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Mailbag: Of Elections, Chief Rabbis and Democracy


Thankfully, the elections for chief Rabbis is over. The mudslinging, backstabbing and other forms of political warfare have ended. The preferred choice of the Gedolim won both races, this was certainly a point of relief for the Chareidi tzibbur, and a source of anguish for many others. In this article I would not like to say anything about either candidate. I don’t even want to say anything about what would have happened had some of the other candidates won.

What is this idea of voting to choose a Rabbi? The voting body was made up of 150 people, over half are Rabbis, then MKs, and heads of municipalities, and finally, just to prove how Israel believes in equality, 10 women. Thus the decision to choose a chief Rabbi is essentially a democratic process. (Interestingly, whilst Israel is considered a democracy, underlying it is a form of benign dictatorship, run by the Supreme Court, more on this another time).

So what’s wrong with a democratic process in choosing a chief Rabbi? Let us examine what democracy is. Democracy is based on the assumption that all people are equal. Therefore they are given one vote, and the one with the highest number of votes is the winner. However, are all people equal, and is everyone equally qualified to make choices? Take the elections in America, do people vote for their candidate because of his vast economic experience (not like in Israel were they put a TV presenter and Facebook addict as finance minister) or because of the smile, and eloquence of the candidate?

The Mishna at the end of Sotah describes certain phenomena that will occur during the time preceding the Messianic era. Among them, the Mishna says that

there shall be “no rebuke.” No one will be able to stand up to someone

else and suggest that perhaps things could be a touch better. On the contrary if someone tells another to do teshuva, it is Elul after all, he will have his head bitten off, ‘you’re telling me to do teshuva, you should do teshuva’ the other will scream. Or he will shout ‘Its Elul? It’s August and I’m still on holiday, now leave me alone.’

The Mishna also says “the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog.” What is the meaning of this? When you see a man and a dog, on the surface it appears as though the dog is leading the master, the dog is going first, after all. In reality, the master is leading the dog, who looks back to see if his master is there. Rav Elchonon Wasserman says that a leader must be one who guides his followers, one who uses his wise judgement.

However, in our generation, leaders are those who merely follow the whims and desires of the people. Instead of being leaders, they are followers.

In fact, there is a certain country in the world where they often choose a Rabbi with a selection committee. On it are usually people who are barely shomer Shabbos and kashrus, and they decide who will be their ‘spiritual leader’. The root of the matter is that they are choosing, which Rabbi will tell us more of what we want to hear, who will leave us alone. In that country, a Rabbi once got up and passionately tried to exhort the congregation to improve their Shabbos observance. Suddenly a voice shouted out from the back ‘Know who pays your salary!!’

Our Mishna could thus be described as anti-democratic. Democracy assumes that all men are equal, and are therefore given the same voting power. Crucial decisions are thus made following the will of the majority, a seemingly noble idea, as policy in this way follows the will of the people. The problem is that the man with the vote is not necessarily the most well-informed, hence not the best person to be involved in making crucial decisions. Once the candidate is elected, it doesn’t mean that he is the best person to make decisions either; he merely heads a team of advisors and is often a puppet led by the people. He is forced to tow the line to ensure his re-election, regardless of whether it is actually in the country’s best long-term interests. What does the Torah say about such a system? We have to bear in mind that in Temple times, decisions were made by the Sanhedrin. Its members were arranged according to their level of Torah knowledge, from the weakest to the strongest. Having heard the witnesses, they would begin expressing their views. This process would begin with the person with least knowledge and end with the biggest scholar. This was so that no one would be seen to be contradicting the opinion of the greatest of them. We see from here that level of knowledge is crucial in determining one’s right to have an opinion.

Moshe Rabbeinu was worth 600,000 Jews. A democrat won’t like that. If Rav Steinman and Rav Kanievsky tell us something, that is worth more than all the politicians and nobodies put together. Someone will ask that you see the Sanhedrin voted? Yet the answer is that following the majority only applies to judges who are fit to judge. The crucial criterion is level of knowledge and not having a bias in the case. Therefore, if the majority are unfit and biased and the minority are not, then we listen to the minority. The only way to be fit to judge and free of bias is to be free of earthly desires, and this is coupled with holiness and purity. Such a majority opinion we listen to. Otherwise, there is no basis just to listen to any group of people who happen to be a majority. Rav Elchonon says that this is like one who passes an inn, and sees one hundred drunkards rolling around outside. They ask him why he isn’t joining them, as he is in the minority. Similarly, we see that it is only opinions that have basis that count; anything else is like following the one hundred drunkards. Let us take this issue further. The proliferation of democracy imbibes people that all opinions are equal, and the most popular view should be followed. The bigger problem is that this attitude spills outside of politics, and into matters of religion.

Imagine someone sitting at a lecture in advanced physics at Harvard. The atmosphere is tense as the professor explains the finer details of the splitting of the atom. Suddenly, from the back, someone shouts out, “You’re wrong, that’s not how you do it; I’ve got a much better way!” Imagine the gasps of horror, or perhaps the laughter from other listeners at this nobody challenging the top professor. What, then, is the difference in matters of Torah and religion where it seems that everyone is entitled to an opinion, to blurt out whatever they feel like, without the slightest basis, even against leading Rabbanim? Doctors, lawyers and accountants views on Torah, they consider are worth more than the Gedolim. This is an idea

that we have only learned . . . from democracy. Apparently, who should learn and for how long is a matter to be decided by politicians! They, in their own eyes, in a view not necessarily shared by Hashem, are entitled to decide matters of religion. There is a program on the BBC radio called ‘World have your say’. We have another name for it, ‘Any old idiot saying anything about things they don’t have the slightest clue in’. This also manifests itself on the internet (look whose talking), where you have an article, and then anyone can blurt out something, under the guise of anonymity, what often can only be described as kefira, and bizayon of Torah and Talmidei Chachamim. Yet these people will never do teshuva, as in their eyes they are right, in their eyes they are entitled to an opinion. Most likely they even take Chazals and distort them, or use them out of context, to prove their unholy point. This is sometimes known as ‘blogging’.

