Justus Baird

Jewish tradition can help when democracies are under threat

If you're worried about democracy's future, in the US or Israel, get involved! Dedicate some of your time and energy to the democratic process (Korach)
Shimon Navon, 60 (center), a reserve officer in Golani Brigade and a disabled IDF veteran who was injured during the first Intifada by a Molotov cocktail, attends a rally against the Israeli judicial overhaul in Jerusalem on July 23, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Shimon Navon, 60 (center), a reserve officer in Golani Brigade and a disabled IDF veteran who was injured during the first Intifada by a Molotov cocktail, attends a rally against the Israeli judicial overhaul in Jerusalem on July 23, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

JTA – Growing up in suburban Houston in the 1970s and 1980s, I never heard serious conversations about democracy. I knew the United States was democratic, but that was just the water fish swim in, something all around us that we take for granted.

But as Americans celebrate Independence Day this week, democracy is top of mind for many of them, and especially American Jews. In the United States, we’re facing a looming presidential election amid contested interpretations of the last one and ongoing debates about voting access. In Israel, there are high levels of mistrust in elected officials after more than a year of massive weekly protests – first over the judicial overhaul and then about hostages and the current government.

This week’s Torah portion gave me another reason to reflect on democracy. A year after escaping Egypt, the 12 tribes are wandering in the desert when their bitter complaints evolve into political rebellion. And not just one rebellion, but three of them: one led by Korach, another by Datan and Aviram, and a third by 250 chieftains.

It’s that last group, the 250 chieftains, that caught my eye. Their complaint against Moses is that the entire community is holy. How then can Moses put himself above everyone else? Everyone should have a say in leading the community! To 21st-century ears, this argument by the chieftains (who, the Torah tells us, were chosen in the assembly) sounds like a passionate call for democracy.

My work at the Shalom Hartman Institute brings me each summer to Jerusalem, from where I am writing now. In Israel, conversations are not just about democracy, but specifically on the relationship between Judaism and democracy. Some Israelis advocate for a Jewish theocracy governed by Jewish law. Some ask how a state can be Jewish while also serving all of its citizens, including the 22% of citizens who are not Jewish. Some celebrate Jewish control over limited areas of government (Shabbat, kashrut, personal status like marriage and conversion). And some want complete separation of Judaism and state.

Too often, these debates are flattened into the question of whether Judaism and democracy are compatible, or whether having a state religion is compatible with democracy. But there are plenty of democratic nations with a Christian state religion – the United Kingdom, Greece and Costa Rica among them. So there is little reason to question whether Israel’s democracy can function with a state religion. And clearly Judaism and democracy are at least somewhat compatible, since the Jewish state’s parliamentary democracy has been stable for more than 75 years.

So rather than ask whether they are compatible, it would be more interesting to ask: How might Judaism influence and shape democracy, either in Israel or in the US?

We know that Judaism shaped the early development of democratic ideas. Historians have argued that democracies draw many of their distinctive features from the Jewish tradition. One scholar’s list included consent of the governed, the presumption of innocence, the exclusion of self-incrimination from court proceedings, and a commitment to the sanctity of life and the inestimable preciousness of each unique individual.

Can Jewish tradition still offer insight today when democracies are under threat?

The section of the Torah we have recently read offers some insight. The Israelites have only recently escaped from slavery in Egypt. Under Pharaoh, their ability to self-organize was extremely limited. Now, as an emancipated community, they must figure out how to govern themselves. The three rebellions can be understood as part of a trial-and-error process on the path toward determining a form of governance. Moses and God have no compassion for the rebellions, and the organizers of the rebellion receive only divine wrath. As readers, we are meant to interpret their acts as unhelpful uprisings against authority.

But there is another story from the period with a different message. When the Israelites’ complaining reaches a fever pitch, Moses throws his hands up and tells God he can’t take it anymore. God’s response is to instruct Moses to gather 70 leaders who “shall share the burden of the people with you.” This is a core democratic move: When the stakes are high, and crisis is imminent, we do not put all of the burden on a single charismatic leader. Instead, individuals are selected to share the burden of the people.

What is the difference between the 70 elders and the 250 chieftains? Perhaps it was their tone and intent: The chieftains wanted to replace Moses’ leadership, while the elders said, “We’re here to help carry the burden.” For those of us who are concerned about the future of democracy, whether in the US or in Israel, this is our only real option: to get involved and take on some of the burden of the people. If you aren’t already doing so, perhaps this is your moment to carve out a portion of your time and energy and dedicate it to the democratic process.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge.

About the Author
Rabbi Justus Baird is Senior Vice President, National Programs at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.