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August 30, 2015 | 15th Elul 5775

Democracy in action?

Galilee Diary #404, August 24, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


You shall not side with the multitude to do wrong…
-Exodus 23:2

Side with multitude…
-Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metziah 59b

The Torah exhorts us to be independent in judgment and not be swayed by the numbers or power or wealth of those whose opinion we believe to be wrong. But in the famous argument over the "Achnai's oven" in the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer, who is a minority of one against all the other rabbis, performs a series of miracles to prove that God supports his view. The rabbis, however, argue that we learn in the Torah, from the same verse, that "majority rules," and his position is rejected. Now of course this is a blatant case of taking the verse out of context, simply quoting it without the "not" and thus reversing its plain meaning from "Don't follow a majority" to "Follow the majority." This actually highlights an interesting democratic dilemma.

Several months ago, some members of a non-religious Jewish community in our county approached the county executive to ask that he request funding from the ministry of religion for the construction of a mikveh (a ritual bath). Apparently some families had decided to start keeping the laws of menstrual purification and wanted the convenience of a mikveh nearby. This being the Jewish State, such needs don't require a fund drive or an assessment – they are funded out of the national budget. The county executive, who has no leanings toward or connections with Orthodoxy, did his job and a budget was granted by the ministry. The county bureaucracy began the process of finding an appropriately zoned lot, and getting bids from architects and contractors.

And then the chairman of the executive committee of the community called the county executive to say that there was a problem, as it turns out that most of the residents of the community are opposed to the construction of a mikveh. Indeed, a general assembly was held which drew a record turnout, and the vote was 200-100 against the construction of a mikveh. The majority's arguments are that the community had never discussed or agreed upon the request, and that the presence of a mikveh might undermine the community's secular identity and attract Orthodox people to build or buy homes, thus changing the culture of the place. The county executive, on the other hand, argues that the authorization of the community is not needed for the county to provide a [free] government service to individuals who want it. At the same time, the county has no interest in an action which would be disruptive and divisive for the particular community. At this point attempts are being made to reach some kind of peaceful resolution before the budget expires.

This case represents a common occurrence in the "wars of religion" here, wherein whoever has the majority takes it for granted that they can enforce their cultural norms – and do what it takes to keep control. So as this community wants to prevent encroachment by the Orthodox, so there are many sad stories about ultra-Orthodox families buying homes in a particular neighborhood until they reach "critical mass," and then demanding public observance like closing off streets on Shabbat. And needless to say this type of conflict and the fears it generates are just a local version of the national struggle between Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel – who will have a majority in what territory and how they will enforce their will on the minority, and how they will achieve/maintain their majority.

In the Talmudic story of Achnai's oven, while the majority opinion prevails, those rabbis who humiliated Rabbi Eliezer are punished in the end. It seems that democracy is supposed to be not just about majority power, but about respecting the needs and sensitivities of the minority.

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