Majorities and Multitudes — in the Parasha and at the Protests (6)
This week after Shabbat, an estimated 10,000 demonstrators came to Jerusalem’s weekly demonstration outside the President’s House. On Monday, sources estimate that as many as 250,000 or even 300,000 protestors came to Jerusalem from all over the country to demonstrate outside the Knesset. People flowed like a great river to the sea. We were a multitude.
Many challenges face Israel today, but the focus of these demonstrations is the legal reforms. This week’s parsha, Mishpatim [laws], includes a difficult verse that’s multiply relevant: Exodus 23:2.
Exodus 23:1 You must not carry false rumors: you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. 2You shall neither side with the mighty [rabim] to do wrong – you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty [rabim] – 3nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute.
It’s tempting to talk about corruption, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to speak about translations of the Hebrew word rabim. The New Jewish Publication Society’s translation above reads rabim as the ‘mighty’ or powerful person in a dispute. The translators combine verses 2 and 3 into one English sentence, and pair the ‘mighty’ (v. 2) with its opposite, the ‘poor’ or weak person (v.3).
But Exodus 23:2 has an outsized role in Jewish tradition, and there are other ways of reading it. In the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b, this verse is the source of a biblical prooftext for the practice of deciding legal disputes according to ‘the majority’ vote of a Beit Din, that is, a Jewish court consisting of three qualified and eligible judges.
One day, according to Baba Metzia, Rabbi Eliezer has an argument with other rabbis about whether a certain oven can be purified once it has been rendered impure. From this seemingly minor starting point emerges a story of tremendous significance.
After exhausting rational arguments, Rabbi Eliezer turns to miracles. If the halakha [religious law] agrees with me, he tells his fellow rabbis, this carob tree will prove it. A nearby carob tree is uprooted and moves a hundred cubits, maybe even four hundred cubits. You can’t bring halakhic proof from a carob tree, respond the other rabbis.
If the halakha agrees with me, continues Rabbi Eliezer, this stream will prove it. The water in a nearby stream turns backwards and flows in the opposite direction. Again, the other rabbis reject a miracle as a source of proof.
If the halakha agrees with me, Rabbi Eliezer persists, the walls of this study house will prove it. The walls lean inwards and start to fall, but Rabbi Yehoshua rebukes them. What is it to you if Torah scholars argue about halakha? In his honor, the walls did not fall, but in Rabbi Eliezer’s honor, they didn’t straighten up either.
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer claims that if the halakha agrees with him, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice duly comes from Heaven. Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakha is always on his side. Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). What’s the relevance of ‘it is not in heaven’ in this context, the Talmud asks?
Rabbi Yirmeya responds: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we don’t listen to a Divine Voice. God wrote in the Torah: ‘Incline after a majority’ (Exodus 23:2). The majority of rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer, so the halakha does not follow his opinion.
Years later, the Talmud relates, Rabbi Natan encountered the prophet Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My sons have defeated Me; My sons have defeated Me.
From the perspective of this story, ‘the majority’ refers to a rabbinic court. It teaches that divine intervention through miracles, even a voice from heaven, cannot overwhelm a rational majority decision.
But in our circumstances, what is a majority?
Today, a majority could refer to the slightly greater number of Israelis (an estimated 30,000) who voted for a coalition party now in the government than voted for an opposition party. Many people believe that once a government has been elected, it can do whatever it wants, including change the law to make future elections almost meaningless. That’s how weak and unpopular leaders can end up staying in office forever, as we see in other countries not so far from home.
A majority in our circumstances today could also be the estimated 3 out of every 4 Israelis (which includes an estimated 42% of Likud voters) who believe that the government should stop, or at least slow down significantly, its proposed legal reforms. Surely a government, especially one that entered with a tiny majority and in the case of Likud is opposed on this matter by almost half its own voters let alone the opposition, should continue to listen to the voice of the people after the election?
But let’s return to the parasha. The talmudic story is built around an excerpt from the verse taken out of context, which is a legitimate way of gleaning prooftexts. In its biblical context the verse begins, Do not incline after the majority to act wrongfully (Exod 23:2). From this perspective, we should not elect a government and then allow it to do what it wants. If the government acts wrongfully, we are prohibited from siding with it. On this reading, the 3 of every 4 Israelis who think the government is acting wrongfully by pushing through its reforms without proper discussion should stand up and be counted.
In addition to ‘mighty’ and ‘majority’, rabim can also mean ‘multitude’. In our context today, the multitude could be the massive number of Israelis who flowed into Jerusalem on Monday and fill streets around the country every motzei Shabbat because they believe that their democratically elected government is acting wrongfully with its legal reforms.
Join the demonstrators this motzei Shabbat, and at other mass demonstrations that will surely follow Monday’s, not because they are rabim, a multitude, but because you share their view that our majority government is wrong to force through legal reforms that the majority of Israelis reject in their present form.
Join a demonstration this motzei Shabbat in Tel Aviv, 19.00, Eliezer Kaplan Street; Jerusalem, 20.00, outside Beit Ha’Nasi, the President’s House, and in other cities around the country.