Symposium / Is Democracy a Jewish Idea?

By | Sep 20, 2012
Is Democracy a Jewish Idea?

Shlomo Avineri . Noah Feldman . Gidi Grinstein . Anat Hoffman Jodi Kantor . Benny Katzover . Ed Koch . David Novak  Norman Ornstein . Fania Oz-Salzberger . Eilon Schwartz  Adam Sutcliffe . Michael Walzer . Ruth Wisse . Beth Wenger

Michael Walzer

 Did we invent democracy? No. It’s a Greek invention. I don’t think there’s anything in the Hebrew Bible from which you could derive an argument about democratic politics. There are features of biblical religion that are proto-democratic: the implicit recognition that law has to be interpreted, the pluralism of the legal codes and the willingness to allow the codes of Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy to co-exist even though they’re different. This implies a recognition of human interpretation—not law-making, because God is the only lawmaker. There is also the fact that the prophets speak in the streets to ordinary men and women. The moment they leave the court of the king and come into the streets of the city is a democratizing moment. But political democracy, the rule of people, the notion that the word of the people is the word of God, there’s nothing like that in ancient Jewish thought, and I doubt that it can be found in the Talmud either. Over time in the exilic communities, we opened paths toward democratic decision making. There were assemblies of the male members, and they voted for representatives to the Council of the Four Lands in Poland and Lithuania from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Representatives were chosen in the local areas and sent to a central meeting twice a year. But it was only about five to ten percent of Jews who voted. So we came to democracy slowly.

Michael Walzer is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, co-editor of Dissent and author of In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.


Ruth Wisse

 Ben Gurion once said he was prime minister of a country of prime ministers, implying that Jews are hyper-democratic. If democracy encourages governance from below—by the people, of the people and for the people—then the memory of all the Jews standing at Sinai, and later, the practice of all the Jews reading from the Torah would certainly have encouraged a democratic culture. Democracy is less a Jewish idea than a by-product of the Jewish way of life. The Greeks developed the idea of democracy in thinking about how one governs a polity. Among Jews it began with the sanctity of individual life. They badly needed mature self-governance in order to live as a minority among other nations. Mitt Romney was only stating the obvious when he said that culture determines the democratic nature of Israel and the difficulty its neighbors have in attaining democracy.

The tribal nature of the Jews is sometimes considered an obstacle to democracy. Just the opposite is true: Because Jews do not universalize their religion, they have no trouble co-existing with others. Democracy requires just that balance between self-sufficiency and respectful recognition of others. Jews know from their own difficulties the hard self-discipline that civilization requires.

Ruth Wisse is professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard University and author of Jews and Power.


Fania Oz-Salzberger

The Jewish tradition carries very powerful democratic genes. Democracy was invented in ancient Greece and then reinvented in Europe in the 18th century, but there is a long-standing Jewish notion of popular civil participation, with numerous voices taking part in political decision-making. The ancient Israelites are on biblical record as a dazzling multiplicity of voices—both men and women—debating and deciding issues such as what is the best form of government, who is the true sovereign, how should human beings be governed, what are the entitlements of the ruler and the ruled, how to achieve social and economic justice, and what community is all about? The fierce multivocality and the ever-present quest for human equality and social justice were often uniquely Israelite, and later uniquely Jewish, until they found their way to modern Western discourse at large.

In Talmudic times, the democratic instinct of the Jewish people turned from the political to the intellectual. In the Bible, many simple people were able to make their voices heard. In the Talmud, that same instinct is seen in the way that large numbers of rabbis and scholars debate each other. The Jewish community has always left a window open for disagreement—intellectual and rabbinical, but also on matters of community and society. There is an ongoing tradition of openness—albeit not always and not everywhere—to a plurality of opinions. It’s not full-fledged democracy, but it’s a condition for it.

Modern-style pluralism came slowly and gradually, and modern-style democracy needed other sources than the Jewish scriptures. In modern Israel today, anyone pretending that Judaism and democracy are incompatible traditions and that Israeli society must decide between the two is showing a certain measure of historical ignorance. Not only are Jewish and democratic elements of Israel’s statehood compatible, but they have been influencing one another for well over 2,000 years.

Fania Oz-Salzberger is director of the Posen Forum for Political Thought at the University of Haifa and co-author of the upcoming book Jews and Words.


