By R’ Moshe Taragin
This July 4th weekend, Americans will celebrate their Independence Day. This annual event commemorates the establishment of the “city upon the hill,” the first modern experiment of democracy.
Arguably, the 20th century was the greatest era for democracy, as great democracies allied together to defeat two violent enemies of democracy: Nazism and Communism. More recently, though, democratic politics in many countries have become badly polarized, tempting many to reevaluate the efficiency of this form of government. Even more recently, the corona epidemic challenged democratic societies to balance between health administration and personal freedoms. The fastest route to curbing a pandemic is the stripping of personal liberties such as freedom of movement and freedom of congregation. Despite great efforts to contain the contagion, most democracies still managed to preserve personal freedoms—even at the cost of life. The pandemic demonstrated that democracy comes at a cost. Because we value democracy so deeply, we are often willing to pay a reasonable price. The alternative to democracy is a far worse outcome.
One price should never be paid on behalf of democracy: a religious price. While celebrating democracy and its principles, religious people must never compromise or shift religious values based upon the persuasive influence of democracy. In the past, I have written about democracy and the emergence of moral relativism. If everyone is equal in the voting booth, perhaps they have equal voices in the moral conversation. Moral relativism blurs the differences between right and wrong and between absolute good and unconditional evil, creating a shadowy world of muddled values. Additionally, I have recently noted the manner in which the culture of equality scrubs personal and communal identity. Democracy is intended to protect political and personal freedom. It isn’t intended to eliminate “identity markers” such as race, religion, ethnicity, and gender. The culture of “politically correct”—an outgrowth of democracy—threatens to erase core differences between people, and to efface both personal and communal identity.
Additionally, democracy poses a different challenge—it deeply clashes with the notion of a “chosen people.” Thousands of years ago, G-d chose the Jewish people to represent Him in a world of moral chaos and religious confusion. We are meant to instruct humanity about the coherence of monotheism and the dignity of moral life. Throughout history we paid a stiff price for this assignment. We called humanity to higher ground, and no one likes a moral challenge. Stunningly, we didn’t just survive endless oppression, but we reshaped the world in our image. Ironically, in past cultures, built upon religious and social hierarchies, the notion of being chosen was culturally “consistent.” Power was both Divinely assigned and hereditary. In this world of divisions between the “elected” and “commoners,” the concept of a Divinely chosen people was perfectly reasonable.
By contrast, democracy preaches political equality and equal rights for all citizens. The modern environment of democracy shuns divisions or any preferential “groupings.” Suddenly, we inhabit an egalitarian world, in which the concept of being chosen seems offensive and bigoted.
This conflict between democracy and the notion of a chosen people has caused two great errors in the Jewish world, colossal mistakes which, ironically, are mirror inverses of each other. Many Jews, who bristle at the notion of “chosenness,” have abrogated the unique sense of Jewish mission. The concept of a select nation charged with a historical mission feels tribal, outdated, and certainly anti-democratic. More so, to many, it carries racist undertones: can we speak of a chosen people when all humanity shares the same DNA and occupies the same position on a Darwinian evolutionary line? Their Judaism has been reformatted upon more universal values: social justice, family, civic consciousness, education, community, patriotism, and other broad ideas common to every race and every religion. Religious ceremonies, seen as too ritualistic and too clannish, have been eliminated or deeply diluted. This emulsified Judaism lacks any sense of historical mission. Regrettably (but not always), support for the state of Israel also declines. Our return to Israel has restarted an ancient historical destiny which can only be fully realized when we settle the land of G-d. If Jewish historical mission in general feels archaic, support for the “land of mission” becomes less compelling.
In other Jews, the dissonance between being chosen and living under democratic systems has provoked a different breakdown. Some Jews misunderstand being “chosen” for being “entitled” and they mistake “mission” for “privilege.” Unable to distinguish between the two, some Jews, deeply proud of their chosen status, willfully violate or ignore the laws and expectations of democracy. If Jews are chosen, perhaps they aren’t subject to the same regulations that govern other “non-chosen” members of democracy. This mistaken interpretation of being chosen has legitimized illegal behavior and has justified acting “above the law.” Sadly, this warped notion of being chosen also allows many to justify rude and inconsiderate behavior, even when not in actual violation of the law. If we are chosen, perhaps we are more deserving of public resources or of the public commons than other human beings.
These two diametrically opposed reactions are each grave errors and each is taken in response to the perceived dissonance between democracy and being chosen. Religiously committed Jews of moral conscience must deny each of these distortions. Democracy is a political arrangement built to protect the political rights of its citizens. It is the most equitable and fair form of human governance which humans have assembled. However, its presumption of political equality should never distort the idea of historical and religious selection. Democracy is a powerful political tool but nothing more. It does not shape Jewish history and it must not reshape Jewish historical identity. We alone were selected, we alone received the direct word of G-d, and we alone were invited to reside within His shadow. We were selected on behalf of humanity and our participation in the experiment of democracy should never supersede our everlasting historical calling.
Alternatively, and specifically because we are children of G-d, we must uphold the values of democracy. As valuable as democracy has proven for humanity in general, it has been even more indispensable for Jews. After centuries of religious persecution and discrimination, democracy has finally afforded us freedom of worship. We pray daily for the restoration of Jewish monarchy and for the kingdom of G-d, but until then we celebrate and cherish the institution of democracy. Often, illegal behavior by religious Jews is decried as a chillul Hashem because it smears our reputation in the eyes of non-Jews. More damaging than that, this behavior is a violation of our own Covenant with G-d. We are meant to advance humanity in every sector—even the political one. When we fail to contribute to the political improvement of humanity, we are failing ourselves as Jews, even if no one notices. Violating the law and damaging democracy is a violation of our Jewish mission and a betrayal of our chosenness.
G-d imbued Man with political instincts so that he could create stable societies, respectful of law and protective of human experience. After thousands of years, with the help of G-d, Man created democracy—so far, the best form of human governance. While we support democracy, we should be careful not to distort other features of Jewish identity which may appear undemocratic. The greatest errors in life occur when partial truths are presented as absolute truths.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semichah and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.