On Democracy and Halacha

Halacha’s veto power provides it with continued relevance in our world- forcing us to accept its challenges along with its benefits.

I decided to make aliyah after living in Israel for two years. It was spring of 2007, and I found myself in Kikar Rabin with Israelis of all stripes, calling on then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to resign in the wake of the Second Lebanon War.

Feeling just as invested in the stake of the country as the Israelis around me, I realized that I was ready to become a citizen, accepting the responsibilities and privileges that come with it. I take pride in participating in the democratic process, my voting record in both Israel and the United States, my service in the Israel Defense Forces and my civic engagement on a local level.

Religious soldier.

Frankly, I am proud of my dual citizenship because it allows me to work toward changing policies with which I disagree. And yet at the same time, I am an observant Jew, and I attempt to abide by Halacha, the Jewish law. I choose to observe laws written thousands of years ago, adhering to centuries-old rabbinic interpretations of an even older text that dictate how I live my life.

Despite this, I am no robot. Just as I uphold the laws of a democracy, even if I disagree with them, so too with Judaism. However, just as I actively strive to change democratic laws that I oppose, so too I push for a Judaism that challenges me without being oppressive.

Why do Jews subject themselves to these ancient laws when a democratic framework exists to govern our lives? For some, the answer is simply that God commanded us to uphold these statutes, and so we must obey. No matter how strong my faith, divine command has never sufficed for me.

Community is the driving force behind my commitment to upholding Halacha. If I wish to be part of a Jewish community, I must accept its laws, which are integral to its continued existence.

In civil society, there is no question that it is in its members’ interest that all drivers agree that red means stop and green means go, that all people pay their share of taxes, and that we refrain from stealing things that we want but do not own.

The same is true in a religious community—when all agree on one standard of kashrut, for example, all can eat with one another. Even though I may find upholding the laws of kashrut a challenge, barring me from eating food that I know to be both delicious and healthy, I abide by it as a sign of participation in the community.

However a problem arises when a piece of Halacha seems to go against our value system, or even another piece of halacha. This is, of course, an issue in civil society as well.

Many laws are legislated and upheld that may be deemed problematic by some, and therefore democracy has mechanisms, such as the court system, to debate, challenge and even change these laws. The courts’ rule based on a constitution or basic laws, and if the problem persists, the government can change the constitution or the basic laws accordingly.

Judaism operates in a similar manner, but instead of the judicial system, there are rabbis who are empowered to make decisions for the community, with the halacha serving as their basic laws.

However, unlike in a democracy, if no solution to a problematic bit of Halacha can be found, there is no mechanism in traditional Judaism to change it. The halacha remains, and the people remain bound by it, regardless of their feelings toward it.

A possible response would be to simply abrogate the problematic Halacha, but this has the potential to undo a community.

Mordecai Kaplan famously said that halacha “has a vote, not a veto,” implying that Jewish tradition and law play a role in our lives, but do not blindly dictate it. While this rationale allows for the dismissal of laws that upset our values, there is also the danger of forgoing halacha merely out of inconvenience.

Halacha’s veto power provides it with continued relevance in our world- forcing us to accept its challenges along with its benefits. However, just as in the American system, the veto is not the final world, and Congress can override a President’s veto, so too it must be in halacha.

Halacha should indeed determine the way in which we live our lives. But when no loophole can be found, and no interpretation can remove a problematic statute, our Rabbis—responding to the shared values in their community—must be empowered to override halacha’s veto, creating a Judaism that obligates and challenges its members, without oppressing them.

Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and is beginning the Israeli bet midrash program at the Schechter institute. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.