Adam Sutcliffe

In the early modern period it’s not democracy that is associated with Judaism, but republicanism, a system of government in which a citizen body participates in politics, and there is no monarch, but not everyone has equal rights, as in a democracy. When, in the 17th century, republican governments were established in the Netherlands and, briefly, in Britain, Protestant scholars of Hebrew sought to use the Jewish Bible and some rabbinic texts to lend extra theological support to these polities. I am skeptical, though, of claims made by some historians that republican thought in this period was inspired by Jewish sources. British and Dutch political thinkers generally had a clear idea of what they were looking for in Jewish sources, and were able to interpret these texts to make sure they found it. As for democracy, this is clearly a Greek idea, and in the Western tradition there is a long tradition of contrasting what Matthew Arnold, in the 19th century, characterized as “Hebraism and Hellenism.” The inescapability of divine authority and of the divine covenant is central to Judaism, and in the European Enlightenment many thinkers regarded Judaism as a religion of unquestioning obedience to divine law. For Kant and others this aspect of Judaism was deeply inimical to individually autonomous thought and judgment, which was and still is widely regarded as essential to the successful functioning of a democracy. The claim that the key ideas of Western political discourse are somehow proprietorially Jewish seems often to derive from a desire to associate Jews and Judaism with Euro-American values, in contrast to those imputed to the Islamic world.

Adam Sutcliffe is a senior lecturer in Early Modern History at Kings College in London and author of Judaism and Enlightenment.


Noah Feldman

Democracy has two essential parts: majority rule and the equal treatment of free citizens. Judaism never historically had much to say on the former, but it has a lot to say about the latter. Although the origins of democracy as a political practice are Greek, democracy is a very flexible idea, and it’s compatible with Jewish values and ideals when those are themselves interpreted so that they are both egalitarian and majoritarian. The Bible certainly doesn’t imagine democracy, nor does the Talmud. Yet some modern ideals of equal treatment for all and the equal dignity of human beings can be said to have important biblical and rabbinic roots. The creation of Israel with its aspiration to be a Jewish and a democratic state opens the possibility for a distinctively Jewish democracy and for a form of Judaism that is more closely connected to democratic values. For democracy to be Jewish, or for a state to be Jewish and democratic, requires treating all citizens—regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sex—as fully equal participants in that state, and respecting not only their legal right to equality, but their moral right to be treated with equality and dignity. If a Jewish state can satisfy those goals, it can be democratic in the same way that an Islamic state or a Christian state that satisfies those goals can also be democratic.

Noah Feldman is a professor of law at Harvard Law School and the author of Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem.


Beth Wenger

I’m always struck that when I teach American Jewish history, there are always students who assert confidently that the Bible teaches democracy. The Bible, of course, represents a theocracy, not a democracy, which isn’t to say there aren’t some ideas about social justice and democratic values that have biblical origins. The reason that students will argue that Judaism teaches democracy is because they are heirs to a long tradition in which Jews in America have consciously constructed the notion that Judaism is essentially democratic. In forging their own identity in the United States, Jews redefined the contours of their own culture so as to enhance that image of the symbiosis between Judaism and American democracy. Since America itself had been created as a “new Promised Land,” and its founders regularly drew on biblical paradigms and rhetoric to define American values, Jews seized upon this pervasive motif and used it to shape their own communal identity.  They continually stressed how much American democracy was founded on biblical ideas, and since Jews were the original People of the Book, they claimed for themselves and for Jewish culture a role as ideological progenitors of the nation. Especially from the mid-19th century forward, both Jews and non-Jews were fond of drawing parallels between Puritans and ancient Hebrews.  Early Jewish textbooks were filled with comparisons between Sukkot and Thanksgiving and a host of other ways to make Judaism not only compatible with, but actually part of the organic fabric of the nation. There is nothing inherent in either American culture or Jewish tradition to render them fundamentally compatible, but American Jews created this construction of American Jewish culture. It was a kind of self-fashioning. In sermons, in speeches, in celebrations of national holidays and of Jewish holidays, American Jews created a history and a heritage for themselves in the United States that demonstrated their belonging in and fundamental contribution to American culture. That effort—sometimes conscious, sometimes subconscious—was so successful that in the 21st century, students in my classes are often certain that Judaism itself teaches democracy.

Beth Wenger is director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania and author of History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage.


