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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Majority Rules (I)

Galilee Diary #565, February 22, 2012
Marc Rosenstein

Do not follow the many to do wrong...
[Some translate: Do not follow the mighty to do wrong]
-Exodus 23:2

In the halachah, traditional Jewish law, there are various systems for anchoring current rulings, via a chain of tradition, in the Torah, considered to be the original, most authentic revelation of God's will.  In many cases what this means is that a decision that is reached because of societal needs or common sense morality must be found a source in the Torah, even if exegetical contortions are necessary to make the connection.  A classic example of such contortion is the basing of the principal of majority rule in the above verse from Exodus.  All that is required is to totally eviscerate the verse and use words in direct contradiction to their plain meaning: If we drop the first two words and the last three words (in English), the verse "Do not follow the many to do wrong" becomes "Follow the many."  It could be said that it is just because of such traditional verbal shenanigans that Reform Judaism exists.  In any case, when it became clear to the rabbis that decision-making by majority vote had significant moral weight, they had to find a home for it in the Torah.

It seems, therefore, that the concept of majority rule has become sacred to both religious and secular people.  However, it occurs to me that much of the strident public dissonance in Israeltoday arises from a perversion of this sacred concept.  Already in the Talmud, in the famous argument over Achnai's oven (Tractate Baba Metziah 59), the authority of majority rule is confirmed – but at the same time, the requirement of sensitivity to the feelings and the needs and the dignity of the minority is strongly asserted.  Majority rule is a practical method of arriving at a decision when there is a disagreement over policy.  But there is a fine line between this application and the trampling of the rights of a minority (ideological, ethnic, religious, etc.) by a majority.  There is a point at which this elegant decision-making method becomes a crude power struggle.  That's why societies and organizations that sanctify majority rule also create constitutions to keep it under control.

What is troubling here in Israel is an assumption, stated or not, that majorities get to do what they want, period.  That's why we are constantly being warned about what will happen if the population balance tips to 51% Arab.  That's why the Orthodox (and other) minorities resort to what appear to be cynical manipulations of coalition politics to preserve what they see as their basic rights.  We have become accustomed to assuming that the majority has unrestricted power unless the minority uses force to protect itself.  And so the innocent system of majority rule becomes, in fact, a game of force; in the words of the Israeli army proverb "if force doesn't work, try more force" (referring to mechanical tasks like loosening a tire nut, but obviously a metaphor with broader connotations).

If the norm is that he who pushes hardest gets on the bus first, and she who shouts loudest wins the argument (watch the Knesset channel), and that the religious policies of a community will be decided by the preferences of the majority – leaving the weaker or more polite passengers on the street, the calmer voices unheard, and the minority excluded and resentful – then we shouldn't be surprised when there is pushback, and when the chaos of pushing and shouting results in none of us getting anywhere.

Actually, perhaps there is significance that the word "rabim" in Exodus 23:2 (above) can be understood as both "the many" and "the mighty."  Perhaps, after all, they are one and the same – the many are the mighty – and the warning stated in the full verse is the important message for us.

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