2024: A Year of Elections

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 7 January 2024

There has been much speculation in the news this week about the timing of the 2024 UK General Election – an election we know is coming, we know it has to happen by law, it’s just a question of when in the next 12 months. And some may think they already know the outcome – but of course time will tell. In a quotation attributed to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson (though it’s probably older than him): ‘A week is a long time in politics.’

This will be the sixth UK general election in which I will be eligible to vote – for some here, it might be their first, and others may have seen many more governments come in and out of power – I’m thinking of those famous scenes of old Prime Ministers leaving Downing Street and new ones arriving. There are yet others here today who will have to wait a few more years before they get the chance to take part in the electoral process.

Of course there will also be an incredibly significant Presidential election happening across the Pond – without the same speculation as to the date – we at least know that will happen in November.

And it seems almost inevitable that, as and when the military situation in Israel becomes less fraught, there will be yet more elections there.

In the portion that Sophie chanted so beautifully for us this morning, we read of Moses being appointed as the leader of the Israelites.

In the section before the bit that Sophie read for us this morning, God tells Moses:

הִנֵּ֛ה צַעֲקַ֥ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בָּ֣אָה אֵלָ֑י וְגַם־רָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת־הַלַּ֔חַץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם לֹחֲצִ֥ים אֹתָֽם׃ וְעַתָּ֣ה לְכָ֔ה וְאֶֽשְׁלָחֲךָ֖ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהוֹצֵ֛א אֶת־עַמִּ֥י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

‘Behold, the cry of the Children of Israel has come to my attention, and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you will bring My people, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt’ (Exodus 3:9-10).

God has heard the cry of the oppressed people and is responding to their need, by appointing for them a leader who will bring them out of Egypt.

Moses is divinely appointed as the leader of the Israelites, without any consultation with the people themselves. They never have the chance to appoint him as their leader. Moses is an outsider – someone who grew up with all the privileges of the Egyptians – the oppressors of the Israelites.

And this is what Moses is protesting to God in this portion – the people will surely reject me! They will not listen to me or believe me! He says.

So we could read Moses’ objection as a democratic one – he is worried that his appointment will not have the consent of the people.

This was a concern of the English poet and politician, John Milton, who as well as being the author of the famous poem Paradise Lost, was a revolutionary figure in the English Civil Wars, and even a minister in the revolutionary government that replaced King Charles I after he was beheaded in 1649.

One of the classic objections to the republican arguments about the need for a more democratic approach to politics came from the religious conviction that monarchs were divinely appointed, and royalists were always quick to point to Moses as their prime example.

The Bible was so central to politics in Seventeenth Century England, that in order to take part in political debate, you often also had to be some kind of biblical interpreter as well.

Therefore, in his work, A Defence of the People of England, Milton expends a huge number of words laying out his argument to show that Moses was not a tyrant – Moses was a servant of the people, subservient to them and not them to him.

He says: ‘[Moses] did not rule proudly over the people, but himself bore the burden of the people; and carried the people in his bosom, as a nursing father does a sucking infant. A nursing father is a slave.’ In other words – Moses was a slave to the people of Israel, constantly working for their welfare, never out for his own gain or his own glory.

Milton’s implication was, that if Moses had ever departed from this cause of the people – of the common good – they would have been within their rights to remove him as their leader and choose someone else. This is kind of what the people of England had just done – got rid of a ruler who they saw as having violated his obligations of looking after the general good. But they were never able to exercise the second stage of that freedom – of being able to choose their new ruler, through some kind of election or contest. Instead there were a series of military impositions that sustained successive governments for 11 years until the monarchy was finally restored with the king’s son on the throne in 1660.

So, according to Milton, and it seems according to our biblical text, Moses ruled for the good of the people. And yet, the idea that Moses might have been elected by the people he ruled over is never really suggested.

The fact that we have a say in who governs us is, in some ways, remarkable. We as a collective have a power that the bible gives only to God, to choose those who will have the power over our lives, and in more extreme cases, over our deaths (and not even in such extreme cases, as it seems likely that it will be the next Parliament that will be faced with the question of whether or not to legalise Assisted Dying).