Ed Koch

I believe that a Jewish value, but one not limited to Jews, is justice. More than anything else, that’s what Jews crave. In fact, when I talk on this subject, I always refer to the phrase “ ‘Justice, justice shalt thou render’ sayeth the Lord,” which you find in the Talmud, in the Torah, and also, I believe, in the Ethics of our Fathers. I was always intrigued by the question: Why is justice repeated twice? The explanation given by the sages was that really was a reference to the requirement that justice was not only for Jews, justice was for your non-Jewish neighbors as well. Justice can exist in governments that are not democracies, if the ruler is a just ruler. Obviously, democracy is to be preferred because you can throw rulers out.

Ed Koch served in the United States House of Representatives from 1969 to 1977 and was mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989.


Jodi Kantor

Democracy has benefited Jews in the United States in many ways—but especially because it’s a system of government that makes it easy for outsiders to join. Many of the Jews I’ve covered in politics are people whose families are relative newcomers to the United States and who didn’t arrive on the scene with a ton of status or history. They’re not the Bushes or the Kennedys. If we look at the Obama administration, we see David Axelrod and two Jewish White House chiefs of staff, Rahm Emanuel—who is half Israeli—and Jack Lew, who is an Orthodox Jew. Even though they’re now the ultimate insiders, they come from outsider backgrounds. So I’m not sure democracy is necessarily Jewish, but it’s good for Jews who want to participate in the system. That sense of outsider-ness is one of the strongest themes in the whole Obama experience. One of the ideas that runs through my book, The Obamas, is that these are not people born to power. They were outsiders, they’re not part of the system, and that’s what was captivating about the President’s campaign in 2008, but that’s part of the reason he and the first lady struggled the first year or two. After a lifetime of being an outsider critiquing the establishment, Barack Obama is the establishment, a difficult leap to make. And American Jews face some of the same questions. For most of American history, Jews were the outsiders, the new arrivals, the people who were trying to establish financial stability and join the middle class. Now American Jews in so many ways are at the pinnacle of power. We may feel like outsiders in some ways, and we carry that in our memory. But now that we are, in many cases, the insiders, what sort of transition do we have to make, and how do we use and perform that role?

Jodi Kantor is a New York Times correspondent and author of the best-selling book, The Obamas, about the President and the first lady, now available in paperback.


Norman Ornstein

Does the concept of democracy stem from Judaism? No. You can go back to the Greeks and even before. Is democracy consistent with Judaism? There, I would say largely yes, but with a caveat, and the caveat is the same as you would have for other religions: What is Judaism? There are many strains of Judaism. Fundamentalist Judaism, just like some elements of fundamentalist Christianity, would not view democracy as an ideal or consistent with what it believes. In Judaism, where you have an enormous tolerance for different view points, a culture built around argument, a willingness to tolerate dissent, a focus on the larger society and helping others in need, the whole concept of tzedakah, all of those things, it seems to bolster many of the ideas of democracy and freedom. And it’s particularly true if you’re looking at a system like the American one, which is built around deliberation, debate and dissent.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.


Gidi Grinstein

Judaism did not invent democracy in the way that we understand and practice it today, but it did create a society based on intellectual transparency and a democratic process that was universally participatory and meritocratic. The Sanhedrin was governed by a system of majority rule in order to preserve the cohesion of society.

Later on, with the dismantling of the Sanhedrin, majority rule gave way to a system of intellectual meritocracy. Universal access to education for men at the age of three granted members of the community an opportunity to acquire the tools to participate in shaping the structure of society. Accepted rules of logic ensured transparent deliberation. This system ensured social mobility, as a child from the poorest family could rise to a prominent role based on his intellectual abilities.

Judaism has been very progressive in that both sides of a debate were respected and deemed to be “words of God,” provided they argue for the betterment of the community. Furthermore, the ancient democracy of Judaism was effectuated by the ability of Jews to move within the worldwide web of communities. This was often a response to failing institutions and crisis of leadership.

Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Reut Institute, a policy group in Israel. 


Shlomo Avineri

In a way, this is an irrelevant question, just like asking whether democracy is a Christian or a Muslim idea. Democracy is a distinctly modern phenomenon, emerging in the 19th century, while monotheistic religions have been around for millennia. With some pilpul one can find a sentence here and there in the great sea of the Talmud, which can be interpreted as supporting democratic ideas (e.g., aharei rabim le-hatot, “one should follow the many”). But if one takes seriously the basic norms of Judaism as originating in divine revelation, obviously such eternal verities cannot be open to the vagaries of human opinion. However, the question is relevant to the current political discourse in Israel, and here—paradoxically—one can discern a set of Jewish traditions that made it possible for Israel to develop along democratic lines.

