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    Penny-Farthing Democracy: India and Israel

    July 19th, 2017

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 19 July 2017.

    When Indian Prime Minister Modi was in Israel recently, I was reminded of the old British penny-farthing bicycle with its two wheels – a big one (“a penny”) and a small one (“a farthing”).

    Here was a big country, India, and a small one, Israel.

    The head of the huge Indian nation clearly looked comfortable with the prime minister of tiny Israel, with both prime ministers proclaiming their shared commitment to democracy.

    What marks a democracy is the power of the people to vote and be voted for, irrespective of the vagaries of the particular internal electoral system.

    Democracy acknowledges the dignity and status of those who in other places are pariahs or anomalies, particularly women, gays and ethnic minorities, even though there are special nuances in each case.

    It recognises the right of all groups to hold their own views, to be heard, heeded and able to participate in national life and debate, irrespective of any residual cultural, educational and economic limitations that still linger.

    The dream of democracy is wonderful. Spinoza called it “the most natural form of government and the most consonant with individual liberty.”

    More cynically, Churchill looked at varieties of government and more or less dubbed democracy the best of a bad bunch.

    But the democratic system we know is far from perfect.

    Rousseau sadly concluded that democracy was “a government for gods, too perfect for men.” Justice Felix Frankfurter agreed, calling democracy “a beckoning goal, not a safe harbour.”

    As far as Israel is concerned there is constant talk and self-congratulation about being Jewish and democratic, but there is ongoing debate about what each word means. Neither epithet – Jewish or democratic – is easy to delineate. Even if you can somehow get over the problem of putting Jewishness in words you are left with defining democracy.

    Democracy as an ideal probably originates in the Hebrew Bible. But while Jewish tradition accepts the principle of the people’s right to choose their own leaders, it has leadership criteria which seem to compromise the principle. It favours some segments of society (those with piety and learning) over others. In effect, it takes the independence out of the people’s decisions by making them subject to approval by religious authority.

    If religious leaders can theoretically shoot down a popular decision, the implication is that God and the Bible would not have approved that decision, and that of course places limits upon democracy.

    But what choice do we have? Democracy is not perfect, but autocracy is far worse.

    Democracy reminds me that my father’s auction catalogues used to say, “The goods are sold with all faults if any.” “With all faults if any” implies that we have no choice but to be cynical, to say democracy is the best of a bad bunch and perfect democracy is beyond human grasp at this point of history: for angels, not human beings. No, not even for angels, since the angels themselves are described in Jewish fable as of different minds when it came to whether God should create the human race.

    Where did democracy originate – by magic? It couldn’t have arisen spontaneously. Humans could not have suddenly said, “I have a bright idea!” Human society did not suddenly think of democracy. Government by bullies is more likely. It could be the product of expediency, a form of rule that people arrived at when faced with other (much worse) options.

    But where did democracy derive its spark and stability? There seems no alternative but to say that it came from a higher will and in the long run is answerable to a higher will.

    The United States calls itself “one people under God.” The words are not merely a rhetorical formality. Not all the of the United States’ founding fathers were religious believers. Thomas Paine was called “a filthy little atheist.” But they were sufficiently influenced by the Bible to see the need to agree that the American people were “under God.”

    If you posit that the will for democracy arises from the people – or, at least, the majority of them – the tragedy is that a democracy that emerges from the people is simply too fragile to be safe. The power of persuasion and the pressure of propaganda will see to that. It will be so easy for them to turn the people into sheep; along will come a sheep-dog that will snap at people’s heels and get them to fall in line.

    Hannah Arendt, a fierce critic of representative democracy, thought that consensus had a tendency to become tyrannical. She asked questions about sovereignty in a democracy, where a political elite rules and the people are rather irrelevant except on election day. She raised the issue of power, where democracy can be a state monopoly of violence.

    There is a further danger. It’s not only that the democratic will can be hijacked. There is also the question, what when the popular will is wrong?

    In the Jewish tradition there is a paradox in the Biblical words “inclining after the majority” (Exodus 23:2). As rabbinic commentators explain, there are times to incline after the majority – and times when not to. In Judaism, the arbiter is God. The question is where to locate the arbiter if one is not a believer.

    But if we have to posit a goad, an arbiter, a supreme Power, whoever or whatever that happens to be, can we still say it’s democracy?

    It’s not good enough to say the majority must rule. The majority is not always right. In the Biblical contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the Baal party had the numbers. If numbers matter, what room is there for the “still small voice”? Do we ride roughshod over the minority?

    If there is no arbiter, how can we protect the minority against the majority, and the majority against itself?

    There is constant talk today about the so-called world community. Presumably that is another name for the United Nations, an organisation that is living proof that the supposed rule of the majority allows it to gang up against little nations like Israel and let built-in bully blocs drown out the democratic conscience and pass hundreds of undemocratic or antidemocratic resolutions.

    Neither India – the penny – nor Israel – the farthing – has a perfect democracy, but both would agree with Churchill that it’s the best option so far available. Not perfect, marred by faults if any, but better than the others.


    Keep your promises – Mattot

    July 16th, 2017

    Mattot begins with a warning: “When you make a vow to the Lord you must fulfil what you have undertaken” (Num. 30:3).

    “Hah,” says the ordinary person, “All those politicians and all their promises – and they break their word every time”.

    It’s true: tragically, politicians cannot be relied upon to keep their campaign promises.

    I remember one who said, “If I am elected, no child will ever go hungry!” His words were fine rhetoric, but children still went hungry.

    No matter who you are, you should be careful before you undertake something, and if you find it necessary to make an undertaking, let the world see that you mean it.

    But though this is really true, it’s not quite what the Torah is talking about when it says, “When you make a vow to the Lord…” (the Targum prefers, “When you make a vow before the Lord”).

    Vows to or before the Lord deal with your ethical and spiritual life. Rabbis constantly urge their congregants to promise to come to synagogue more often, but the emphasis shouldn’t only be on coming to shule but being good, decent, honest, reliable human beings.


    The really great miracle – Mass’ei

    July 16th, 2017

    The journey of the Israelites

    How did our ancestors survive in the wilderness?

    Forty years of meandering, forty years of temporary encampments, forty years without permanent sources of food and water – and forty years of grumbling about their lot.

    For Maimonides, this was the greatest of the Biblical miracles.

    Yes, crossing the Red Sea was a miracle. The water coming from the rock was a miracle. So many remarkable things were miracles.

    But living under impossible conditions for forty years, maintaining normal activity, marrying, bringing up children, continuing with the day-to-day needs of family and community – all this, despite the grumbles, was also a miracle.

    We see miracles of that kind around us all the time. People who keep going in spite of their problems and limitations are doing a miraculous thing. People who have special-needs parents, spouses or children and hardly get a day’s respite – they too are nothing short of miraculous.

    The prayer book speaks of God’s miracles that are with us every day, season and hour. Those who framed the liturgy had in mind the daily blessing of life, air, sunshine, the human mind and heart and the Divine presence.

    They must also have taken into account the dignity of keeping on with life even when things were impossibly tough, the sort of miracle which Maimonides praised so greatly.


    The Three Weeks & the two opposites

    July 16th, 2017

    This time of year between the fasts of Tammuz and Av is explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as symbolising two opposites: destruction and rebuilding.

    So often we (rightly) sit and weep, but we don’t always recognise the duty to smile in the midst of our tears and to determine that the destruction is not going to be the last word.

    A modern historian spoke of the lachrymose conception of Jewish history, the (understandable) habit of seeing ourselves as the people of panthos and pain.

    There is a time to weep when nothing can hold back the tears. There is also a time to pick oneself up out of the gutter and plan and implement the future.


    A second Korach? – Pinchas

    July 9th, 2017

    40 years of leading the people through the wilderness brought Moses endless aggravation and constant challenge. The most famous challenge was that of Korach.

    There seems to have been another Korach-like episode if one follows the explanation of the sages (Sanh. 82a etc.) for the events that led up to this week’s portion.

    Zimri, prince of the tribe of Shimon, confronted Moses head on. Why, he demanded, was he, Zimri, forbidden to cohabit with the Midianite princess Kozbi when Moses himself had a Midianite wife, Tzipporah?

    Like Korach, Zimri was a skilful demagogue whose rhetoric was just valid enough to secure the people’s endorsement, whilst leaving out some of the true facts of the case.

    Had Moses in fact allowed himself something which was prohibited to others?

    Not if we remember that his marriage to Tzipporah had been before the giving of the Torah, and that she had converted to Judaism.

    It was Pinchas who reminded Moses that there was an oral law which permitted summary action when the honour of the Almighty is at stake. The word “stake” might be particularly appropriate here since Pinchas now slew (literally, pierced through) both Zimri and the Midianite woman, and God acknowledged Pinchas’ sincerity by not withdrawing his priestly status.

    The lesson we learn from Pinchas is that there is such a thing as extreme provocation but a summary response is not warranted if it is a human being who is being provoked, only if it is God’s honour and glory which are in jeopardy.