Nitzavim and Extending the Franchise

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 25 September 2022

At the time of the 1831 general election, out of 406 elected members of the House of Commons, 152 were chosen by fewer than 100 voters each, and 88 by fewer than 50 voters. Many constituencies were known as ‘rotten boroughs’ or ‘pocket boroughs’, in which a very small number of voters controlled both the nomination and voting process. In some places, an individual powerful family would nominate and vote for their candidate. There was no secret ballot, voting being done merely by a show of hands, meaning that powerful individuals and powerful families could coerce others into voting with them.

Change came, but slowly. The Great Reform Act of 1832 abolished most of the rotten boroughs.

But the Great Reform Act also limited the franchise in other ways. The act was the first legislation to define a UK voter as male. It took another 96 years– and several women dying in protest – for women to be given the vote on equal terms with men.

This kind of limiting was not unique to the UK. In 1792, the US Constitution had enshrined racial inequality by counting black slaves as only 3 fifths of a person. In that case it took a civil war to see every counted equally before the law – and another century and a half of sometimes violent conflict to bring equality into reality – and as we know that struggle is still ongoing.

It is worth saying that from its very founding, the State of Israel extended suffrage to all citizens over the age of 18 regardless of gender – despite the objections of the ultra-orthodox community, whose objections originated from before the foundation of the state, when women obtained the right to vote in municiple elections in the 1920s.

Electoral reform and the fight for civil rights has been – and continues to be – an ongoing process and an ongoing struggle. Ensuring that everyone who lives in our society has a say in our society, while sounding like a no-brainer, is far from a given.

And today our democracies seem stuck. Fewer and fewer eligible people come out to vote. In Alyth’s ward of Golders Green, in the most recent council elections, of a registered 8621 voters, 3175 turned up at the ballot box – that’s just 37%. And our options seem increasingly narrow and increasingly extreme, reflecting a society more divided than ever.

Which is what makes our Torah portion this morning all so radical. As Tom read:

‘You stand this day, all of you, before your God יהוה —your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of your God יהוה, which your God יהוה is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions’ (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)

All of those who Moses says are standing there with him are those with whom the covenant is cut – and this applies to all parts of society and all classes.

Now, this is not to say that ancient Israelite society was one either of total equality, or in which everyone had an equal say in how it should be run.

But the list that Moses gives us can be for us a model of inclusivity – a demand that men, women, children, those of the highest class and those of the lowest, native and non-native citizens, are able to stand up and be counted.

In the past, when electoral reform has happened, and the right to vote was extended to new swathes of the population who were previously unenfranchised, it was because the current system was stuck, as perhaps it is now. The reform acts of 1832, 1867, 1885, 1919 and 1928 – none of them were undertaken simply because they were the right thing to do. They were all passed within a particular historical and political context, and there were always those who expressed scepticism. Why extend the vote to those who did not own property – what interest did they have in what was happening in Westminster? Why give women the vote, since they were only ever going to vote according to their husbands’ wishes?

Following this logic, one of my favourite contemporary political commentators, Professor David Runciman of Cambridge University, argues that a next possible step to unsticking our democracy and to get it moving again, is to extend the vote.

But where is it to be extended, now that (at least in theory) all races, classes and genders have been enfranchised.

Well I suppose there are our pets …

But, the answer is in our Torah Portion (although it is not the source cited by Professor Runciman).

Tap’chem – your children.

Let’s give the vote to children. Let’s begin to include them in our state decision-making processes.

Whenever Professor Runciman makes this claim, people laugh. He says, ok let’s set a limit – only kids who are of school age. He also points out that he is not suggesting that children be allowed to be elected themselves – he’s doesn’t want to see a 9 year old representing us in parliament, or a 13 year old giving press conferences outside Downing Street. But, he says, let’s see what would happen if 6-18-year-olds were involved in the electoral process.

He points out that the objections he hears for the inclusion of children are almost identical to those that were used to exclude the working class, non-white people, and women – they don’t have a stake in society, they will only vote with their parents, they are not mature enough to make such big decisions.

Logic and experience rebut each of these claims. Firstly, if anything children have the most at stake – the most future to see burned in front of them if the wrong decisions are made, and we have some real burners hanging over us – as Tom has pointed out today, climate change but also the re-emerging threat of nuclear war. Should our youngsters not be able to help to choose politicians who are committed to solving some of these crises?

Secondly, on the point that children will only ever vote with their parents – excuse me, but as a parent of only eight weeks, already I am convinced that my daughter disagrees with me on most things except for the need for cuddles. With a secret ballot, unlike in the rotten boroughs of 1831, children would (or should) feel no fear that their parents would coerce them to vote one way or another.

And finally, on the argument that children lack the maturity to make these decisions, I only need to point you to the young people who stand up at this desk week in and week out to teach us about the Torah. Not just Tom and Lara, but all those who at the age of just 13 stand here and tell us what they think about what they have read and what they have experienced. With a confidence and a maturity which many lack – and yet we give them the vote simply because they were born more than 18 years ago.

What would be the point of this change? What does Professor Runciman want to achieve by doing this? Nothing, he says, except to see if it will unstick democracy, if it will help to get us out of some of the quagmires we are currently struggling in as a society. Things may shift left, he says, but they may shift right – we have no way of knowing unless we try it. As Lord Derby said in 1866 of the law proposed then, which opened the vote to whole swathes of the working classes – such a move is a ‘leap in the dark’.

And this is not just because the political consequences are unpredictable – it is because each new generation has thoughts and concerns that are in a sense inaccessible to us adults.

In his poem, ‘On Children’, Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

     You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

We cannot know what lies in wait for us as the next generation come into maturity, and we although we may perceive some of the effects of what will be decided twenty, thirty, fifty years down the line, we will not understand why or where it comes from. Maybe historians will try.

And that is why children are front and centre of our thinking when we come to plan synagogue life. Without them there is not only no future, but they push us to change the way we think about things. Their very existence forces us to at least try to do things differently, even if sometimes we do not succeed.

As a community, we are responsible for the Jewish experience of one in every six Reform Jews in this country – a responsibility as serious as any we hold.

In a recent proposal to change to the Movement for Reform Judaism constitution, it was proposed to allocate votes to communities on the basis only of adult members of different synagogues. This ignored the fact that over 700 of our members here at Alyth are under the age of 18 – how can they be left out? If our communities are to grow and flourish and be the inclusive communities that we strive for, they must be counted in full, not simply as appendages to their parents or guardians.

And a couple of weeks ago, I spoke from this desk about survival – it is also a question of survival for our communities and for our movement to empower our young people in leading their Jewish lives.

So, when we say Atem Nitzavim hayom – not just today but again for our second Torah reading on Monday morning for Rosh Hashanah – let us take it to heart. It is not just a nice turn of phrase. As always, our Torah is challenging us to think differently – to be aware of the possibilities – in this case of the inclusion of those we might otherwise have dismissed.