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A Jewish Perspective on Democracy and Government Ethics

By Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan || Editors Rabbi Yaron Unger, Ll.B | Rabbi Ido Rechnitz || Kislev, 5769

Translation: Judy Kramer

 

Mishpetei Eretz Institute, Ofra

Kislev, 5769

ISBN 978-965-91142-0-7

 

Introduction

The challenge of the concrete formation of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state is already two generations old. The vision of thousands of years, which was mostly a subject to merely dream of, turned into a demanding reality, which at times threatened to submerge. One is the way of dreams, the other of reality.

The "Mishpetei Eretz" Institute has set as its goal the research and establishment of an orderly doctrine of conduct for a modern Jewish state, to reveal and expose from halachic sources the desired characteristics of government, the structure of a regime and its form, legal procedures and civil law, and practical halachot in the social fields of justice and law befitting a Jewish state.

Within this framework, we present the reader with a second pamphlet in the series of halacha and law in the State of Israel. In both parts of this pamphlet, the Institute's researcher, Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan, presents the principles of a democratic regime and governmental integrity according to halacha. In the first part, the conclusion presented is that the Torah is the basis for essential democratic thought and that it makes demands on any governmental body that evolves from reciprocal and lasting reliable relations between the public and the regime. This revolutionary ruling has wide and deep implications on the whole relationship between the Torah, the Jewish People and the State of Israel.

In the second part, the author discusses the moral and halachic demands made on public figures, the struggle against government corruption and insistence on ethical and moral principles. From this it is clear that the Torah and halacha, which throughout the generations formed a clear halachic and moral foundation, a dynamic and creative basis, have it in their power to come up with precepts and solutions to social and moral questions from the field of governmental integrity and the conduct of public leaders.

At a time when certain basic principles are being undermined, both in the field of citizens' attitude to the State and in that of the conduct and deeds of public leaders and figures in relation to the State and its citizens, there is primary importance in this work, which presents the main ideas in a way that can be clearly understood by all.

 

Rabbi Avraham Giesser

Head of Mishpetei Eretz Institute, Ofra

 

Abstracts

Judaism and Democracy – can the two go together?

It is prevalent opinion that there is a contradiction in terms between a democratic form of rule and Jewish tradition, which is perceived as siding with a monarchist, dictatorial, constrained rule. In this article we will prove that this perception is basically wrong. The basic principles of democratic rule have always been an accepted part of Jewish tradition, and it was they who dictated the nature of the regime.

 

  The meaning of democracy is giving the public the authority to elect and mold the government and the nature of the regime. Study of Jewish sources, starting from Bible times up until the most recent poskim of our own times, shows that the principle of giving authority to the public shaped Jewish rule from many points of view. The regime does not force itself on its citizens, and the source of the legitimacy of the government lies in the faith acquired by the public in its leader. No-one is appointed as king, rabbi, judge, president, prime minister, member of Knesset, mayor, head of local council, chairman of a town or kibbutz council, chairman of a workers' committee etc. unless he underwent some kind of consultation with the population he is meant to head and from whom he received approval of the appointment. This consultation is an imperative condition for the legitimacy of rule in Israel.

 

  The election system is also dependent on the wishes of our citizens. A leader can be chosen in the general elections either by the elective body, which is authorized to do so by the public (e.g. a party's "central committee" or organizing committee) provided that the electoral system is acceptable to its citizens.

 

  The perception that the legitimacy of the ruling body is based on the public's faith in it necessitates the conclusion that a leader may be deposed or the leadership changed by holding new elections, if the majority of the public so wishes. It is obvious that the nature of the rule in Israel today is far from identical to that of the monarchist rule in Bible and Chazal's times and we have no intention of making such a claim. However, we will set out to prove that Jewish tradition maintains that leadership imbibes its power from the people and cannot force itself on the nation. If it does so, it will be halachically invalid.

 

   When fulfilling the mitzvah from the Torah to establish a governmental framework in the land of Israel, the rule of thumb must be to work according to the principle of the people's approval. This is an additional stage in the fulfillment of the G-dly command to the People of Israel to settle in the land of Israel. Jews who lived in Israel throughout the years of exile were certainly fulfilling the mitzvah of settling in the land of Israel. However, their mitzvah was incomplete, in that the mitzvah in its entirety demands enforcing Jewish sovereignty over the entire land of Israel, and such sovereignty can only be attained through the power of the establishment of an independent Jewish state. With the establishment of the State of Israel and the enforcement of Jewish sovereignty over the country, an important and significant step was made in carrying out this mitzvah.

 

  Furthermore, the existing government in the State of Israel has binding halachic validity and its laws have to be obeyed, as well as its orders and regulations that are given by bodies authorized to do so, because this government represents the wishes of the people. This is how a Jew must behave wherever he lives in the world, and how much more so in the State of Israel.

 

  It is true that the Torah-observant community would feel closer and would identify more deeply with the State, were only its ministers and leaders closer in their personal, national and social behavior to the tradition of their forefathers, rather than to values originating in foreign fields. However, even if we have not been granted this until now, the government and its laws have binding value.

 

  The acts of the government certainly do not always coincide with Torah values, and when this occurs, people must act democratically in order to change the situation;they must protest, demonstrate and criticize the running of the government. However, this must be done in a befittingly democratic way, aiming criticism at specific issues and not at people.

