Korah: G-d vetoed democracy. If necessary, so should Israel.

Which form of government is best? 

Although most of us would likely immediately answer “Democratic,” the better response would be to first ask several clarifying questions. Best for whom?  Best for what purpose?  Under which circumstances?  When? Where?  Why is the question even being asked … and by whom?

This week’s Torah portion, Korah, tells the story of the Israelites’ most severe rebellious challenge to Moses’s G-d-directed, decidedly undemocratic leadership.  We do not know how widespread Korah’s support was among the Israelites, but it was clearly substantial.  He was backed by “two hundred and fifty men ... princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown.”  (Numbers 16:2).  They must have represented large numbers of people.  

Furthermore, whatever his personal motivations in seeking power, Korah’s campaign was expressed in populist terms.  All the people were holy, he said, not just Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  And he accused Moses of failed leadership, having failed to bring the people to the promised land flowing with milk and honey, or to give them an inheritance of fields and vineyards.  (16:3). 

We can assume that many, and perhaps even a majority, were ready for a change, and would have “voted” for the Korah party had they had a “secret ballot” (rather than having to risk their lives by "voting with their feet" to publicly show their support for the rebels).  

But this was no democracy, not even a representative one.  The only vote that mattered was G-d’s.  G-d “voted” by opening up the earth to swallow the rebels alive.  Obviously, G-d did not think that democracy was the best form of government for the “Jews” of that era. 

And no wonder!  G-d had seen the mob berate their would-be liberator in Egypt, repeatedly complain after being freed, and then turn to idolatry at Sinai.  Even after the Korah rebellion, the people would continue to prove themselves unworthy when the majority of spies defamed Canaan, when the majority insisted on prematurely seeking to conquer Canaan, and most of the time after actually settling in the Promised Land.    

Judaism has remained skeptical of majority rule.  Exodus 23:2 cautions, "Do not side with the many to do wrong." Jewish leadership has never afforded a majority of the “Am Haaretz” (ordinary people) a free hand in deciding their own fate. Even more so, it never conceived of letting the majority of non-Jewish residents decide Israel’s fate; the opposite was true; Israel was commanded to dispossess and even annihilate its avowed enemies. 

Today, we often hear from the Jewish left in Israel, and from non-Jewish friends of Israel everywhere, that Israel faces an “existential threat” due to inexorable population trends.  By this they mean that Israel cannot remain “both Jewish and democratic” for much longer, because its Palestinian population (they usually include both the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and Gaza) will soon exceed the number of Jews.  Their assumption is that such a situation would be intolerable because, to remain both true to its purpose and politically legitimate, Israel must remain both Jewish and Democratic. 

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that this assumption may need reconsidering.  America’s founders were also skeptical of the majority.  The Constitution they crafted is arguably an anti-democratic document because it restricts the majority’s ability to effect its political will.  This is demonstrated by the fact that five unelected members of the Supreme Court can invalidate a law unanimously passed by the people’s duly elected representatives.

The American founders determined that, as important as democracy is, it is not the nation’s paramount value.  That is the same conclusion reached by the Jewish people’s founder – whether you believe that to have been G-d or some collection of leaders/sages – in giving us the Torah and Israel.   And that is the same conclusion that we must reach, if we must ever decide between “Jewish” and “democratic.” 

The phrase: “The Constitution is not a suicide pact” has entered our political lexicon in defense of restrictions on civil rights.  Actually, the phrase has been used by the Supreme Court in defense of civil rights after first acknowledging that there are indeed limits to these rights.   [See: http://supreme.findlaw.com/legal-commentary/the-clich-that-the-constitution-is-not-a-suicide-pact.html]

Neither are the Torah, nor Israel’s Declaration of Independence, suicide pacts.

What is Israel’s most important priority?  It is to survive as the Jewish state.  This week’s parashah reminds us that the appropriate response to the contention that “Israel cannot remain ‘both Jewish and democratic’” may have to be “then, painful and illiberal as it may be, Israel will have to become undemocratic.”  It would be far from the first time in our history that a non-democratic government was necessary to ensure Jewish survival.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.   

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb