Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Be-Midbar and Shavuot
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Be-Midbar and Shavuot 5761/May 26, 2001
Are Torah and Democracy Compatible?
Rabbi Dr. David Mesheloff
Department of Talmud
G-d's revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai changed the course
of human history. On the first day of Shavuot (May 28), the festival
celebrating our receiving the Torah, the Torah passage describing the theophany
at Mount Sinai is read (Ex. 19-20) in synagogues throughout the world. The
Torah describes how the Israelites prepared for this momentous occasion:
"Moses led the people out of the camp toward G-d, and they took their
places at the foot of the mountain" (Ex. 19:17). Though the plain sense
of the Hebrew, va-yityazvu be-tahtit ha-har, is as rendered here
(cf. Rashi), they also provided the basis for the following homily, cited in
the Talmud (Shabbat 88a):
R. Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: This teaches us that the Holy One,
blessed be He, forced the mountain on them like a barrel, and said to them:
"It would be best for you to accept the Torah; if not, there shall be your
The message is simple: the divine revelation was such a powerful
experience, that they felt they could not face up to it. However, in Talmudic
literature this homily was viewed as expressing the idea that the Torah was
given by coercion. This perception led to many attempts at reconciling the
contradiction between coercion and expressions of free will in connection with
receiving the Torah (such as "we will faithfully do," Ex. 24:7).
For example, Tanhuma suggests that the written Torah was accepted
willingly, and the oral Torah by coercion.
A surprising new interpretation of this homily was presented several years
ago, when Rabbi Hayyim David ha-Levi, former chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel
Aviv-Jaffa, expressed a widespread opinion concerning democracy and
Halakhah: "There is no room for talking of democracy in a Jewish state.
In a state that governs itself according to the Torah everyone is obligated to
observe the commandments of the Torah as they were given at Sinai. Whoever
thinks differently does not comprehend the significance of accepting the
Torah" (Aseh lekha Rav, 8.89).
Nevertheless, many great Jews have thought otherwise, understanding
differently the meaning of accepting the Torah. After all, "everyone is
obligated to observe the commandments of the Torah as they were given at
Sinai," even in a state that does not govern itself "according to
the Torah." This obligation stems from a certain eternal relationship
between the Giver of the Torah and the people of Israel ever since the theophany
at Mount Sinai; and the existence of a democratic Jewish state, even a state
that does not force its citizens to observe the Torah and its commandments, does
not derogate from the independent and everlasting validity of this obligation.
Before we examine how R. Avdimi's homily was understood by Rabbi ha-Levi,
let us briefly consider several questions which he raised (loc.
How can [an authentic Jewish state, based on Torah] be democratic? In a
democracy, founded on the "rule of the people," ... the majority
makes decisions concerning the life of the people, sets the laws and ordinances,
and is even entitled to change these laws. It elects the governmental bodies
and rulers, and the majority makes decisions using its power of thought and
human intelligence as to what appears best for the nation and the society. The
Torah of Israel, on the other hand, is the diametrical opposite of all this.
The Torah regulates the life of the individual and the lives of the entire
nation within the context of laws and ordinances set down in the written Torah
and passed down in the oral Torah from Mount Sinai, with no possibility of
alteration... How [an elected leader] is to rule, and what shall be his laws and
ordinances - all this is explicitly stated in the Torah, and nothing is to
be added or detracted from it.
Does the Torah indeed deny the idea that governmental authority stems from
the will of the people? According to the Netziv, the commandment to appoint a
king depends on the will of the people, because one cannot impose on the people
a type of government that they do not want (Ha'amek Davar, Deut.
17:14). According to R. Abraham I. Kook, when there is no king in Israel, the
people are the source of governmental authority (Resp. Mishpetei Kohen,
It seems reasonable that when there is no king, since the laws of kingship
also concern the general state of the nations, that these rights of government
revert to the people in general ... whoever leads the nation relates to the laws
of kingship, for they are the general needs of the nation in accordance with the
time and state of the world.
