Is Western Democracy a Jewish System of Government?


Should everybody have the right to vote?


Am I crazy? Yes, but that's not related to this issue. Am I a dictator? Yes, actually, because I'm writing this blog with voice dictation software. OK, I apologize for that pun. On second thought, I do not apologize for it. I live for the great pun. Back to serious matters.

Western democracy puts a premium on rights. Judaism puts a premium on responsibilities. Western democracy says, "what's in it for me?". Judaism says, "what's in it for God and His people?". There is a world of difference.

The Jewish people were always governed by a king and a Sanhedrin. The King part was not a very successful institution. Indeed, Samuel the Prophet had warned that it would become an abused institution. But the Sanhedrin, the great rabbinical court of the Jewish people, proved itself the most successful and enduring leadership institution. We are still governed by laws and rules enacted by Sanhedrins of millennia ago.

What was the secret of their success? Easy. Three things: responsibility, piety and scholarship.

Each member of the Sanhedrin had a supreme sense of responsibility. Their responsibility was to none other than God in heaven and His people on earth. They did not have to engage in popularity contests. They did not have to worry about what the polls said. They had to worry about what the Torah says, and what the spiritual and societal needs of the people are. Since they were not elected, they had the freedom to make unpopular decisions.

When decisionmaking became necessary, they had the tools with which to do it effectively. The requirements to be a member of the Sanhedrin were very demanding. They not only needed a fluent knowledge of all aspects of Torah and Jewish law, they also had to have command of all of the spoken languages in the region and knowledge of the natural world.

A governing body filled with scholars who are knowledgeable about Jewish law and the world, who are deeply pious and share a fundamental sense of responsibility is a governing body that is built for great success.

I once was with a youth group that met a respected politician. One of the students asked the politician how one got to be the fill-in-the-blank high office holder that he now was. He answered, quite directly, "get elected".

What a terrible answer! It is everything that is wrong with our governmental system. Think about it! A kindergarten teacher requires more job training than the leader of a Western nation! Now it is true, the kindergarten teacher is fulfilling perhaps the most important job in the world. But I don't think that having your finger on the nuclear button is too far behind.

Even more so, all one needs to do to get elected these days is to look good and sound good on camera. And, true, to have tons of money to throw at the people. With such a system in place, it is potluck if we get a good leader. The only consolation is that if the guy or gal is good enough to run an effective campaign, they probably have good administrative skills.

What's even more troubling is that people vote without the slightest idea who they are voting for. Many people don't even know the difference between Democrats and Republicans. They don't know the names of the candidates, or if they do, they can't tell you a single position that either has on any issue.

The Sanhedrin ruled through voting. In order for them to vote, they had to become members of the Sanhedrin. In other words, the ability to vote had to be earned. They had to demonstrate exceptional discernment to gain that responsibility.

And that's the sound byte. I believe that there should never be a right to vote, but rather a responsibility to vote. And voting should be dependent on demonstrating a basic competency about what one is voting on.

In other words, I believe there should be some test as part of the voting registration procedure. It should not be a test that lends itself to abuse, but rather a short test to indicate whether the prospective voter understands the office he is voting for. A voter should know what the president does, what a senator is, and so forth. A voter should also know who the candidates are and their positions on one or two critical issues of the day.

I have no intention to disenfranchise anyone. But I object to the concept of the right to vote. It is a responsibility, and everybody must be qualified to do it at least on a basic level. And here comes the next revolutionary idea: voting should be required. It should be no different than jury duty. The only way to get out of voting would be to demonstrate a lack of ability to vote responsibly.

We need leaders who are of the highest quality. The three qualifications should be an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a powerful moral grounding, and a thorough working knowledge of government and the issues of the day. We don't need rock stars, we need qualified leaders.

Moses was not a rock star, he had trouble speaking clearly. It was his responsibility, piety, and scholarship that made him the greatest leader the world has seen.

Converts and Judaism

Shavuot is the festival most relevent to converts to Judaism, as the Book of Ruth indicates. She is the most famous convert, and indeed is the ancestor of King David and, by extension, the Messiah. In truth, all Jews "converted" on Shavuot by accepting the Torah.

So many religions proselytize, and actively seek out converts. Some do it at the edge of the sword. What does Judaism think?

Easy. We love converts, and do not encourage them to do so. A convert is very holy, having freely decided to accept 613 commandments. They did not have to in order to gain entry to The World To Come. Any human being living in accordance with the rules of morality finds great favor in God's eyes. This spiritual person could have become a "Noachide", an observer of the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah. Yet they chose full-blown Judaism. Inspiring.

In the quality versus qualntity argument, Judaism chooses quality. Once in history did Jews actually force the conversion of a people. Back in the days of John Hyrcanus, more than 2000 years ago, Judea offered the Edomites the choice of conversion or exile. Many chose exile, and many chose conversion. Among the descendants of those converts was Herod, the monumental - and bloody - king of Judea.

Was it the right thing to do? Who knows. On the one hand, Hyrcanus immediately neutralized the security threat posed by the Edomite enclaves in Judea's side. Maybe Israel should offer the same deal to the Palestinians! And in the long term, most of those conversions seem to have stuck.

On the other hand, it is an affront to Judaism's belief in the value of all nations to force conversion. We do not regard "Lions converts", ie, converts from fear or coercion, highly.

That really is the bottom line, but not to be taken to the extreme. Some wish to eliminate conversion altogether, and others restrict it where it is really needed.

I believe that in cases of some Jewish lineage, or doubtful lineage, conversion should be ACTIVELY encouraged. In cases where the conversion is for marriage, it should not be encouraged. If the marriage is already in place, then it can be encouraged.

Why? Because conversion for marriage is often insincere. It is done to alleviate the guilt of the families. If, however, the couple is already married, the reason for the conversion is no longer to please the families, but to reconcile the home. That is more sincere, and I belive the rabbis should examine these cases with a favorable inclination.

We need not fear conversion. In many situations today, a new, welcoming approach is called for.

But there is one type of proselytizing we MUST do. We must encourage ALL humans to live by the 7 Noahide laws of basic morality. That may be done even by force. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people in the world is "to fix the world under God's Kingdom."

Judaism and the Arts

In one word, it is "blessing." Blessing implies increase, it implies positive energy, it implies building and growing. Curse implies destruction, negativity, harm. We mus choose blessing over cursing. We must build ourselves and each other up, instead of tearing each other down.

Thus, anything which makes the world more livable, more lovable, more beautiful, is a blessing, and is a choice of life. Those who worship death, who dispatch suicide bombers, etc.. worship the curse.

It is a paramount Jewish value to fill the world with all manner of blessing, including art, music, morals and kindness. End of discussion.