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Group Title: Jewish tracts, no. 11
Title: Judaism and democracy
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00024321/00001
 Material Information
Title: Judaism and democracy
Series Title: Jewish tracts, no. 11
Physical Description: 15, <2> p. : ; 17 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Witt, Louis
Publisher: The Tract Commission
Place of Publication: <Cincinnati
Publication Date: 193-?>
Subject: Jews -- Politics and government   ( lcsh )
Genre: non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Bibliography: Bibliography: p. <17>
Statement of Responsibility: by Louis Witt.
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Bibliographic ID: UF00024321
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: The Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: aleph - 000873366
oclc - 05087684
notis - AEH0663
lccn - 38-31375

Table of Contents
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    Back Cover
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Full Text





* To disseminate knowledge about Jews and
Judaism and to create better understanding
between Jews and Christians, these pamphlets
are published and distributed through the
in cooperation with the Union of American
Hebrew Congregations


:: :: :: RABBI LOUIS WITT :: :. :

DEMOCRACY refers primarily to a form of
political organization. It is government by
consent of the governed: government by the people
for the people: government which vests sovereignty
in the people by the universalization of the ballot
and the rule by majority.
Now, Israel, during most of the period when it
had a political life of its own, was, in form, a mon-
archy. And yet the power of the king was so limited
by laws and institutions protective of, and derivative
from, the people that we may speak of a genuine
form of democracy as pervading and dominating the
entire life of the nation.
The power in ancient Israel which always limited,
and often nullified, the power of the monarchy and
which made government in Israel, in a very real
sense, popular, was the Council of Elders. The
Council was an inheritance of that nomadic way of
living which characterized Israel when it first appeared
on the stage of history. In the nomadic type of
civilization, the father is the head of the family, its
judge and priest and military chieftain, its master
over the property and the life of its sons and daughters.
For the discussion of the common affairs of the clan


or tribe, however, these heads of families or elders
came together in council. In these councils each
elder was the equal of every other except that the
elder having more valor or wisdom than another was
naturally more respected and trusted and thus
attained a form of leadership. The leader or chieftain,
however, was only primus inter pares, deriving his
authority from the elders who passed on all matters
vital to the tribe and who really represented the
families or the people. In this sense and to this
extent, the rule of the elders was really the rule of
the majority, government by the people for the
There is frequent reference in the Bible to the
workings of this Council of Elders in the political
life of Israel. When in a crisis there was need of unity
of action in Israel, "the elders of Gilead went to
fetch Jephthah and said, 'Come and be our chief,
that we may fight with the children of Ammon.' "1
The "judge" was thus only a temporary military
chieftain elected by the council and retaining leader-
ship by its will. After Saul's death, when Abner
plans to unite the whole of Israel under David, we
read, "And Abner had communication with the
elders of Israel."2 David's kingship was consummated
only by the sanction and authority of the elders.
"So all the elders of Israel came to the king to
Hebron; and king David made a covenant with them

1Judges 11:5-6

211 Samuel 3:17


in Hebron before the Lord; and they anointed David
king over Israel."3 When King Josiah planned to
inaugurate his momentous religious reforms he "sent,
and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah
and of Jerusalem."4 Again and again must rebellions
against tyrannous kings have been fomented in
councils of elders. When Rehoboam threatened to
make taxes and the yoke heavy on the people, it
was no doubt the elders who "answered the king,
saying: 'What portion have we in David? neither
have we inheritance in the son of Jesse; to your
tents, 0 Israel!' "5
The elders were thus defenders of the ancient
rights and liberties of the people: they were ex-
pounders of the principle that the king rules not by
divine right but by the will of the people: they were
agitators in the name of the people against usurpa-
tions of power by the kings: they were, under ancient
forms, the bearers of that principle of democracy for
which the nations of the world are fighting in this
very day.
Monarchic or autocratic power was limited in
ancient Israel by another potent factor,-the theo-
cratic ideal. According to this ideal God is King: an
earthly king rules only by virtue of the will of God:
he must rule according to the law of God: he not
only may but should be dethroned if he disobeys the
will and the law of God. The story of Gideon is a

