Sermon: On Majority Rule, de Tocqueville and the High Priest

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 March 2017

Whenever I read Parashat Tetzaveh, as we have this morning, I think of Alexis de Tocqueville.
It’s an odd leap, so bear with me.

De Tocqueville was a French diplomat in the nineteenth century – a genuine aristocrat whose family had fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings – and he had a healthy side-line in political philosophy.  In 1831, he and a colleague were sent by the French government to study the American prison system, but used the trip as a pretext to study American society instead.  The result was a book published in 1835, “Democracy in America”, in which de Tocqueville explored the risks inherent in this new model of democratic society.

Among the risks that de Tocqueville identified was “Tyranny of the Majority”, a concept that he popularised together with the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose deep concern was for human liberty.  The term “Tyranny of the Majority” is a little bold for our tastes, but the risk it describes we might recognise: that in a democracy the majority of an electorate can have their interests placed above, and at the expense of, those in the minority.  For de Tocqueville, in such a situation, decisions, the claim to rule, may come to be based “upon numbers”, “not upon rightness or excellence”.  This is, indeed, a tension that all politicians must hold – they are elected and directed by a proportion of the electorate, but their task is to represent the whole of society, even where – in fact, especially where – the view of the majority might impact negatively on the minority.

I read “Democracy in America” 25 years ago as an undergraduate, in a very different life.  But this challenge comes to mind – in this life – whenever I read about the clothes of the priests.

The priesthood was, of course, a very different political culture: far from democratic.  Power was vested in the few, the priesthood was a hereditary elite.  But fundamental to their role was that they represented everybody.  The priesthood, taken from a small, well organised minority group, had to represent all of the people in the ritual life of the community.  Not just their own tribe; not just a majority of the tribes, but all of the people.
This was so fundamental a part of their purpose, that across their clothes were physical symbols of this role.  The breastplate of the high priest, carried 12 stones, each representing a tribe, so that whenever he was doing his official duty, he knew that he was doing it for everybody.  Eddie began our Torah portion this morning: “V’nasa Aharon et shmot bnei-Yisrael b’choshen hamishpat al libo” – “Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breast-piece of decision upon his heart”.  And this was the case whatever the debates among the people, whatever broigus was going on, whatever divisions there were in the nation.  And when the priests failed to fulfil this role, God would get involved, as we read in many of the books of the Prophets.

This year as we read about the breastplate of the High Priest, de Tocqueville’s insight feels especially fresh and relevant.   Over the last few months, something has happened in the political culture of this country, in the nature of our public conversation, something that he would have recognised.   Here, and in the US – in rather different circumstances – there has been a fundamental shift in our political discourse, a move from government at least theoretically to serve the interests of the entire nation, to one in which the majority voice has become the only legitimate voice.  To quote Richard Dawkins speaking this week – and you know there’s something going on when the rabbi starts quoting Dawkins – the position expressed on one day in June last year is now referred to as “the sacred and unchangeable will of the people”.

This leads to bad politics.  But it is also rather dangerous.  As a number of commentators have observed, if the majority is the “sacred will of the people”, then what are the minority?  ‘Not sacred’ ‘not the people’; Somehow other.
If, and I fear this is the case, we have begun a journey towards a political culture in which the wishes of minorities – even large minorities – are not respected, rejected as irrelevant; then, ultimately, we will end up with a society in which the need to protect the rights and interests of those minorities is also not important.

This week, we have seen an example of this in the argument over the rights of EU nationals living in the UK.  This is a group in our society with a genuine need (equivalent in Jewish terms to the biblical ‘ger’).  They and their families need security, stability, to know their futures.  But instead of ensuring that their interests are met, as is the duty of our leaders, they have instead made them into a bargaining chip for the majority.  Their number includes quite a few people in this community – not knowing whether they can buy a home, take a job, start a course.  Not knowing if they will still be here in London with us two years from now.

Minority needs and rights have become expendable for the benefit of the majority.
And those who challenge this position are somehow undemocratic, against ‘the people’.  In my mind, I see the high priest prising the stones of part of the people from their place on his breastplate.

The danger we are experiencing, is addressed elsewhere in our texts, too.
A couple of weeks ago we read in Parashat Mishpatim: “lo tih’yeh acharei rabbim l’ra’ot”, “Do not incline after the majority to do wrong”.  Which is pretty much what de Tocqueville said.  The verse recognises the risk inherent in group activity – that we might lose sight of our core values, lose sight of the importance of looking after the minority, pursuing only the aims of the many.

Now those with a knowledge of the development of Jewish law might say, “Hold on a minute, Josh, Judaism developed by the adoption of a majority view.  That was a core halachic principle”.  You may even cite the example of the story of the Oven of Akhnai, in which the majority voice of the rabbis holds sway over the minority voice of Rabbi Eliezer, and with him of God, who brings miracles in Eliezer’s support.  And, of course, majority decision is a Jewish principle, and a good principle.  It is the right, democratic, principle by which to develop a society.

However, the story of the Oven of Akhnai is rarely read in its entirety.  For it carries a sting in its tail.  Having adopted their view, the majority then treat Rabbi Eliezer shamefully.  They causes him to be hurt and embarrassed; they essentially say of him, “He is not the majority so his voice is not legitimate”; they excommunicate and shun him.  And, according to the story, this brings genuine damage not just to him but to the world.  In the story, as his tears hit the floor, a third of the world’s olives, wheat and barley became spoiled.  So, the story in fact describes a situation exactly like that we experience today.  No-one is saying that the majority voice must not hold sway.  But while the principle of majority rule may be right, it carries risks.  It needs to be carried out carefully, respectfully, with a view to those who are outvoted, whose views and needs do not cease to matter.

When I read the descriptions of the garments of the priests, the detail which jumps out at me every year is the image of the High Priest carrying on his breastplate the stones representing the 12 tribes.  Carrying at his heart the needs and interests of the people, the whole people.  In an age of division, in which our political discourse is dominated by a new populism, it is an image that each of us should carry in our minds when we think about how we bring ourselves into public debate.

And, as we stand this Shabbat on the brink of one of the most significant moments in the life of our nations, it is an image that our politicians especially must carry with them in their daily work.

Never have the words of Exodus 23 been more important: “Do not incline after the majority to do wrong”.  Nor those of the very aristocratic Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocqueville.  That our behaviour and our politics should be judged not just upon numbers but upon rightness and upon excellence.