For centuries, Jews did possess institutional structures that were based on representation and some sort of electoral process—the kehilla, or congregation. Absent a state structure or a hierarchical church, the only way Jewish life could be maintained was on a free associational basis in which ordinary Jews congregated together, elected their own leadership, secular and religious, taxed themselves and established the institutions needed for the preservation of their culture—synagogues, schools, welfare support groups and burial societies.

From its inception, the Zionist movement was built on such representative principles, and Israel’s democracy grew out of these sources. The first olim organized themselves, in villages, towns and kibbutzim, according to familiar modes; since the 1920s the Representative Assembly of Jews in Eretz Israel was elected in multi-party contested elections. It was this Jewish tradition of representation that made the transition from the Yishuv to the State of Israel possible—no need to “adopt” a British or French model. Yes, democracy has a Jewish ancestry—but this political tradition grew out of the real needs of actual, living Jews, not from religious texts or commandments.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Benny Katzover

Israel’s democracy in its present form will break apart because it’s not based on Jewish principles. Democracy can be important in that it can preserve important values, but it’s essentially a frame: It should be used to preserve the greater picture—the Jewish people—and not the other way around. You don’t throw away the picture to preserve the frame, but that’s what is happening in Israel today. In Israel, people talk about equal rights and about democracy, but then you aren’t allowed to talk about the importance of increasing the birthrate among Jews or about the demographic problem—all in the name of equality. But at the same time, in the name of promoting equality, Arabs aren’t drafted into the army. You can’t even fight effectively against terrorism anymore because you can’t deport terrorists or destroy the homes of suicide bombers, again because of Supreme Court rulings in the name of democracy. The Sanhedrin and the courts are both Jewish and democratic institutions in the way that leaders are chosen, but the law and the courts need to reflect the people, and that’s not how it is in Israel today. We finally have a state after 2,000 years, but we’re not even allowed to build new settlements. The solution is to use democracy when it’s not in conflict with the Jewish people; when there is a conflict, Jewishness and the Jewish people need to prevail.

Benny Katzover, chairman of the Samaria Residents Committee, is a veteran settler leader.


Anat Hoffman

 When Shulamit Aloni left the Labor party and formed Ratz, the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace, she stood in front of the Knesset and read a story from the Talmud. She read the famous tale about the oven of Achnai. Two rabbis were arguing over whether an oven was kosher or not and Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Joshua, if my opinion is the right one, let a carob tree fly in the air to prove it. And so a carob tree uprooted itself and flew in the air. Rabbi Joshua responded that you don’t learn Torah from carob trees. And so Rabbi Eliezer said if my opinion is the right one, let the aquaduct prove it. And suddenly the water in the aquaduct flowed in another direction, against gravity. But Rabbi Joshua said that you don’t learn from an aquaduct. Then Rabbi Eliezer said if my opinion is the correct one, let the walls of the Beit Midrash prove it and the walls then started to fall. But again, Rabbi Joshua said that the walls don’t have a place in deciding a debate. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said, “if my opinion is right, let the heavens prove it.” A heavenly voice came and said to Rabbi Joshua, “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is according to him.” But Rabbi Joshua said to the heavenly voice, “Lo bashamayim hi: the Torah is not in the heavens. The majority rules.” At this God smiles and says “My sons are victorious over me, my sons are victorious over me.” When Shulamit Aloni read this story, the ultra-Orthodox criticized her, but she replied to them: “I believe in democracy because I am a Jew.” This is a 3,000- year-old story and it’s a subversive story. And so to answer your question, yes, democracy is not only a Jewish idea, it’s an idea that was invented by Judaism.

Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.


David Novak

 If you mean democracy as a political order created by human beings who, therefore, claim ultimate authority is theirs, then no. That’s not a Jewish idea because the Jewish idea is that the ultimate authority in the world and every part of it is God. On the other hand, if democracy is a certain type of procedure that ensures such things as majority rule and individual rights—what we consider the benefits of democracy—then yes, these things can be found in the Jewish tradition and developed by constructive Jewish thought. The right to life and the right not to be harmed are codified in Jewish law. In that way, there’s a happy medium between those Jewish thinkers who basically say that Judaism is to be taken as nothing but proto-democracy, that democracy is the central Jewish contribution (and all the theological stuff can be eliminated), and those who say that democracy is not a Jewish idea, and then advocate a system that sounds like fascism, where you’re ruled by an oligarchy, and there are no rights at all, only duties to the state and its leaders. I think both of these extremes can be argued against in the name of Jewish “theocracy” properly understood.