3II Samuel 5:3

'I Kings 12:16


bit of realistic evidence as to the workings of this
theocratic ideal. When the men of Israel come to
him and say: "Rule thou over us, both thou, and
thy son, and thy son's son also," Gideon replies, "I
will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over
you; the Lord shall rule over you."6 The kingship
is represented in Samuel as a sinful rejection of God.
"But ye have this day rejected your God, who Him-
self saveth you out of all your calamities and your
distresses; and ye have said unto Him: Nay, but set
a king over us."7 "I will call unto the Lord, that He
may send thunder and rain; and ye shall know and
see that your wickedness is great, which ye have
done in the sight of the Lord, in asking you a king
S. And all the people said unto Samuel: 'Pray for
thy servants unto the Lord thy God, that we die
not; for we have added unto all our sins this evil,
to ask us a king.' "8 As to the source of the right of
the king to rule, no words could be more direct and
positive than those of the Deuteronomist: "Thou
shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the
Lord thy God shall choose."9 Or the words in Samuel:
"Ruler over men shall be the righteous, even he that
ruleth in the fear of God."10 It is a prophet who in
the name of God urges rebellion against a constituted
but tyrannous king. Ahijah, as the mouthpiece of
God, says to Jeroboam: "Behold, I will rend the
kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give
6Judges 8:22-23 81 Samuel 12:17-19 101I Samuel 23:3
7I Samuel 10:19 9Deut. 17:15


ten tribes to thee because that they have for-
saken Me."11
God's will and law as embodied in the Scrip-
tures was the people's Magna Charta antedating
the famous Bill of Rights of the English people by
two thousand years. "Then Samuel told the people
the manner of the kingdom, and wrote it in a book,
and laid it up before the Lord."12 "And it shall be,
when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that
he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out
of that which is before the priests the Levites. And
it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the
days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord
his God, to keep all the words of this law and these
statutes, to do them."13 The king of Israel was thus
subject to the King of Kings; his law had to con-
form to the Torah, the divine law; his rule was at all
times limited and motivated by the rule of the
people. Theocracy led by way of nomocracy to
As a political modus vivendi, however, democracy
pre-supposes a moral basis and background. Democ-
racy is moral before it is political. That the people
may rule, there must prevail among the people justice
and righteousness and a passion for liberty for one-
self and one's brothers. Without these virtues a people,
even when living under a democracy in form, will
find itself living under tyrannous masters in fact:
"I Kings 11:31 121 Samuel 10:25 '3Deut. 17:18-19


with these virtues, a people, even when living under
a monarchy in form, may be free and sovereign in
fact. Democracy is after all not primarily political.
A man craves to be free not merely as a citizen but
as a personality. He craves to live his own life in his
own way, limited only by a like right and craving in
others. The democratic State insures a maximum of
such freedom and is therefore the most desired. It
should, however, be motivated, consummated, and
transcended by the craving for freedom of person-
ality, and the maximum fulfilment of such a craving
requires a social order that is dominated by funda-
mental civic virtues and by a high, pervasive, social
idealism. The New England divine, Jonathan May-
hew, in a sermon delivered in Boston on May 23,
1766, which was characterized as "the morning gun
of the Revolution," put this philosophy in a nutshell
when he said: "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there
is liberty."14
In this sense democracy is the very genius of
Judaism. The very soul of the striving of Judaism is
a social order inspired and hallowed by a just and
righteous God and based on justice and righteous-
ness in fulfilment of the will of that God. Almost on
every page of the Bible the God of Israel is repre-
sented as the source and the proprietor of land and
life, dispensing these as gifts, and demanding that
they be administered in the spirit of the Giver.
t"Origin of Republican Form of Government, p. 119: Straus.


God is portrayed as sympathizing with the victim
of oppression, with the unprivileged, with those who
struggle for their rights and their liberties. Of the
hundreds of references one might select from the
"Old Testament," the one pertaining to the Jubilee
Year is perhaps the most characteristic and descrip-
tive: "And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and
proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the
inhabitants thereof . and ye shall return every
man unto his possession, and ye shall return every
man unto his family And ye shall not wrong
one another: but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am
the Lord your God . And the land shall not
be sold into perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for ye
are strangers and settlers with Me."15 Since men can
never be free politically unless they are free economic-
ally, the Scriptures here offer what was deemed to
be an ideal economic basis for democracy.
It is by no accident that the prophets who were
the inspired spokesmen of God were also the flaming
champions of social righteousness. Elijah defies and
denounces Ahab, the king, for robbing Naboth of
his vineyard. "Thus saith the Lord: hast thou killed
and also taken possession? In the place where
dogs licked the blood of Naboth, shall dogs lick thy
blood, even thine."16 Amos predicts a visitation of
the wrath of God upon non-Jewish nations for crimes
that are social in character; upon Damascus for
5Lev. Chap. 25 16I Kings 21:19


