A seemingly ancillary issue raised by the Israeli government’s recent “Judicial Reform” program is the question of whether the state can really be democratic as well as Jewish. In fact, that issue isn’t ancillary at all; rather, it strikes at the very heart of the ideal relationship between the regime’s elected branches and its selected judges. A survey of the Jewish heritage, especially as described in the Bible, is very instructive in this respect.
Of course, no one claims that the Children of Israel had formal elections or other official accouterments of modern democracy. But then again, neither did “democratic” Athens (women, foreigners, and slaves had no vote) – or even America circa 1789 and Britain in the 19th century. What we need to evaluate are the general principles underlying the Bible’s approach to governance.
First, the concept of “Covenant” entailed a moral equality between the Almighty and Mankind – which is why Abraham was able to gather the requisite “chutzpah” to argue with God about 50 (down to 10) saintly men in Sodom/Gomorrah that should be enough to spare the city from destruction. In short, the Covenant idea (found throughout the Torah) was revolutionary in that it went against the idea of leaders being able to do whatever they wanted (if even God had to abide by moral strictures, then certainly human rulers would have to).
Second, the Torah is full of examples of what we call today “separation of powers.” Moses the executive and Aaron the religious leader; Kings running the executive branch vs. Prophets as counterpoint, if and when the former went astray; moreover, the King could not go to a non-defensive, war of choice without the High Priest’s approval.
Third, for the first 200 years after entering the Promised Land each consecutive leader of the Children of Israel came to power meritocratically. Even a woman was selected as Judge-Leader (Devorah)! Those first two centuries were in distinct contrast to the rest of the ancient world where one would be hard to put to find another civilization that eschewed hereditary kingship.
What about Israel’s later kings? Note that when the Israelites finally asked Samuel to anoint them a king and he refused, God told him that if that’s what they want, then so be it (indeed, that was the Almighty’s not-so-subtle reprimand of Samuel who wanted his own dissolute sons to inherit his leadership role). In other words, introducing kingship wasn’t a divine commandment at all. Indeed, one suspects that the Almighty wanted to teach Israel a lesson as well, given the disasters that followed (King Saul’s disobedience and mental health issues; Absalom trying to overthrow his father, David; and then Solomon’s children infighting, leading to the splitting of the kingdom into two; and so on with such “moral stalwarts” as Ahab & Jezebel…).
Perhaps the clearest case of Judaism’s refusal to countenance abolition of the separation-of-powers principle involved the Maccabees. Relatively soon after the successful revolt against the Seleucids, they began to combine the monarchical and priestly powers in one personage. Among other things, this explains why Hanukkah is the only Jewish “national” holiday without a “Book” included in the biblical canon – this, despite not one but two Books of Maccabees having been written!
Overall, then, we find the Bible replete with examples of checks and balances, and separation of powers, as cardinal political principles underlying its proto-democratic creed of how to manage human affairs writ large.
However, it didn’t stop with the Bible. Several notable, later examples:
1) The Talmud is a testament to meritocracy: anyone could become a master teacher (e.g., dirt poor Rabbi Akiva) – hearkening back to the biblical era of meritocratic Judges.
2) For close to a thousand years in Babylon, the Rosh Golah (executive Exilarch) ruled side by side with the Rosh Yeshiva (legislative/judicial authority).
3) During the Middle Ages, each community (s)elected its rabbi – and on occasion would fire him too.
4) Over that same period a fascinating custom evolved among Ashkenazi Jewry: “halting the Torah reading.” Any community member who felt that a wrong was done to him, but the community was not willing to deal with the complaint, could go up uninvited to the bimah (Torah stand) on the Sabbath, bang on it loudly, and literally stop the Torah reading from continuing until the community agreed to deal with the issue after the Sabbath ended (haf’sakat ha’kriyah).
To be sure, one can also find examples that contradict what we consider to be democracy e.g., women’s lack of full rights (but they also didn’t have the same level of religious obligations); prayers that still long for the return of David’s kingship. To repeat, early Judaism was not “democratic” in the full sense of the modern term – but neither was anyone else, as late as the last century! The important point, though, is that from the start the evolving religion we today call Judaism was designed to avoid British historian Lord Acton’s warning in the late 19th century: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”