Kenneth Cohen

Democracy and Torah

We learned this week of the Torah’s commandment of וחי בהם, that we are to live by the Mitzvot and not die by them. This is a source for the concept of פיקוח נפש, that if there is danger to an individual’s physical well being, he may violate the Torah obligation. For example, Shabbat may be transgressed if someone needs to be taken to the hospital.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin, tells of a significant meeting in the town of Lod, where members of the highest ruling body, the Sanhedrin, had an important vote. The issue discussed was whether or not they should establish exceptions to the rule that other laws may be violated as well, if one’s life is threatened.

It is interesting that such an important matter came to a vote. The decision on that historic day was that in three matters, one must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress. These include, murder, idol worship, and sexual immorality.
Based on this ruling, countless numbers of Jews gave their lives, sanctifying the Name of G-d. The Rabbis established by a vote, and were given this authority by the Torah from Mount Sinai. The reverse, חילול ה׳, the desecration of G-d’s Name, is the most difficult sin to achieve atonement. This applies in these three areas, if one does not sacrifice his life.

Judaism does support the idea of democracy and the majority rule. This held true when a great deal was at stake. Nevertheless, the Torah and democracy part ways if there is an attempt to change basic principles of ethics and morality. Hashem, Himself, has the final word in these areas. We must never forget this.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for over twenty years while also teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach of Old Katamon. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. He recently published a series of Hebrew language-learning apps, which are available at