Democracy and Monotheism: A Proposed Direction

Religiously-observant people who see democratic values as a threat are doubly mistaken: They are leaving democracy to manipulative forces that understand democracy’s mission to be one of antireligious secularization. At the same time, they fail to realize that updating Judaism for our times means progressing far along the road toward democracy.

When discussing Judaism and democracy, reference is commonly made to Judaism’s humanistic dimensions, its Talmudic culture of argument, the idea of “one law for you and for the resident stranger,” the contribution made by Jews to universal values, and similar ideas that underscore the congruence between Judaism and democracy. These important discussions have a prominent feature that is easy to miss, precisely due to its prominence: God – or, at least, the idea of God, remains out of bounds. I would like to call into question this convention that distances God and the metaphysical dimension from our discourse. Luckily, we find in Yeshayahu Leibowitz a reference point that decisively conveys an opposite stance. From this a work plan may be derived. A short piece such as this cannot, of course, offer more than a proposed line of inquiry, an attempt to enrich the dialogue – to be tested before it can be developed into a system of thought.

The neutrality thesis  

A priori, Judaism has no specific political or social program. The yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven that a Jew takes upon himself in the form of the yoke of Torah and mitzvot does not include an obligation to be (in terms of the political and social regime) a socialist or an anti-socialist, a monarchist or a republican, a democrat or an advocate of authoritarianism. (Leibowitz, 1975, 311)

In this lucid passage, Leibowitz paints a picture shared by large segments of the (Israeli) population regarding the relationship between Judaism and the modern state. The assumptions behind this outlook are rooted in the positivist view that the only knowledge possible is provided by the natural sciences. Immanuel Kant distanced God from theoretical reason, and positivism distanced ethics from practical reason. Monotheism is now associated with the decision to accept the yoke of mitzvot. My belief in God, Leibowitz explains, is my abstinence from smoking cigarettes on Shabbat. Human ethics and values are not subjects of study in the natural sciences, and therefore have nothing to do with reason. The teaching of values, according to this view, is simply the teaching of mitzvah observance. The question of the relationship between democracy and Jewish values does not arise at all; there is no conflict between these concepts, nor is there a need to reconcile them.

Logical positivism attracted much criticism in later 20th century thought; this is not the place for a detailed discussion of that criticism. The question that naturally arises is that of the conclusions to be drawn from a rich faith-based outlook that sees in man’s relationship with his Creator intimations of a fundamental metaphysical principle. In light of this, what will the connection between Judaism and democracy look like? Will it be capable of enriching the foundations of democracy? What conclusions may be drawn from the enlargement of reason to encompass justice?

The oneness of God and the separation of powers

Monotheism entails a rejection of idolatry as such. The Sages expanded the idea of idolatry to include love of money and negative traits such as anger – thereby anchoring the rejection of idol worship in the suppression of greed and in positive interpersonal qualities. But the sources explain that the rejection of idol worship applies to any cultish form of tyranny. This linkage between tyranny and idolatry is not a distant analogy; it can be found in plain readings of the Biblical text. One example will explain and clarify the point:

Speak and you shall say; So says the Lord God: Behold I am upon you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that lies down in the midst of its rivers, who said, “My river is my own, and I made myself.” (Ezekiel 29:3)

Midrash Tanhuma (Buber), Parashat Va’eira, Siman 16, expands on this:

Then the Lord said unto Moses: go early in the morning to present yourself before Pharaoh […] (Exodus 9:13) […] Let the nations know that they are only human, now they were making themselves into deities. Hiram king of Tyre made himself into a deity […] The Holy One informed him that he was mortal […] Joash also made himself into a deity […] Immediately the Holy One informed him that he was flesh and blood. […] Pharaoh made himself into a deity, because he said: (the Nile is mine) and I have made it (Ezekiel 29:9). He said: I am the one who created myself. Immediately [the Holy One] made known to him that he was flesh and blood.

A reasonable understanding of the precept “You shall have no other gods before Me” views any concentration of human power as a potential competitor to monotheism. Tyrannical regimes such as those of Stalin, Mao Zedong and other 20th century dictators who demand submission and deification are altogether forms of idolatry.

Those loyal to Jewish heritage cannot be indifferent to the character of their political system. That is where we encounter the principle of separation of powers. This idea, which has become an inalienable asset of democratic political systems, emerged in the wake of an insight that coalesced among thinkers such as Charles Montesquieu, namely that where law and government are concentrated in the hands of a single person, it is impossible to ensure basic freedoms. Such concentration of power invites corruption and abrogates citizen rights, such as the right to a fair trial. The Jewish world respects these values, but here we are concerned with the relationship between the separation of powers and the negation of idolatry. Monotheism entails multiple branches of government. Separation between the law and the rulers is a shield against concentration of power and tyranny – and this being so, it is consistent with and expresses Jewish metaphysics and its values. If we expand Halacha to encompass the question of what constitutes an appropriate political regime, then separation of powers, which blocks the path to modern idolatry, is a step in the right direction.