threshing Gilead with sledges of iron; upon Gaza for
delivering a whole captivity to Edom; upon Ammon
for ripping up women with child."7 It was the prophets
who proclaimed: "Let justice well up as waters, and
righteousness as a mighty stream,"18 "And they
shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their
spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up
sword against nation, neither shall they learn war
any more.""1 "Have we not all one father? Hath
not one God created us? Why do we deal treacher-
ously every man against his brother?"20 "It hath
been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the
Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to
love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."21
Thus were the prophets the great Commoners, the
tribunes of the people, the consecrated social agitators,
proclaiming in the name of God (Neum Adonoi) a
social order of justice and peace and freedom, an
essential democracy on earth.
The American Revolution was both proof and
product of the spirit of liberty and democracy in
Judaism. The Revolution was dominated by the
Puritan element in American life and that element
was nurtured on the teachings of the Old Testament.
The Bible, writes W. B. Selbie in the chapter on The
Influence of the Old Testament on Puritanism, was
to the Puritans "the Word of God and the work of
the Holy Ghost It moulded their speech, their
"Amos Chap. 1 1"Isa. 2:4 2"Micah 6:8
"Amos 5:24 20Malachi 2:10

thoughts, and their lives, and on it they built all
their hopes of a better future both in this world and
the next. In the bitter experiences of persecution and
of civil war they found in the Old Testament in
particular language and sentiments which exactly
fitted their mood and suited their occasions."22 Rev.
Dr. Ezra Stiles, President of Yale College, in his
election sermon delivered in 1783 before the Governor
and General Assembly of the State of Connecticut,
refers to the American people as "God's American
Israel."23 Samuel Langdon, D.D., President of Har-
vard College, in his election sermon delivered on
May 31, 1775, before the "Honorable Congress of
Massachusetts Bay," used the words: "The Jewish
government, according to the original constitution
which was divinely established, if considered merely
in a civil view, was a perfect republic."24 Rev. Mr.
Simeon Howard, pastor of the West Church of
Boston, in his election sermon delivered in 1780
before the Council and House of Representatives of
Massachusetts, said: "Indeed the Jews always exer-
cised the right of choosing their own rulers: even
Saul and David and all their successors on the throne
were made king by the voice of the people."25 Thomas
Paine whose book "Common Sense" was praised by
Washington as "sound doctrine and unanswerable
reason" and by Dr. Rush as having "burst forth
from the press with an effect that has rarely been
22The Legacy of Israel, p. 408. 4Ibid, p. 120.
2"Origin of Republican Form of 2sIbid, p. 125.
Government, p. 127: Straus. "Ibid, pp. 136-138.



produced by types and paper in any age or country,"
wrote: "Monarchy is ranked in Scripture as one of
the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is
denounced against them Gideon doth not decline
the honor (of the kingship tendered him by the elders)
but denieth the right to give it .. That the Almighty
hath here entered his protest against monarchical
government is true, or the Scriptures are false."26
It was under the dominating influence of the
spirit of Hebraism that the Committee, consist-
ing of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas
Jefferson, appointed, on the same day the Decla-
ration of Independence was signed, to prepare a
device for a seal for the United States, proposed as
such a device, Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a
crown on his head and a sword in his hand, passing
through the dividing waters of the Red Sea in pursuit
of the Israelites, with rays from a fire gleaming on
Moses who is represented as standing on the shore,
extending his hand over the sea, causing it to over-
whelm Pharaoh; underneath being the motto, Rebel-
lion to tyrants is obedience to God.7 Characteristic,
too, is the inscription taken from the Old Testament
(Lev. 25:10) and engraved on the Liberty Bell:
"Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all
the inhabitants thereof." Lecky might well say:
"The Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of
American Democracy."28


[f 12 1


2"Ibid, p. 140.

28Rationalism in Europe, Vol. 2, p. 168.


Out of this Hebraic ideal of a social order of justice
and freedom and brotherhood, itself inspired by the
Hebraic idea of God, sprang the noblest institution
of Judaism,-the Synagogue. The Synagogue was
democratic to the very core of it. Its officers were
elected by the people: the highest privileges might
be enjoyed, the most sacred duties might be per-
formed, by any one of the common people provided
only he was competent and commanded the trust of
the congregation. There was no real distinction
between priesthood and laity. The aim of the Syna-
gogue was indeed to make of the whole people "a
kingdom of priests." As Schiirer points out: the aim
of the Synagogue was not only worship but also
instruction of the people in the Torah, the religious
law, so that it might become the common possession
of all the people.2 There was nothing comparable to
this in the ancient world. This "endeavor to educate
the whole people in its religion . has no parallel
in the ancient Mediterranean world."30 The most
characteristic feature of the Synagogue, as Bousset
says, was its "rein demokratische Grundlage."31
The Synagogue made all men equal in the sight of
God. Each soul, no matter how humble, indeed, all
the more so if humble, might seek and find communion
with God. In the hope of repentance, God followed
even the sinner to the end of the world. The highway
of prayer was open to all and God answered all who
called on him in truth.
"2Geschichte des Judischen Volkes, Vol. 2, p. 357. 31Religion des Juden-
.aJudaism, Vol. 1, p. 281: George Foot Moore. thus, p. 153.

