Sermon – Judaism and Democracy

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 March 2011

We have come to the end of the book of Exodus, and with it to the end of five parashiyot hashavua, five weeks of Torah readings, dealing with the creation of the tabernacle in the wilderness.  Central to this section of Torah is the figure of Bezalel – singled out by God to lead the work of building.  This week’s sidra, Pekudei, just before the section Adi chanted so beautifully for us, tells us “Now Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, made everything that the Eternal commanded Moses”.

Apart from his lineage, and the skills with which he was endowed by God, we know remarkably little about the figure of Bezalel – surprising as his role was to be so significant.  But as ever with such a gap in the Torah, the rabbis filled it – with stories and explanations.

Among the stories the rabbis wrote is one that gives us an unusual insight into the rabbinic view of civil society.  The Babylonian Talmud recounts that God singled out Bezalel, but then approached Moses, saying: “Moses, do you think Bezalel is suitable?”  Moses replied, “Master of the universe if You think Bezalel is suitable, then of course, I certainly think so.”

God said to him, “Nevertheless, you must go and ask the Israelites.”  So Moses went and asked the Israelites, “Israelites, do you think Bezalel is suitable?”  They replied, “If both the Almighty and you think he is suitable, then of course, we think so too.”  And only then was Bezalel appointed to make the sanctuary in the wilderness.

What is the moral of this story?  It is not that God is insecure about making decisions.  Rather, this is a story about how decisions must be made in civil society.  We learn from this, the Bavli remarks, that “one must not appoint a public leader without first consulting the community”.  That is, when it comes to leadership, when it comes to acting on behalf of the people, the consent of those who are led is of supreme importance.  The consent of the people is so important, it seems, that it applies even to the nominees of God, that they too must be approved by those on whose behalf they will serve.

The building of the Sanctuary is the first public project of the Israel narrative.  It is therefore not surprising that in it, and in the rabbinic understanding of it, we should find a first glimpse of a Jewish understanding of how society should operate.

The appointment of Bezalel is not the only example.  At the side of Bezalel, who belonged to the aristocratic tribe of Judah, worked Oholiav, of the lowliest tribe, the tribe of Dan.  Why? Because a public project cannot be the preserve of one privileged portion of a people – to be a true communal endeavour it must be owned by a representative cross section of society.  Even where an individual is given a privileged position in a society, the ideal presented in the building of the Sanctuary is that they do so as representative of the people, not in their own self interest.  And so, as our Bat Mitzvah read for us, on the shoulder and breast pieces of Aaron the High Priest were the names of the twelve tribes to signify that Aaron approached God not on his own behalf but as representative of the whole community of Israel.

The rabbinic interpretation of the building of the Sanctuary even gives us our first account of a public audit.  Here was a major public project using the wealth of the people.  The midrash Yalkut Shimoni tells us that some of the Israelites were sceptical – they would say behind the backs of Moses and Bezalel that they were creaming off the wealth for themselves – “A man appointed over piles of silver and gold with no-one to check on him – of course he will become rich.”  Hence, according to the midrash, the portion that we read from today begins: eileh pekudie hamishkan – these are the numbers – the accounting – from the building of the Mishkan. — I have not brought these texts to suggest that Judaism somehow ‘believes’ in modern representative democracy.  Nowhere in our texts do we find an idealisation of any specific political model or system.  Within classical Judaism, a political system cannot be an end in itself, but only a means to realising God’s will in the world.

And to a strict religious mind, democracy is inherently challenging: There is an inevitable tension between the demands of theology and the plurality of views and lifestyles that democratic society promotes.  A world view which deals in eternal truths can be intolerant of a political system that deals in human wants.

Nonetheless, here – in just the section of the book of Exodus dealing with the building of the Mishkan and the rabbinic understanding of it – here we find that our tradition recognises some of the most important principles of public life – the necessity of public consent, the importance of representation, and the requirement of accountability to the people.

Similar ideas can be found throughout our texts.  Indeed, some claim that in the central act of our biblical narrative – the revelation and covenant with the Israelites at Sinai, we in fact find the founding moment of Western political thought.  In the making of a legal covenant between God and human beings at Sinai, a covenant into which the Israelites enter freely, without coercion; here it is established, in the words of Jonathan Sacks that there can be no legitimate government without the consent of the governed even when the governor concerned is God.  — And this is why as a Jew and a Zionist, even though I may be genuinely fearful as to what might come from the turmoil currently affecting Israel’s neighbours; even though there is a part of me that feels that there is safety in the dictator we know above the revolution, the will of the people that we don’t; even though the experience of democracy in some parts of the region has been so deeply destructive; nonetheless, as a Jew immersed in our texts, the possibility that democracy, or at least government with the consent of the people, might come to North Africa and the Middle East, is a possibility to be welcomed and to be proclaimed.  In the story of the mishkan that we have read over the last five weeks we have a rejection of a model of dictatorship without representation, without consent, without accountability – even though sometimes this might feel like the safest of options. —

There is another message that the rabbis drew from the building of the Mishkan – why does it begin with the free giving of gifts by the people?  Because only where people are directly engaged in a project can it be truly sustainable – the only secure house that could be built was the one that the people built together.  And we can hope that this is true of a region also – that the truly secure societies, and with it the truly secure peace, can be the one that people build together.  That like Bezalel, the builders can build not for their own glory but on all our behalves.