Modern democracy does not place the power of God into any one individual, but gives us each a sliver of that divine power. And with power comes responsibility. Who do we choose? What criteria do we use to select the people or the party we think are most appropriate, most skilled, least likely to abuse their power?

Obviously, it is not our job as religious leaders to tell you who to vote for. But I do feel safe in saying that it is important that we should vote – that we should excise this democratic and divine right, in gratitude that we find ourselves in this relatively short period of history in which the political system is such that we have a vote over who will form the next government (or at least those of us who are citizens and over the age of 18 – I have spoken before about the very sensible idea of giving votes to children, but that was the subject of a previous sermon and I won’t go into all that again!).

Perhaps it is also within our job descriptions to give some guidance as to how to choose – what are the principles that should undergird the power and responsibility of the decision that is before us.

At the end of the fifth century BCE, the Athenian philosopher, Plato, wrote his most famous work – possibly the most famous work of Western philosophy: The Republic. In The Republic, Plato’s teacher Socrates, lays out his argument for the rule of Philosopher Kings – he makes the case that those who put themselves forward as leaders (those who seek political power) are precisely the wrong people to be given that power.

Instead, Socrates envisages a world in which rulers are taught philosophy from a young age, kept in some ways away from the real world of politics, so that when they are finally appointed, they are not tainted by it, and are able to be clear-minded in their rule of the people according to reason rather than passion.

Socrates says, ‘There is no end to suffering … for our cities, and none, I suspect, for the human race, unless either philosophers become kings in our cities, or the people who are now kings and rulers become real true philosophers – unless there is an amalgamation of political power and philosophy, with all those people whose inclination is to pursue one or other exclusively being forcibly prevented from doing so’ (Plato, The Republic, trans. Tom Griffith, 473d).

So, those who rule over us should have their eyes not on immediate desires and passions, but on the long-term good of the state and its inhabitants.

I have so far only quoted Christian and Greek philosophy, so here is some Jewish to throw into the mix. Our Jewish texts at no point lay out a comprehensive political philosophy, but they did give us aphorisms – short statements, that try to give us a sense of the principles by which political life might work.

In Mishnah Avot, the ‘Sayings of the Sages’, written a few hundred years after Plato’s Republic, we read something similar from Rabbi Ishmael, son of Rabbi Jose, who says: ‘The one who shuns judicial office rids themselves of hatred, robbery, and perjury, but one who thrusts themselves forward to judge is foolish, wicked, and arrogant’ (Mishnah Avot 4:7).

Both Rabbi Ishmael and Socrates could be understood as articulating the same principle – that those who seek power – who thrust themselves forward for power – are ‘foolish, wicked, and arrogant’, and therefore are the source of all kinds of degradation in politics.

In this respect, Moses is the perfect candidate for the job. Throughout this week’s portion, he resists the power and position that God is giving him. He has to be persuaded that he is the right person to lead the Israelites forward.

The theory of Philosopher Kings articulated by Socrates in The Republic has never been put into practice. After the reign of Moses, the ruling of the Israelites begins to fall to less and less qualified individuals – people who thrust themselves forward, who abuse the people, who depart from the Torah they have inherited from Moses.

And today we continue to live with that legacy of a politics that does not play itself out according to the Torah or according to the dictates of philosophy and reason. We have to often choose between two or more less-than-ideal options. This makes the principles by which we decide how to vote even more important, not less.

As we enter into this year of elections, let us be mindful of our responsibility. Let us wonder at the fact that we have this responsibility at all. Let us treat it with the reverence and respect it deserves. Let us be engaged with the process in a way that pays attention not to ego and ambition, but to the good of everyone. Let us remember that the responsibility that comes with our vote is not just for ourselves, but for each other. Let us hope and pray, that if everyone treats their responsibility in this way, that whether it is in the UK, the US or in Israel, wherever we are in the world, we might get the governments we truly deserve.