasons. They hate because they were refused a loan by a friend, or because they felt they received an inferior gift. People of the same occupation tend to hate one another. The worst hatred is hating out of jealousy.


However, the chapter continues by saying that if one is shamed, physically hurt, or suffers a monetary loss at the hands of another individual, he has legitimate reasons to feel animosity toward that person. But even in these situations, he must not allow those feelings to eat away at him. This is remedied by rebuking that individual and making him aware of his misdeed with the hope that he will rectify the situation. This rebuke, according to the Torah, will prevent him from violating the prohibition of hating a fellow Jew.


Somehow we allow our emotions to get the better of us and we lose sight of the real values that we are meant to possess.


Perhaps it would do us well to remind ourselves of that message of that very kind couple from the Bible Belt. Jews are meant to be holy. Non-Jews are meant to be righteous.

Has God Been Taken for Granted

Maimonides, in his introduction to Perek Chelek, describes the incredible manner in which the Almighty gave the Torah to Moses.

If one is consistent and true to Torah ideals, it seems obvious that it is forbidden to take the law into one’s hands. The judicial system of the Torah calls for a trial in capital cases where there is a potential death penalty, that the case be heard before 23 judges. Random stabbing of people attending a parade is clearly forbidden and should never be condoned.

There is an apparent contradiction in the Torah. In Exodus it’s written that the sins of the fathers are remembered for three and four generations. And in Deuteronomy it’s written that fathers should not be put to death for the sins of their sons, and sons shall not be put to death for the sins of their fathers.

Each man shall be punished for his own sin. The answer to this contradiction is that the verse in Exodus speaks of the Heavenly court where God makes His own calculations, while the verse in Deuteronomy speaks of courts here on earth where we are to judge based on what we see. We may not “play God” and certainly not take the law into our own hands.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Yakov Emden, a great Torah scholar from the eighteenth century, was once quoted as saying, “A greater miracle than the splitting of the Red Sea is that the Jewish people survived into the late eighteenth century.”

Jewish survival defies all logic as we managed to remain firm in our convictions and we held tightly to the God-given Torah as transmitted by our holy sages. Paradoxically, at a time when for the first time in our history Jews are no longer collectively oppressed, the grip to that Torah is loosening.

Maimonides, in his introduction to Perek Chelek, describes the incredible manner in which the Almighty gave the Torah to Moses.

Moshe Rabbeinu had reached the highest level of prophecy in human history. In this exalted state, the holiest and most perfect book ever written was given to the Jewish people.

It was supposed to be clear that the book written by God Himself was incapable of containing any imperfections. Being that it came from God, it contained the highest level of morality and justice and was written for the Jewish people of all ages. It would be considered blasphemous to even suggest that this work of perfection could ever become outdated.

Torah observant Jews throughout the ages were taught the concept of hachna’ah, or surrender, as a major theme of Judaism. Simply put, if we were to challenge the words of the Torah and Sages, we were expected to “surrender” – for who were we to argue with the Master of the Universe? The rabbis even go further to explain the idea that it is far greater to do that which was commanded than that which we were not commanded.

The example given, in the name of the Tanna Rav Elazar Ben- Azaria, is that one should not say, “My soul detests the flesh of the swine,” but rather, “I would love to eat the swine but the Master in Heaven forbids it.”

These convictions of faith where there was no doubt in the world that the Torah was absolute truth were what kept us vibrant as a people.

When one believes that he is on a level to argue with the Torah and Jewish Law, he is either ignorant or doesn’t really believe that this ongoing chain of faith is really Divine. Once a person convinces himself of such ideas as “things have changed,” or, God forbid, that the Torah we have is not the identical one that God gave Moses, they have turned Judaism into a manmade religion. If it’s man-made, you can disagree with everything and pick and choose the traditions and customs that you agree with.

This is the crux of the problem with the issue of gay marriages and homosexuality. If one were to apply the view previously presented, then I’d say that I would love to welcome the gay community to Judaism. After all, they are very fine people and they are just expressing feelings or tendencies they have had from their youth. Even if I agreed with this, there is something far greater than my views. The Torah is perfection.

The Torah is kindness, justice, love and morality far higher than anything human beings can come up with. God and the Torah must have the final word of right and wrong. If it doesn’t, I don’t believe Rav Yakov Emden would be able to make that same observation. Only the steadfastness to the holy and Divine kept us together as a people.

Whenever attempts were made to become more moral than God, they ultimately failed. Let’s not take God for granted. Our survival depends on it.

The author, founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles, is currently a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem.