“Follow the majority” – acharei rabbim l’hattot (Ex. 23:2) – is a basic principle of democracy. It implies, “What most of the people want is what the people want, and the minority who differ have to go along with it”.
But what happens if the majority, despite their numbers, are actually wrong?
Think of Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal (I Kings 18). 400 to one seems a totally convincing majority, yet God sided with the one, and in the end the people recognised that the 400 had been wrong. It would not be moral for the Torah to be seen as backing a majority who are in the wrong.
Nor is this what the actual text in this week’s sidra is saying. Read the whole verse and you find it is not a blanket endorsement of majority rule without qualification or condition.
The Jewish Publication Society of America translation renders rabbim (“the majority”) as “the mighty”, since the word rav can be understood as “powerful”. Hence it reads, “Do not side with the mighty to do wrong, and do not give perverse testimony in a dispute by leaning toward the mighty”.
The traditional Jewish interpretation prefers to translate rabbim as “a multitude”; following this view, Hertz states, “This verse is a warning not to follow a majority blindly for evil purposes, especially to pervert justice”.
There are many ways in which the majority can be hijacked and a democracy must make certain that every citizen understands all the issues and can exercise a vote calmly, freely and honestly without fear of being swamped, intimidated or victimised.
In addition, the minority can not be brushed aside after the vote with the sweeping statement, “They lost and now they have to buckle under”.
It may be that despite their small numbers the minority are more expert on the particular subject, and those who make the decisions have a moral duty to recognise and respect this possibility.