Does the Torah indeed not acknowledge the duty to apply one's human
intelligence in order to establish laws appropriate to running a society, state
and economy, and to change such laws when it becomes clear that a change is
needed by the "state of the world"? In a Jewish state should every
social, political, economic, legal and administrative matter that can be decided
in democratic ways indeed be resolved by binding dictates of the Torah,
"with no possibility of alteration?" Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinsky,
rabbi of Vilna, wrote to Rabbi Isaac Herzog, shortly before establishment of the
Jewish state, as follows:
At first I considered that perhaps one could have financial matters between
one Jew and another adjudicated by rabbis, ... and cases between a Jew and a
non-Jew by general law. Regarding theft, robbery, and other ... penal matters,
it appears from the responsum of the Ran that judgment rendered by the
king (mishpat hamelekh) was special, a system apart from the Bet
Din that ruled by the laws of the Torah, for that is indeed difficult for a
properly run state. [Here R. Grodzinsky cites several examples of Jewish laws
that make it difficult to administer a modern society; D. M.] Thus, whether we
wish it or not, in this regard one must establish laws of the State."
(Ha-Hukkah le-Yisrael al pi Ha-Torah, p. 31, n. 19)
Further on in his remarks Rabbi ha-Levi maintained that, in contrast to a
democratic state in which governmental authority depends on the will of the
people, the Torah is binding even if the people do not willingly agree, for the
Torah was essentially given by coercion. In support of this argument, he cited
the homily of R. Avdimi:
Moreover, this Torah was primarily and essentially given to Israel against
their will, and therefore its inception and birth were through coercion. Thus
our Sages interpreted the verse, "and they took their places at the foot
of the mountain": "Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said..."
It was all essentially by coercion, for even if we suppose that it was an
auspicious moment and that Israel accepted the Torah willingly on that day, this
act of acceptance cannot, according to human perceptions, bind them for their
entire lives and surely it cannot be binding on all generations to come. The
Torah itself relies on the tradition of a covenant with blessing and curses and
severe punishment should they violate the covenant from Sinai; hence we conclude
that the Torah was forced on Israel.
In our view, there is no contrast between the Torah and a democratic state
in this regard. Both are founded on mutual obligations, by free consent of the
various parties. The concept of "obligation" by its very definition
indicates willingness to stand by what was desired at the moment of undertaking,
even if later one's will changes. The persons who accept the obligation
undertake in advance to have imposed on them (within bounds) the duty to uphold
their obligation even if what they wish changes (within bounds). Recognizing
that it is the nature of human will to change, and recognizing that one cannot
plan steps for the future with any sort of reliability if one cannot trust in
consistency in one's fellow person, an "obligation" that
people can be forced to uphold is essential to the existence of stable human
society. Hence, the obligation is essentially entered willingly, but its
continuation might require coercion if the wills of the parties
Thus a democratic government forces people to keep the law and punishes
criminals against their will, including people who did not participate in the
legislative process and people as yet unborn when the state and its institutions
were formed. Perhaps it was this sort of coercion to which R. Avdimi was
alluding in his homily; by accepting the Torah the Israelites agreed to have the
laws of the Torah imposed on them by G-d, for without this it would not have
On the other hand, the Torah, like the modern state, also depends on
willing acceptance of obligation. In the Talmud, Rabbi Aha bar Jacob responded
to Rabbi Avdimi's homily in the continuation of the Talmudic discussion
(loc. sit.): "Thus great notice [heb. moda'ah rabbah]
is given concerning the Torah!" Moda'ah means a
pronouncement concerning cancellation of an obligation since it was made under
coercion; Rav Aha bar Jacob argued that Rav Avdimi's homily provides an
excuse to all those who might wish to avoid punishment for not adhering to the
Torah! Rabba was compelled to respond (loc. sit.) that the Torah was
re-accepted willingly (according to some: the oral Torah) in the time of
Ahasuerus, when the Jews were saved from annihilation.
Without the Torah having been voluntarily accepted by Israel, it would not
be binding. Accepting the Torah is essentially making a covenant in
which both parties enter mutual obligations. The obligations are binding on
both parties and include the people's consent that G-d impose its terms on
Israel. By fulfilling its obligations Klal Yisrael, the body politic of
Israel, achieves the objectives of the Eternal Lord and also assures its own
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