When “Jewish” values clash with “democratic” values and a choice needs to be made, what takes precedence?

For those who believe that Israel’s identity as the world’s one and only Jewish state has primacy over its democratic nature, the answer would seem simple. But the first axiom of being a Jewish state is that nothing is ever simple. Even assuming the supremacy of “Jewish” values, you need to define your terms. What if the “democratic” value is also a “Jewish” value? This line of thinking often leads to a discussion of “internal” and “external” values. To the extent that democratic values are authentically found within Judaism itself, they might be acceptable. If their source, however, is external systems of values, then they do not belong. Chapter 18 greatly problematizes this dichotomy.

A superficial reading of the text suggests that Yitro is primarily concerned with his son in law’s health, and that he suggests the establishment of a legal system in order to make Moshe’s life easier. But subtle textual hints support an alternate reading suggested by the Midrash and quoted by Rashi. Picking up on the contrast between Moshe sitting and the people standing, the Midrash has Yitro criticizing Moshe for ‘sitting like a king’, and lacking sufficient respect and concern for the honor of the people.

How does the appointment of a network of ministers solve this? In this reading, the purpose is to diminish the ego of even a divinely appointed leader by that mainstay of liberal democracy- the diffusion and decentralization of power.

Is this, then, a Jewish value? It’s accepted by Moshe as an appropriate, effective system of governance, and endorsed by the Torah. But the idea came from Yitro, the Midianite priest. So- internal or external? The answer is: yes.  In other words, maybe we need to start asking a different question.


This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. Chapter 18 was Tuesday. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation

What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il