David Novak is professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto and author of Covenantal Rights: A Study in Jewish Political Theory.


Eilon Schwartz

 Judaism is replete with texts that can suggest democracy and democratic ideals.  The foundational notion of the Hebrew Bible, echoed in the American Declaration of Independence, that all human beings are created in God’s image, presents the theological basis on which the democratic idea of citizenship and equal rights is based.   And yet, simultaneously, Judaism is replete with texts that can suggest the very opposite—that there is one ultimate authority, and it is not the people.  Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, for example, continue to challenge the authority of the state in the name of Jewish religious beliefs. A prime minister was murdered because of the conflict between democracy and the murderer’s allegiance to a particular understanding of what Judaism teaches.  And many secular Jews in Israel accept the same equation, only with the opposite conclusion—that Judaism, far from a partner in building a healthy democracy for all Israeli citizens, is its greatest impediment.  The question here in Israel is not whether democracy is a Jewish idea—it definitely is and most certainly isn’t—but rather what understanding of Judaism, and democracy, will we choose to shape Israel’s future.   And that is a political choice. The more that they are seen as compatible, the less tension there will be between the Jewish and democratic identities of this country.  The more that they are seen as in tension, the more Jews will be forced to choose between the Jewish and democratic identities of this country, a dangerous gambit where all sides will inevitably lose.

Eilon Schwartz is director of the Shaharit think tank in Israel.

3 thoughts on “Symposium / Is Democracy a Jewish Idea?

  1. bob says:

    pointless & self deluding question, answer is no, it is a political construct born of ancient hellenic greece.

  2. MWidlund says:

    Democracy as found in Hellenic Greece was immeasurably shaped by older Phoenician city states that were run by elected councils. Hellenes and Dorian peoples of Greece (ie. early Greeks) interacted with and took from Phoenician civilization, took their pantheon and alphabet and many other things, including interacting with Jewish Phoenicians who had partially assimilated into Phoenicia but retained many Jewish ideas. These Jewish Phoenicians were descendants of the ten tribes of Israel described in the books of Kings and who were later conquered and enslaved by the Phoenicians. Concepts found in Phoenician city states coincide with and were likely tied to the Israelites who rebelled against revelation to rule by their majority will, as those 10 tribes who refused to submit to and recognize the sons of Solomon as rulers.

  3. Davida Brown says:

    Interesting conclusions to the original question! Thanks, Bob’ for keeping it simple. Also thanks to the above concerning the “origins” of what is known originally as Greek democracy. To complicate things a bit, hopefully in an illuminating way, I would like to add my take on this subject. To respond to: “Because Jews do not universalize their religion, they have no trouble co-existing with others.” It is true that modern Judaism does not proselytize; the religion dubbed “Christianity (not mentioned in the Bible)” does. Though Jews do not accept that Jesus is the Son of God, they do believe He is a “son of Israel.” That is history and the N.T. begins (Matthew 1:1) with His geneology. A modern concept in secular Judaism is also mentioned in the term” self-sufficiency”, a term foreign to the Tenakh. Also mentioned is another Hebrew root word: “tzedakah”, related to righteousness, which is intrinsically linked with the Almighty, therefore, acts of charity apart from Him (belief in/following of) do not bring Him glory. In otherwords it cannot be effective without Him. All of this is to emphasize that Israel cannot have a viable government without God at it’s head and center. Jesus, as established, is a son of Israel and never spoke outside of the realm of Torah…He taught nothing new or separate from the law and the prophets. In the words of Isaiah, Israel was to become ” a light to the gentiles (nations.)” It has happened and is finishing up and it all circles back to the restoration of the Land of Israel. An interesting comment made by Ed Koch also aligns with this viewpoint: “Justice can exist in governments that are not democracies, if the ruler is a just ruler. Obviously, democracy is to be preferred because you can throw rulers out.” Yes, Ed, justice is for all people. Look up for your redemption…

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