The Jewish sources addressed this issue and, long before the Magna Carta, subjected the king to the rule of law. In The Laws of Kings and Wars in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, we indeed find such important statements as the following:

[H]e may not lead the nation out to wage a milchemet hareshut [discretionary war] unless the court of seventy-one judges approves.

 [The king as servant of God] A person who negates a king’s command because he was occupied with a mitzvah, even a minor one, is not liable. Whose words should have precedence in case of conflict, the words of the Master or the words of the subject? Needless to say, if a king decrees that a mitzvah should be negated, his words should not be heeded.

[General attributes of the king:] He should always conduct himself with great humility.

The chasm that erupted between the religiously observant and democracy disregarded the ways in which monotheism shaped Halacha. For philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, this disregard caused the Jewish faith to be identified with a form of political system that has nothing to do with faith and reason, and for large swaths of the public democracy is regarded as “everyone doing what they feel like,” for example, as sexual permissiveness. Pointing out that the very belief in one God, as required of all who adhere to a monotheistic heritage, entails the development of an important democratic principle, can ease tensions between proponents of democracy and communities of Torah-observant Jews.

Initial consequences

Basing separation of powers on negation of idolatry entails immediate conclusions for other substantive issues.

Expanding the separation of powers

As soon as monotheism is anchored in the awareness that any concentration of power could potentially lead to idolatry, questions arise concerning other forces present in the arena. Indeed, one finds the forces of capital and the media, also known as “magnates” and “media moguls,” active alongside the executive branch, the judicial branch and the legislative branch. We are usually aware of the judicial system’s independence, but barely pay attention to capital and the media. Capital translates into governmental authority. Because it is the media themselves that communicate major and urgent news items, it is no wonder that we have trouble finding in them any discussion of such topics as media cross-ownership or the destructive relationship between capital and freedom of expression. The fact that this is the force that makes and breaks prime ministers means that we cannot consider separation between the government and the legal system as the sole form of separation of powers. Updating rejection of idolatry for the present day necessitates that we stand guard against the hijacking of the media by capital, and that we boost the discourse of liberty.

The cult of the state

A state that maintains separation of powers may exalt itself above all. Monotheists cannot approve of these lines from the German national anthem: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles/ Über alles in der Welt (“Germany, Germany, above all / Above everything in the world”) – this even before they were used by Adolph Hitler to threaten world peace and to launch the Holocaust that decimated our people. The glorification of the state that comes with the exaltation of nationalism is liable to devolve into ultranationalism and, ultimately, into an idolatry of the state, even when it upholds separation of powers. While sayings such as “the state above all” are anathema to the person loyal to Jewish values, a patriot who supports democratic values may not sense the great distortion.

The limits of protest

The right to protest is supposed to limit, in its way, the tyrannical behavior of rulers. The Jewish historical foundation for this idea lay in the prophets who courageously and fearlessly stood their ground in the face of corrupt kings. In so doing, they embodied metaphysical security: “Hearken unto Me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is My law; fear ye not the taunt of men, neither be ye dismayed at their revilings. For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool; but My favour shall be for ever, and My salvation unto all generations” (Isaiah 51:7-8).

The prophets who attacked idolatry were strengthened by faith in the Holy One, Blessed be He, and in the ultimate victory of the good. But what might safeguard such protests from devolving into violent and fanatical revolution? Who might keep the right to protest from transforming into vengeance? Liberation struggles do not always end well. See, for example, what is going on before our very eyes in the Western world – the deterioration of protest into merciless, enraged thought-policing. Struggles for liberation have spun out of control, and things have reached a point where distinguished academics, people renowned in their fields, are being forced to leave their posts. We hear more and more about the universities not being places of free speech. Is this not the time to caution against the violence of the oppressed, the “servant when he reigneth” who makes the earth quake, who sees his improved status as justification for callousness and anger toward all who belong to the “other” camp?

The crisis of democracy: initial diagnosis

It may indeed be argued, to some extent rightly, that forces presenting as “religious” are prone to racism, ultranationalist chauvinism, glorification of the state, and suppression of free speech. I have maintained here that these forces thereby harm Judaism to the extent that Judaism combats idolatry. This is where the person loyal to democratic values may correct his religiously-observant friend. Yet the fact that freedom of expression is threatened by “freedom fighters” from within the liberal camp indicates that protection of freedom of expression that relies on terms such as “oppression,” “exclusion,” and “discrimination” is liable to other distortions. Even as we engage with the question of Judaism’s relationship with democracy, we ignore the crisis in the democratic world. Democratic values are under threat not just because they are being attacked by forces that declare themselves from the outset to be anti-democratic. The crisis in the journalism world, the ascendancy of political correctness, the profound injury to education and the public good, the loss of direction and gloom of postmodernism, social media’s destructive impact on our lives – none of these things are tactics of those who attack democracy.

