Decrepit yet respected, the Liberty Bell stands out in American history as a sign of democracy, freedom, and equality. From Revolutionary times, when the bell rang out the message of fighting for one’s rights, to the antebellum age, when it became a symbol of abolitionism, this sacred relic of republicanism has been the epitome of what America stands for. However, what many don’t know is that the bell’s inscription finds its roots in this week’s Parashah. The Torah (VaYikra 25:10) states, “UKratem Deror BaAretz LeChol Yoshevehah,” or, as the Liberty Bell puts it, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land for all the inhabitants thereof.” With the connection between this powerful symbol of the democratic freedoms we all cherish and this week’s Parashah, this week is an appropriate time to discuss the role that democracy plays in the Judaic faith.
The most glaring problem with any claims of liberality or democracy in Judaism is that, fundamentally, Judaism is governed by a monarchy, the Davidic line. The Rashba is quoted as saying that in the modern post-Kingship world, the ideal form of government is one ruled by the people. While this is a nice idea, it does not resolve our issue of how a Biblical kingship does not deny democratic values. The Netziv presents one potential solution to this problem. When the Torah states the Mitzvah of appointing a king, it uses peculiar language, as it states, “VeAmarta Asimah Alai Melech,” “And you will say, ‘I will appoint upon myself a king’” (Devarim 17:14). The Netziv notes that, unlike other Mitzvot in which Hashem merely tells us what to do, this Mitzvah has the preface of “VeAmarta,” emphasizing that the people will play a role in the creation of this Mitzvah. Based on this, the Netziv concludes that the monarchy itself, while constituting the ideal, is not essential. Rather, what is essential is that the people consent to the governing body. This concept of a monarchy empowered by the people is often defined as a constitutional government in which the king is empowered by the people and limited by a set constitution, in this case the Torah. In fact, the Netziv even says that if the Jewish people should decide they want a parliamentary rule instead of a kingship, that new democratic legislation would be a fulfillment of this Mitzvah of having a king. It is clear that even in the Biblical monarchy there is the democratic concept of “power to the people.”
Rabbi Jachter’s note: This is apparent from Rambam Hilchot Gezeilah VeAveidah 5:18 and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 369:2.
However, beyond merely the Judaic King, this idea of a constitutional monarchy can find roots in our relationship with the King of Kings, HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The main proponent for a constitutional monarchy and the philosopher at the core of most western forms of governing was English thinker John Locke. The same philosopher who established the idea of the “unalienable rights” found in the Declaration of Independence also formulated the essential concept of a Social Contract. This theory states that at its core, a democratic government is a fundamental agreement between the governing and the governed. The people agree to give their sovereignty over to a government, and in return, the government will uphold its “contractual” obligation of preserving social order. This idea is found at the very core of Judaism, tracing back to the numerous treaties, or contracts, that the Avot made with Hashem. Countless times Hashem tells our forefathers and ancestors that if we put our faith in Him and follow his statutes, He will protect and reward us. When Hashem created us, chose us as his nation, and presented us with the Torah, He guaranteed to uphold our human rights that are essential to the concept of equality, which is at the core of democracy. Judaism, despite outer appearances, is really the story of the growth of a democratic monarchy.
As the earliest heralds of democracy, we must make it our responsibility to continue democracy’s message. With Shavuot – the reaffirmation of the Torah, our contract with Hashem – quickly approaching, this message is even more relevant. While we must abide by the rules of our “constitution,” the Torah, and therefore respect gender differences and other regulations Hashem has set forth, we must work within the context of the Torah to uphold the ideals of liberty and equality. Who should know better the fight for freedom than the single most oppressed nation in the history of mankind? From Paroh to Haman to Hitler, we have faced persecution and persevered. In response to the atrocities of Hitler, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an assurance of the preservation of democratic idealism for all people. In our own way, we have always been a nation at the forefront of democratic ideals and reform, and we always will be. We should all learn from these trials and tribulations to better ourselves and our involvement. The Jewish nation is supposed to be an Or LaGoyim, a light unto the nations, and we must not take that responsibility lightly. If we all take our roles in upholding peace and liberty seriously, anything is possible. Through championing these democratic principles we all hold so dear, we should merit the coming of the ultimate peace and liberty, the Mashiach, quickly and in our days.
Rabbi Jachter’s note: Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik told me (personal conversation in July 1985) that he believes the Social Contract Theory to be very much in harmony with Torah values. The best proof, Rav Soloveitchik told me, is that we find in Shemot Perek 19 that Hashem did not force us to accept the Torah. Hashem presented us with the Torah only after we consented to receive it (Shabbat 88a accordingly would not be interpreted as literal coercion, as many have noted).