It’s sometimes hard to value being in a democracy.
Suppose you live in a country that had an election and a referendum and the results didn’t come out the way you wanted. Or maybe the decision in the referendum came out the way you wanted, but not enough MPs were prepared to vote your preferred option through.
Suppose you living in a country where the democratically elected Parliament is stuck. And the democratically elected leaders of society were struggling to … lead.
It’s sometimes hard to value being in a democracy. The political theorist David Runciman coined the phrase, ‘dictator envy.’ It’s very easy to want to have a dictator who can simply get things done without all the messing around having to have a complicated constitution balance of powers.
I think it’s OK to be wary of the importance of living in democracy. After all, to be Jew has to mean not caring too much about being in the majority. I mean, I know there are more Christians than Jews, and more Muslims and Jews and more … well just about everything. But being a Jew means that doesn’t worry me too much. Actually being a Jew means I feel something else about the exercise of the power of the many. You say to me, ‘exercise of the power of the many’ and I start to get a little nervous. My mind’s eye flickers with images of mass-gatherings of fascists all chanting together and murdering my ancestors.
Rabbinic Judaism has a different way of thinking about how society should be run. To the mind of the Rabbis society should be run by wise, compassionate, caring and learned leaders who dedicate their life to leading their community. Yup, Rabbis thought that society should be run by … rabbis. But here’s the problem with this Greek idea of having wise, compassionate, caring and learned leaders running a society – it may well be that they are wise and compassionate when you appoint them, but give ‘em a couple of years in power and there’s a pretty good chance they will become corrupted and despotic and … well we’ve all seen that happen. It can even happen to rabbis. At least, and this is the remarkable thing, the Rabbis were smart enough to mistrust their own belief that rabbis should be in power.
One of the remarkable things about the great Rabbinic collection of law, the Talmud, is how often it records great Rabbinic leaders getting things wrong. There’s a story about the great Rabbinic leader Rabban Gamliel who used his position of power to embarrass Rabbi Yehoshua. He gets deposed. And that story gets carefully recorded and then passed down through almost two thousand years, so we don’t forget how easily power corrupts. The Talmud is much more interested in the control of power, and the prevention of the abuse of power than it is in ensuring that the majority get their way.
Just one other example; elsewhere in the Talmud again recorded 1500 years ago and faithfully handed down through the years is an extended debate on exactly what might count as a bribe, the sort of thing that should make a Rabbi recuse themselves from hearing a legal case. Abba Arika, we learn, refused to hear a case involving the innkeeper of an inn in which he stayed. Mar Shmuel refused to hear a case involving someone who once gave him a hand getting off a ship. The Talmud records Raba asking, "Why is it forbidden to take a bribe to free the innocent?" and he answers the question himself, "As soon as one accepts a bribe, he inclines to favour the donor and considers himself 'one with him'; and no one will find themselves guilty."
I want to suggest this as a way of thinking about democracies; democracies exist to control the reach of those with power, not to ensure that those in the majority get their way.
For me, to care about being part of a democracy means to care about the exercise of power. I want to live in a society where once every so many years you have a chance to vote and kick out people who haven’t delivered on their promises. I want to live in a society where there is a balance of power between the executive and the legislature and the judiciary. So no-one can over-reach, so despotism and fascism can be controlled. I care more about the rule of law than the rule of the majority – just because they are the majority.
And part of the reason I care about the control and the limitations that democracies place on the exercise of power is that I worry about the people who can get crushed underfoot if the powerful get their way just because they are a majority. As the Bible says time and time again, watch out for the orphan, the widow and the stranger – just because they don’t have power, you should not mistreat them. But it’s not just about my being soft-hearted. I care about control the power of the majority because I believe the contributions of the minority are vitally important in our society. I don’t hear enough people saying this. We need minorities in our society if we want to grow and discover.
If the most important thing in a society is being part of the majority, then everyone will tend towards one position. If the most important thing is being part of the majority everyone will wear the same clothes, read the same books, think the same ideas and we’ll stop growing. It takes people to be different to find out new things. It takes different opinions to learn. It takes outsiders to come up with ideas that insiders are never going to find. That, of course, has been the great contribution of the Jewish people to thousands of years of cultures across the world. Like Mordechai who sat at the gates of the city, we’ve specialised in seeing things not everyone else could see and doing things not everyone else could do. We’ve specialised in being different. And we’ve helped. Not that we’ve been the only people doing things differently everyone who has ever done things differently has helped, precisely by their being different.
Because the choice about the kind of society we want to live in comes down to a choice set out by the philosopher Theodore Zeldin in his book The Hidden Pleasures of Life, and it’s something I’ve spoken about before from this pulpit. Do we want to live in a fort or a port.
In a fort we build the tallest walls we can to keep out the outsiders who are a threat, and any breach of these walls is a threat we need to repulse. But in a port we need maximum movement across our borders to bring in what is new, and to send forth that which needs to be shared. And for those of us who want to live in port – and I certainly do – that means having to shoulder the frustrations of not being able to hide big thick walls. And for those of us who care about protecting and celebrating the different insights and different natures of all human beings, that means fighting hard for the values of a democracy, even one that occasionally gets things wrong, and always takes more time than a fascist.
Because the truth about those societies that are built like forts and led by fascists is that despite their surface appeal, those walls will come tumbling down causing more wreckage that anyone could imagine. Meanwhile the open, careful, flexible societies have a chance, just a chance mind you – of surviving and thriving.
Jeremiah’s prophecy was true;
Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. … And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.
Or as Rabbi Hananya the Deputy High Priest taught in our oldest Rabbinic collection of teachings, Pirkei Avot, ‘Pray for the welfare of the Kingdom, for were it not for the fear of it, a man would swallow his neighbour alive.’