The great enemies of democracy and of Judaism are internal, not external. A deep implication of this argument can be found in Tractate Sanhedrin (19), when the Chief of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach, commands King Yannai (Alexander Jannaeus), as follows: “Yannai the king, stand on your feet and witnesses will testify against you. And it is not before us that you are standing, to give us honor, but it is before the One who spoke and the world came into being that you are standing.” A destructive conclusion proceeds from this monotheistic demand. It awakens us to think about the danger of applying divine justice to human institutions. For this reason, the Mishnah states that the king does not judge and others do not judge him. The zealous monotheist glorifies God and endangers public safety. In completely analogous fashion we may consider the social justice warrior whose commitment to justice may endanger the public as well. The believing Jew must be wary of Jewish values and the liberal justice-seeker must be wary of democratic values, precisely because these values are exalted and may trample all that stands in their way, including what makes their movement possible.

This destructiveness of the humanists brings us back to the natural sciences with which we opened this short essay. The birth of the natural sciences in the Christian world was accompanied by the creation of a narrative that opposes religious faith to scientific method. In their effort to subvert the rule of the clerics and their monopoly on matters of science, the proponents of progress felt obligated to refute everything that makes the world of faith possible. The problem is that, in the wake of this destruction, enlightened humanism finds itself with a worldview inimical to man’s status. If there is no difference, in principle, between the living and the inanimate, and if there is no difference, in principle, between humanity and the animal world, then we have succeeded in removing God from the world as a superfluous hypothesis, as the physics we possess can explain the inanimate and everything that is produced from it. And yet the loss of God came with the loss of man. Evolution, as atheistically interpreted, was the climax of this process. But while the possibility of explaining man and his origins sparks schadenfreude vis-à-vis religious people, the moral values and their associated certainties are under threat and stand without justification.

Conditions for rectification

Humanism needs a supporting metaphysics, but since Kant we have witnessed its growing devaluation. One calamity follows another: when, as occasionally happens, some brave philosopher rises up and opposes the materialism entailed by Darwinian evolution, he is publicly denounced. The thought police do not stop with politics; they reach philosophy as well. This is the same mindset that delayed recognition of evidence supporting the Big Bang theory, out of fear that the religious faith naturally associated with it would be restored. One need not accept the idea of God the Creator issuing commandments, but we must not disdain the truth merely because it clashes with instinctive materialism. The reason for my recommendation here is not only the loss of faith in God that the aforementioned mindset entails, but also the fact that it enables humanity to regain its stature in a world whose increasingly technological character makes it impossible to assign obligations and rights to people.

Anchoring democratic values and institutions such as freedom of speech, the justice system, and separation of powers in such a way as to divest the forces of capital of their control over the media leaves the idea of freedom easy to manipulate. The freedom of expression for which Baruch Spinoza and John Stuart Mill fought is becoming the right to advertising that takes over every possible aspect of our lives. Some even subsume prostitution under freedom of occupation or justify organ trade as a bodily right. If these are examples of freedom, why should we not view slavery as the right to be a slave? The example that most clearly conveys the weakness of democratic values in their detachment from Jewish values is the transformation of Shabbat from a day of rest (interpreted by each in his own way) into a shopping day. The slogan “live and let live” has brought us to a situation where mothers are forced to work as cashiers on Shabbat instead of spending time with their families and their communities. A rhetoric of “balances” that allows Israelis to buy clothes and ovens and refrigerators whenever they feel like it is undermining social values. For the religiously observant, slavery is bad because it distances man from God. It limits man to his needs and keeps broad segments of the population from what they perceive as the cultivation of their value as people. The hijacking of freedom by market forces, encouraged by antireligious discourse, has ended in a superficialization of the freedom they were meant to promote. The Torah-observant person has to remember not to “take the Lord’s name in vain,” while the liberal activist must remember not to take the idea of freedom “in vain.”

Religiously-observant people who see democratic values as a threat are doubly mistaken: They are leaving democracy to manipulative forces that understand democracy’s mission to be one of antireligious secularization. At the same time, they fail to realize that updating Judaism for our times means progressing far along the road toward democracy. The moral secular public – those for whom secularism is more than an empty hedonism combined with anxious adherence to external codes dictated by the culture of political correctness – is an ally of the religiously observant. At the same time, those who have a more interesting conception of freedom than expanding purchasing power and consumption to the farthest reaches of space and time will find the Torah-observant to be partners in the salvation of Israeli democracy. Israel’s values as a Jewish state are the life preserver of democracy, just as democracy is the best available invitation to a renewal of the state’s Jewish values.

Work cited

Leibowitz, Yeshayahu (1975). Judaism, Jewish People, and the State of Israel. Schocken.

Professor Meir Buzaglo is a philosopher. He is active in the teaching and renewal of the piyyut tradition and is founder and chairman of the Tikkun Movement for the Renewal of Society and Culture in Israel.