[ 13]

The Synagogue, therefore, has ever been the
embodiment of the elements that constitute a democ-
racy in the spirit and that must prevail among a
people before there can be a democracy in the State.
The Church has taken over both the democratic
forms and the social ideals of the Synagogue and has
thus given them world-wide extension and reinforce-
ment.32 The Church has thus helped to bring nearer
the realization of that ideal democracy, that King-
dom of Heaven on earth, which was and is the vision
and the goal of both the Synagogue and the Church.
Democracy, however, was not only in Judaism
but also in the Jew. Not only because of the teachings
of his religion but also because of the unhappy social
and political status in which the profession of his
religion placed him, the Jew became the defender
and the martyr of liberty and liberalism everywhere.
He was everywhere the victim of religious intolerance,
of commercial envy, of nationalistic Chauvinism, of
racial animosity. In the State he was looked upon as
an alien; in the Church as an infidel: in society as a
pariah. He had to fight for the most elementary
rights, for the very rights for which oppressed causes
and liberal principles were fighting everywhere.
He became thus by necessity as much as by choice
identified with the liberal movement everywhere.
He contributed of his blood and his passion to liber-
alism in every land and age. Wherever oppressed
3"Jewish Contributions to Civilization, p. 90 ff: Jacobs.

[ 141



minorities or peoples were fighting for the separation
of Church and State, for equality under the law, for
a juster distribution of economic opportunity, for
the universalization of the ballot, the Jew fought
at their side. As Jacobs says: "their position as forming
the sole exception to the Christian consensus had
its influence in promoting the slow development of
free thought and religious toleration."33 Throughout
the long struggle the foes of the Jew have invariably
been the foes of liberalism and the modern spirit.
Every step forward in the emancipation of the Jew
has ever been a step forward in the emancipation of
the human spirit. The Jew has indeed been the
barometer of civilization.
The genius of Judaism and the destiny of the Jew
have combined to inspire and to enforce the estab-
lishment of that social order which from government
by the classes for the classes, and government by the
classes for the people, rose to the heights of govern-
ment by the people for the people, safeguarded by
the prevalence of tolerance, good-will, and justice
among the people.

3"Jewish Contributions to Civilization, p. 48: Jacobs.


Jewish Encyclopedia, Articles: "Synagog," "Elders," "Judge,"
"Patriarchal Family and Authority," "Prophets and

KENT, The Social Teachings of the Prophets and Jesus.

The Legacy of Israel, planned by the late Israel Abrahams and
edited by Edwyn Bevan and Charles Singer.

GEORGE FOOT MOORE, Judaism in the First Centuries of the
Christian Era, chap. v, vol. I, "The Synagog."

W. BOUSSET, Die Religion des Judentums im Neutestamentlichen
Zeitalter, chap. VI, "Die Kirche and die Laien"; chap. IX,
"Die Synagoge als Heilsanstalt."

SCHURER, Geschichte des Judischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi,
chap. xxvii, "Schule und Synagoge."

KOHLER, Jewish Theology, chap. LVIII, "The Synagog and its
Institutions"; chap. LIX, "The Ethics of Judaism and the
Kingdom of God."

STRAUS, Origin of Republican Form of Government.

FEUERLICHT, "Influence of Judaism on the Founders of the Re-
public" (vol. xxxvi, Year Book of the Central Conference of
American Rabbis).

JACOBS, Jewish Contributions to Civilization.

GEORGE COHEN, The Jews in the Making of America, chap. n,
"The Jew and American Ideals."

BRYCE, Modern Democracies, vol. I, part 1, "Considerations
Applicable to Democratic Government in General."


Additional Studies grouped under the following
general themes are now in preparation:








THIS is one of a series of pamphlets published by the
Union of American Hebrew Congregations. These
essays are designed to convey information on the Jewish
religion and Jewish history, and are intended for general
distribution. They are prepared by the Commission on
Public Information about Jews and Judaism appointed
jointly by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations
and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.


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