What the Republicans and Democrats Can Learn From The Jewish Sages

Early Wednesday morning, many of us watched as Governor Romney conceded the election, congratulated President Obama and said: “the nation chose another leader.  And so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.”

Governor Romney continued the longstanding tradition in our country that requires the loser of a campaign to declare that the “voice of the people,” as expressed in their democratic vote, has spoken and the other guy won. Romney’s words, like the words of many men who have lost the Presidency before him, suggest that the 58 million voters who selected Governor Romney, 48% of the electorate, are simply and quietly subsumed into the majority that chose President Obama – 61 million Americans or 50% of the electorate.

This ritual characterizes what is truly amazing about our country.  There was no rebellion.  No revolution.  No bloodshed.  There will be a peaceful inauguration in January and life will go on – for better or for worse.  And President Obama is our President.

Despite the fact that 48% of the people voted for the other guy, the idea that President Obama’s election reflects the voice of the people is, at its core, a Jewish concept.

The Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court of law, made its decisions by majority vote. Questions of life and death, war and peace, were decided by a majority of the 71 sages who sat on the Sanhedrin. This has been the practice throughout Jewish history.  The Talmud teaches us that  “where there is a controversy between an individual and the many, the law follows the many” (Ber. 9a).  The sages of the Talmud explain the existence of this rule as a practical necessity.  The Torah leaves much room for interpretation of the law.  It is not always clear and, thus, religious leaders have needed to make decisions, vote and rule. If the Torah had been given in the form of an exhaustive codex, the Talmud says, “the world could not have existed” (TJ, Sanh. 4:2, 22a; cf. Mid. Ps. 82:3).

Dating back to the ancient Sanhedrin, Judaism teaches that majority rule means that once a vote is taken or a decision is reached, the minority is subsumed into the majority, and it is no longer the majority of the Sanhedrin, but the Sanhedrin as a whole, which has ruled. This principle applied to lower courts, councils and communities, as well.

This notion that the minority or dissenting opinion is swallowed by the larger majority plays out in other aspects of Judaism.

When forbidden and permitted foods get mixed together, the status of the entire mixture can be determined by the greater quantity. For example, if you accidentally mix forbidden and permitted food and the ratio of permitted food to forbidden food is 60:1, you are allowed to eat the mixture.  The “minority” (forbidden food) doesn’t matter.  The lesser amount of forbidden food is subsumed into the greater amount of permitted food, and it no longer exists.

And so, when Governor Romney spoke about the nation choosing President Obama – ignoring the 48% of the nation that chose him, he was continuing not just an American tradition, but an ancient Jewish tradition.

However, many of you know that if you get two Jews in one room, you will get three opinions.  There is another side of the Jewish story….one that does not call for the suppression of the minority.

The story is told of a Christian cleric who asked of the young Torah scholar, Rabbi Yonaton Eybeshutz (1690-1764), the following question: “It’s written in your own Torah that you must follow the majority. If so, you Jews must all convert to Christianity, for we, after all, are the majority.” To this, Rabbi Eybeshutz replied: “The rule of the majority applies only in cases of doubt. When it comes to the truth of the Torah, we have no doubt. Therefore, the majority does not rule.”

This shows us that, Judaism ALSO teaches us that if and when you believe you are right – yet your opinion is not embraced by the majority – you need not adhere to the majority opinion,

More specifically, you may continue to express your minority opinion and even say that the majority has made a mistake in ruling the way they have, but you may not instruct in practice according to the minority opinion.  If a rule was passed that you disagree with – you cannot teach people to follow a rule that violates the accepted rule.  If you did so in ancient times, you were considered a “rebellious scholar” and would face punishment.

Some Jewish scholars have argued over the centuries that rules and laws could not be enacted without the agreement of the entire community.  Once the entire community enacts something – a person who violates the rules and laws may be fined.  Furthermore, certain sages have argued that the minority could not be compelled by the community to comply with a decision of the majority to which it had been opposed.  These sages supported the notion of freedom of expression.

The rabbinic tradition that supported the rights of the minority grew out of the practices of two ancient teachers, Hillel and Shammai.  Each teacher had a school of followers and each school practiced the law in accordance with the teachings of either Hillel or Shammai – and both teachers practiced Jewish law quite differently.

One of the most famous disagreements between Hillel and Shammai focuses upon the lighting of the Chanukah Menorah.  Hillel teaches that on the first night of Chanukah, we light one candle – adding one each night.  Shammai teaches that on first night of Chanukah, we light all eight candles and take one away each night.

For a time, the students of Hillel and Shammai followed the teachings of their respective spiritual and educational leader.  However, as these students increased in number, it quickly became obvious that there were two distinct ways of practicing Judaism – either Hillel’s way or Shammai’s way.  It was as if there was two Torahs!?  And this was not okay because it seemed to be leading to the creation of two separate religious groups.

At the beginning of the second century, in an effort to preserve the unity of Judaism, the original uniformity of Jewish practice that existed during the time of the Sanhedrin was restored.  The rabbis decided that “both the teachings of Hillel and Shammai are the words of the living God, but the law is in accordance with the School of Hillel” (TJ, Ber. 1d).

Hillel became the majority view – and thus, we light the Chanukiyah his way.  But Shammai – being relegated to the minority opinion – was NOT silenced.

This trend continued and is visible in page after page of Talmud where the opinions of those who did not agree with the majority are recorded, often in great detail and still studied to this very day.

The majority view and the minority view were and are both seen as “the words of the living Gd” – and they still are in our Jewish world – teaching and guiding us.

Rabbi Jehiel Michal Epstein (1835-1905) saw the diversity of Jewish opinions as the “glory of the Torah”. The Rabbi compares this glory to a choir made up of many voices:

For those who truly understand, all of the disputes of the rabbis and scholars are truly the words of living God, and each of them have validity in Jewish law. In truth, that is the glory of our holy and pure Torah. All of the Torah is called “song,” and the glory of a song is when the voices are different from each other. That is the essence of its beauty.

Returning to 2012 and the election that we all took part in.  48% – a huge “minority” – voted for Governor Romney.  50% – the clear majority voted for President Obama – and he is our President for another four years.  The 48%, the 50% and the other 2% (whomever they voted for) – they – we – are part of the choir of America – the song of our country.  And the glory of our song is when the voices are different from each other.  That is the essence of its beauty.

I have heard too many people say things like – “thank Gd those idiots who supported Romney were shut down” or “dear Gd help us because those idiots who supported Obama won”.  I find these comments – coming from both sides – so offensive and so not Jewish.

Those who supported and voted for Governor Romney and President Obama are part of the song of America – a song that is extremely diverse and, right now, because of all the negativity, extremely dissonant.  We are split – almost down the middle.  The 48% that lost can try to keep singing their own version of this song – hoping to out-sing the majority.  The 50% that won can keep singing their own version of this song – hoping to drown out the minority.  We can ignore each other.  We can call each other names.   We can stop singing all together.

Or, we can appreciate that the beauty of our song lies in the different voices that are singing it.

President Obama and Speaker Boehner – the most powerful Democrat and Republican leaders in our nation – need to learn from Hillel and Shammai and the countless other sages of our tradition.  The majority rules.  But the minority is never silenced.  And together – the majority and the minority form the lessons, the songs, the stories that teach and inspire the generations to come.  May the story and song of our country over the next few years be harmonious and inspirational.

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