Voting, Jewish Governments and the Mirror of Truth

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 23, 2020 / 5 Cheshvan 5781

Summary: As the election looms, I thought it would be interesting to bring forth what the Torah and later Jewish tradition have to say about voting, and how we can have compassion for those who vote differently. When we step outside of our own time and its assumptions, we can often learn why we believe what we do. History allows us to uncover our invisible biases.

I hope that you have already voted, or intend to do so. A democracy in which a supermajority of citizens do not vote is unworthy of the name. Moreover, low voter turnout actually undermines trust in the democratic system itself. Please vote.


Voting, Jewish Governments and the Mirror of Truth

The Early Biblical Record

A careful reader of the Torah, and indeed all of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), might notice that voting doesn’t much figure in the earliest strata of our sacred writings. In the rare cases where the popular will is depicted, such as in the rebellion of Korach, it doesn’t end well. If you recall, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his entire party of political dissenters. That’s a pretty good disincentive to make your opinions known. It’s also a pretty dramatic example of early and effective voter suppression.

There are numerous reasons why the Bible isn’t much concerned with voting. The simplest historical explanation would be that it was a form of government not yet created. Such an answer, however, doesn’t explain why it was not invented—they knew how to take a census, so it was not technically beyond them to count votes—nor does it address whether it was needed. Let’s turn to those questions and see where they lead us.

For the faithful, one can posit that there was no need for voting. When Divine Will is communicated directly to you either by God or Moses, human will and decision-making seem rather inadequate. From this perspective, the point of voting isn’t to choose who we like or to enact policies that are popular—it is to understand God’s will, which, by definition, can provide far better guidance on how to build an ideal society than our more limited human intelligence could manage.

Prophets, Judges and Kings

Access to this heightened wisdom doesn’t end with Moshe’s demise; it passes to Joshua, and to the entire class of prophets. The later prophets, though, didn’t have the same direct access to God’s mind. The Talmud states that Moses could perceive God’s will through an “illuminated lens (asplakaria me’ira), while later prophets were limited to an occluded, hazy lens, or even restricted to the still more garbled transmission of dreams (cf. Sanhedrin 97b). Nonetheless, such vision was still considered to have greater clarity than the unaided human mind.

Another important reason why voting doesn’t figure in the early days of our people hinges upon conceptions of identity. Our ancestors enjoyed something known as corporate identity, which has nothing to do with Fortune 500 companies. Rather, the “locus” of identity didn’t reside within a single person, but within the group. Particularly during our tribal days (a more advanced form of government than when we were a horde of unorganized slaves), one’s meaning and purpose was subsumed within those narrow communal structures. When the Bible speaks of the age of Judges, it actually is referring to tribal heads. In such a system, everyone had a role and a place given to them; they didn’t need to invest energy determining “who they were” nor did they suffer from the anxiety that such identity-creation creates. In tribal days, everyone was part of a family—for all the good and bad that may entail. So voting was unnecessary.

As Jews looked about the near East, they discovered that other nations had developed monarchies. Despite the prophet Samuel’s protestations that elevating a king would separate us from our connection to divine rule and wisdom, the people were undeterred. There is a paradox in this. On the one hand, the Bible is conveying to us how popular sentiment steered us to a new form of government. On the other hand, a monarch is basically a tribal head scaled up for the demands of a more complex society with a greater number of citizens. Monarchies don’t need to consider the voice of the people, because they have a divine mandate. When we look at the Jewish monarchies, we actually see a hybrid form of government, as tribal leaders remained in place or eventually affiliated into northern and southern kingdoms.

Regardless, a king was the political exemplar of divine will, being chosen directly or indirectly by God. That is the meaning of Samuel’s involvement in choosing Saul as our first king and later anointing and appointing King David. Thus, there could still be minimal validity to any sort of popular vote.

The Rise of Jewish Proto-Democracy

It is really with the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) that we begin to see an early proto-democratic and meritocratic impulse take hold of Judaism. We need to remember that the Temple was the last vestige of direct, communal encounter with God. The High Priests, by entering into the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies, stood in God’s direct, physical presence, the very place where God could enter the human realm. When that system of religious and social organization failed, access to divine wisdom and God’s will for us shifted to Yavneh.