 The opposite of democracy is called emunas chochomim. A key facet of Judaism is that we listen to our Sages, since they are able to interpret Hashem’s word and guide us based on what the Torah says. Only a TalmidChochom can make such crucial decisions. It istheir holiness, purity, and vast knowledge, all of which comes from their Torah learning, coupled with their middos, that gives them this authority. There are no shortcuts. Talmidei Chochomim, therefore, have the ability to see matters with proper perspective, taking all factors into account, rather than being blinded by one factor and then making a decision.

 Who knows whether it has ever been harder to serve Hashem. In times gone by, there was a system of hierarchy, and people knew their place and their limitations. People could even accept other people telling them that they weren’t perfect, and could listen to words of truth without running away from them. People understood that without decades of Torah study, they weren’t qualified to offer their opinion. Nowadays, democracy has taught us that all opinions are equal, a banker is considered by himself the same as a gadol, and it is therefore much harder to bend the knee, whether to Talmidei Chochomim, or to the will of Hashem. And finally to return to our chief rabbi election, in an ideal world, the choice of the Gedolim is what counts. Asking a mixed group of politicans and Rabbis, and women to vote is no sure sign that the candidate who is most suited will actually win.

Aaron Yechezkel is an avreich in a Jerusalem kollel

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN.


8 Responses

  1. Your whole premise is flawed. Aseh lecha rav means you pick a rav. How is that not democratic? If your wife hates your choice of rav (for whatever reason) and wants the family rav to be the other neighborhood rav, you would not listen to her?

  2. Torah Judaism is decidedly not democratic and does not support a democracy.

    The position of Chief Rabbi of Israel does not hold much water with Torah Judaism. The ONLY reason our communities field a candidate for that position (and the candidate is generally not one of the leading rabbis but rather a emissary and agent of them) is do minimize the damage the holder of the position of CR can inflict with his legal powers over religion.

  3. “The preferred choice of the Gedolim” won. Did the Gedolim prefer that the process demonstrate before the whole world that the election of a Rav is conducted by back-room dealing and horsetrading?

  4. There are a number of fundamental flaws in this article, but perhaps none bigger than the conclusion reached from how the Sanhedrin debated and ruled on a case. The author states that views were expressed from the least knowledgable member to the most knowledgable “so that no one would be seen to be contradicting the opinion of the greatest of them”. This is NOT the reason; the reason given is so that each member would feel comfortable in stating his opinion, and not feel compelled to agree with the opinion of one who is greater than him – essentially the _opposite_ of what the author is saying! The system was designed to allow all to have their say, rather than have a single individual’s view – however great such individual – dominate. Finally, when the vote in the Sanhedrin was taken, each individual’s vote had the same value, and in Dinei Nefashos, it was absolutely necessary for at least one individual to disagree with the “greatest” member – else, the one charged would go free.

    So, we see that Chazal expected and desired a system where multiple learned opinions would be heard – in contrast to the current desire in the Chareidi world for all to follow the so-called “Manhig HaDor”. Yes, once the Sanhedrin ruled, it was binding on all of Klal Yisrael, but it had to be the Sanhedrin acting as a group, and not a single “Manhig”, however great he may be.

    This is but one of the logical flaws in the arguement presented. There are a number of others – which I may address in further posts.

    an Israeli Yid

  5. The whole premise of this editorial is built upon a false foundation. There is no such thing as ’emunas chachomim” as interpreted by this writer. Nowhere in tenach or Shas do we find that there is an obligation to follow chachomim in matters that are NOT in the halachic sphere. We are obligated to follow the Psak in halachich matters but not in “milei d’alma”. One can choose a Rav, follow him, consult him and take his advice to follow but it cannot obligate anyone else in klal Yisroel. Which candidate to choose as Chief Rabbi is not in the purview of anyone. One can follow the advice of any godol one may choose, but it obligates no one.

  6. There are lots of problems with this article, but I will discuss only one: Choosing a chief rabbi for a state of 7 million Jews, or a nation of 14,000,000, by having 150 people (or 140, if Jewish women are not really people) is not democracy. So when the author argues that choosing a rabbi by a democratic process is wrong, he’s right … but also totally irrelevant. Hashem chose Moshe Rabbeinu, and since Moshe’s death, Hashem has not unequivocally named any successors, so we are left to interpret His word and do our best. I am happy to wait for Hashem to designate a successor to Moshe Rabbeinu, but in the meantime, I will have to use my best judgment and the judgment of the rabbis I think are on the right track.

  7. The so called “gadolim” so frequently invoked in these postings are not always the most well-informed on matters of contemporary technology or public policy yet don’t shy away from offering their psaks and tshuvahs anyway. The job of “chief-rabbi” is as much a political patronage job as one of offering a psak-din on religious matters related to brissin, kedushim, gittim and other domestic and family matters regulated by the state.

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