 

  Philosophers and political scientists are accustomed to identifying a wide range of insights and values associated with extreme liberal views with the idea of a democratic regime. This is only one interpretation, and at times a somewhat narrow one, of the concept of democracy. Although the Torah has no reservations about the idea of democracy, we have certainly criticism of and religious objections to some of these liberal, "religious" insights.

 

  Nevertheless, the aforementioned in no way justifies obeying government orders that contradict Torah law. The superiority of heavenly law over man-made law obligates Jews not to obey an order that contradicts Torah law. The loyalty of a religious Jew to the State cannot be interpreted as unconditional loyalty, just as it cannot be said that about a person who refuses to carry out a military order that istotally illegal, "A red flag has been hoisted", meaning that his loyalty to the State is faulty.

 

  The great challenge lying ahead of us is to outline the vision of the Jewish State whose basis is the state in its present form, and to add to this the formation of a more meaningful affinity to our historical roots and the values of the Jewish people. The Jewish people's state needs a strong army, a flourishing economy, advanced and sophisticated technology and more, but this in itself is not enough. A Jewish state needs a Jewish soul in order to exist. In order to set a goal and purpose for the State, moral substance must be drawn from Jewish tradition over the generations. The inquiry into and elucidation of these basic questions among all sectors of Israeli society, a frank and in-depth clarification, are what will enable the vision to progress, develop and be realized.

 

  Jewish Government Ethics

 

  What can be expected in the field of the moral running of the government? On what foundations of justice are the relations between citizens and government based? This booklet offers an elementary Torah-based platform as an answer to these broad questions, where the background to the answer is taken from the conduct of past figures and leaders: kings and central government, kohanim in the Temple, the judicial system, community leaders and gabbays.

 

  The basic demand from every public figure is that he should fulfill his duty with the clear purpose of benefitting the public – l'shem shamayim – and not for any other reason, whether it be personal, political or anything else. When doing this, he should not consider what will be said about him in the media, but should focus only on the good of the public.

 

  Furthermore, the honest and fair conduct of a public figure has to be publicly visible, and it is not enough that he is satisfied with his honest ways and clear conscience in regard to G-d. This is what our sages learned from Moses' words: "You should be upright before the Lord and before Israel", (Numbers, 32.22). An implication of this can be seen in the demand for the way public funds are run and in the halachot that deal with the conduct of gaba'im dealing with tzdaka and community leaders.

 

  An incontrovertible personal example which serves us to this day was set by Moses, who collected public money in order to set up the Tabernacle in the desert and kept a precise written record of income and expenses, even though G-d trusted him, as it is written: "He is trusted throughout my household", (Numbers, 12.7).

 

  Therefore, honest and trustworthy as leaders of the community may be, they are required to manage public funds with transparency, to keep an accurate record of every sum entering or leaving a public fund and report on this to the community or its representatives.

 

  At the same time, Jewish law demands that the community should place their trust in the person elected to represent them in dealing with public funds, and they should not be suspicious unless there is concrete evidence that there has been embezzlement.

 

  With regard to the conditions of employment of public leaders, they should be allowed the best possible conditions, so that they can fulfill their duty properly.

 

  Leaders should not be lacking in anything, in order that there should not be economic dependence between leaders and citizens, since this could detract from the leadership's capability to act objectively without being petitioned.

 

  However, it should not be understood from this that the people's leaders should prosper from public funds. The wages for public leaders should be reasonable but not overdone. Jewish tradition praises leaders who have not taken anything for themselves from public funds and condemns those who have taken advantage of their position to advance their own affairs.

 

  Not only judges are warned against taking bribes. Community leaders also have to beware of giving or taking bribes in the form of gifts, envelopes with money or any other way. Bribes taint the integrity of community leaders and detract from their ability to make correct decisions, which was condemned by Isaiah the prophet: "Your rulers are rogues and friendly with thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts", (Isaiah 1.23). We learn from this prohibition that it is forbidden for a public figure to pay his electors to vote for him, and he is not to cultivate connections related to capital or government, since these undoubtedly pave the way to moral corruption in public leadership.

 

  It is forbidden that the position of leader should turn into a "work arrangement" for family members, friends and associates. The appointment of associates, and particularly those who do not have suitable qualifications for the post, is a negative and destructive phenomenon. The ruling leadership has an important and complex task to fulfill, demanding consideration of all citizens, and it is precisely because of this that it is improper to view this as a family business or social club. Appointing associates damages the quality of both leadership and performance, causes harm to the public's faith in its leadership and eventually leads to moral corruption in government. However, this does not completely rule out appointing a relative who is more qualified than others for a certain post, just because he is a relative of the person in charge.

 

  Unfortunately, we all too often come across phenomena of using authority to satisfy the lust of the person with authority, which is expressed in various ways, from sexual harassment to forcing marital relations. These norms are utterly unacceptable and testify to the fact that the perpetrator is a despicable, shallow person who is unfit for leadership.

 

  This booklet is designed to give the reader a small taste of the great ocean of Jewish rules of ethics and government, and it does not pretend to encompass all the issues connected to this broad and important field. However, one can clearly read about "Purity of Government" and not only "Quality of Government". Purity is a superior virtue to quality, which is human, good and fair. Purity is innocence and refinement on the highest level, and this is how a public figure should conduct himself, adopting the superior qualities of morality, honesty, justice and decency, as mentioned before.