Yavneh was the town which gave us Rabbinic Judaism, to which all modern Jews are heirs. Rabbinic Judaism didn’t care about blood lines. It didn’t care about prophecy—in fact, our ancient Sages formally declared that the age of prophecy was over, and that henceforth, only children and fools would be touched by the prophetic voice. Leadership, power and communal decisions were now open to any man who had academic capability to learn Jewish law. Half the population suddenly had, if not a voice, the opportunity to have a voice. It didn’t matter what your background was or whether your family was rich. Indeed, one of the most notable and colorful Talmudic scholars, Resh Lakish, was formerly a highway brigand and a gladiator.

Out of this new meritocracy, new forms of courts were created and decisions were made by popular vote. Moreover, this form of self-rule would develop into the legal works of Mishnah, the Talmud and the later responsa literature (known as Questions and Answers or Shaylot v’teshuvot). Highly remarkable about these works was how minority opinions that “lost the election” were preserved on the record. If you want to understand where the Jewish love of questions comes from, and our cultural willingness to entertain a wide variety of ideas, this is the source.

Unfortunately, the rise of this more inclusive form of self-rule coincided with the loss of Jewish political autonomy, a state of powerlessness that would remain in place until the birth of Israel and the return en masse, to our ancient homeland. When we re-entered history as active participants, both our legacy of rabbinic inclusion and our exposure to democratic societies ensured that Israel would become a democratic nation. The Ashkenazic Jews who formulated modern Zionism lived in Europe, where the locus of identity centered on the individual. The challenge with individuality, however, is that people increasingly have felt isolated, anxious and deeply insecure.

The Modern Era, What is Riding on the Election and a Useful Jewish Concept

There’s an important article in the October 5th Atlantic by David Brooks. It’s entitled “America is Having a Moral Convulsion,” and it should be mandatory reading. Brooks carefully tracks the loss of trust in America that has been building for decades. He underscores how we have lost faith in our institutions, liberalism, civility and rational thought. We are living through an “age of precarity.” He states that “the culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat. This new culture values security over liberation, equality over freedom, the collective over the individual.”

To phrase this strongly, we are seeing a return to many of those older forms of government that our people passed through. Just as our ancestors turned from Moshe’s unified leadership to a more splintered tribalism, our sense of being at threat has given rise to a new tribalism; new corporate identities (the rise of identity politics) are replacing the standing of the “sovereign self.” In order to belong, you must accept the world view of that tribe. When you do so, it becomes increasingly difficult to see, let alone understand, the worldview of those from another tribe.

So much hinges on this upcoming election. You probably already have decided what it means politically for the nation. What is clear is that we will remain deeply divided regardless of the outcome. Our longer-term job as a nation is to figure out how to rebuild trust. That won’t be easy or quick. Although it is out of favor, I want to offer a Jewish answer that may be helpful for weathering this period of national reconstruction by returning to the metaphor of an asplakaria me’ira, an illuminated lens and one that is not illuminated.

While Maimonides understood the aspaklaria to be a lens you look through, we don’t really know how to translate this unusual word. So it is that a 15th century Italian rabbi, Ovadia Bartenura, proposed that it is actually a mirror. We can only see God and the Divine Will as we find it in our own reflection. As a drash, this is beautiful. By peering deeply into our own authenticity, we find God.

There’s a more profound meaning that comes out of this conception and that addresses a pivotal problem for America.

In a divided nation, it is too easy to imagine that those on the opposite side are evil. It is very difficult to understand their world view. How can we have trust in others when we imagine that they are evil? When we don’t see what they see? Moreover, how can we trust them without giving up our own commitments, and the image of God shining back at us from our own mirror?

Bartenura’s interpretation can help. On the simplest, most universal and charitable level, we can acknowledge that we are all seeing a different reflection of God. We can entertain that none of us have an illuminated aspaklaria, and therefore we are all stuck with an incomplete picture.

I am also a realist, and know that for some people, this cedes too much. Some of us don’t want to admit that we could be just as limited as our opponents. Too much of our identity is on the line. Here too, Bartenura and the Talmud can be useful. It is possible to imagine that your mirror is illuminated while your political opponents see the world through a darkened mirror. That is, perhaps your conception of reality is more accurate. Nonetheless, once we view our national politics in this way, we can also have compassion for those with whom we disagree. And that may be the first step to rebuilding national trust.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What sort of government (not party but system) do you think would best serve America now? Why?
  2. Jewish history teaches us about the changing forms of government. Do you believe that the old American system is ending and that a new form is needed?
  3. How do you relate to this notion of an illuminated or darkened aspaklaria? Do you prefer Maimonides image of a lens or Bartenura’s image of a mirror? Why?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

Torah Sparks Commentary This Week