The letters section of The Jewish Press has recently had some letters about democracy in Judaism. Following a parashah essay by R. Shlomo Riskin about democracy (here) and a column by R. Berel Wein (here), a writer sent in a letter to the newspaper arguing that democracy is not, in fact, a Jewish concept (link):
Democracy is the best form of government for the nations of the world, who do not possess the Torah (Law) of Emet (Truth). But our Torah opposes Western democracy as the ultimate ideal government for Israel.While this quote from Rabbi Kahane is somewhat true, it is misapplied either by R. Kahane himself or by this letter-writer. The question is two-fold: 1) Is democracy a viable concept within Judaism? 2) If it is, can a democracy legitimately decide contrary to halakhah?
In his sefer Or Hara’ayon, Rabbi Meir Kahane writes the following concerning democracy and Judaism:
The nations and alien culture have crowned supreme the concept of "vox populi," decision-making by majority, come what may, and it is this which is called "Democracy." The Torah, by contrast, does not tolerate such foolishness. Abominable wickedness cannot possibly be rendered acceptable simply because a majority of fools, ignoramuses, or evildoers have declared it so. Bitter does not become sweet or darkness light, even if all the people say it is. One is not free to decide against the commandments of his Creator....
These issues have already been discussed at length by great scholars. R. Sol Roth, in his book Halakhah and Politics: The Jewish Idea of a State (ch. 11), raises two approaches to the idea of democracy in Judaism. The first, most famously advocated by R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Mishpat Kohen 144:15:1), is that when people democratically elect a government it is the same as if they appointed a king. The democratic government has the status of a sovereignty -- malkhus. The other is suggested by, among others, R. Shlomo Goren (Toras Ha-Medinah ch. 5). In this view, the democratically elected rulers serve the people as emissaries -- sheluchim.
Based on these two approaches, R. Roth answers a number of political questions. For example, may a government can pass a law that violates halakhah? One could suggest that according to R. Kook, that a government has the status of a malkhus, it is permitted to enact extraordinary measures that are contrary to halakhah. However, according to the view espoused by R. Goren, a democratic government has no more power than the individuals it represents, and may not. Yet, R. Roth suggests that even according to R. Goren's view, a government may pass extraordinary measures:
[I]t must be assumed that the community, as such, is endowed with extraordinary prerogatives not possessed by individuals. For if the result of agency is that the leaders are empowered to act contrary to law, that is, as sovereigns would, then certain powers must be vested in the people (which they can assign to leaders through agency) which individuals do not possess. Hence, in both perspectives, the community is perceived as endowed with extraordinary powers. Indeed, it may be regarded as the equivalent, in political power, of both prophet and Sanhedrin, who together, in ancient days, were vested with the prerogative of designating political leaders.Additionally, may elected representatives vote contrary to the view of their constituents? According to R. Goren, elected officials serve to represent their consituents and, therefore, must follow their wishes (although he goes into detail about various circumstances that yield different conclusions). However, according to R. Kook's general approach, this is not the case because elected representatives have power and not just the power of the people.
Finally, may women serve as elected representatives? R. Roth suggests that this boils down to the above two approaches. According to R. Kook's view, an elected official is part of a kingship and women may not serve in such a capacity. However, according to R. Goren's approach, elected officials are merely representatives and therefore perhaps a woman can also serve in the government since she can serve as an emissary.
In summary, while there is much more that can be written on this subject, the idea that democracy is contrary to Judaism is simply incorrect.
(see also this post)