Democracy and Responsibility
Thoughts on Parasha Vajikra
…Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself…, in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to the [Eternal].
(Leviticus/Vayikra 4, 3)
When a priest, a rabbi or another religious authority commits a sin or a crime, their guilt is not only their own – at least part of that guilt falls upon the society which they are ruling over and which they represent. There is nothing metaphysical about it, it’s a simple sociological fact: people form their opinions about religious groups or political parties based on the conduct of their leaders. Therefore we must make sure that we choose as our leaders people who are first of all responsible. The higher is the position someone holds within a given society (i.e. in the decision-making hierarchical structures of that society), the greater is that person’s responsibility. All this may seem very simple, maybe even trivial, but as experience shows all too often this is actually not the case. People elected to hold high functions within a given society do not always want to take upon themselves the greater responsibility which comes with their position. Sometimes they are not even aware that the level of their responsibility has just increased. Often they focus on carrying out their visions and on relishing the power and privileges that they’ve been granted.
For many years the racist statements of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, such as, “Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel.” (Weekly Saturday night sermon in October 2010; source www.timesofisrael.com) have been grist to the mill for all the anti-Semites and supporters of the claim that Jews are inherently racists. The recent anti-Semitic statements of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar have had a negative impact on the image of the Democratic Party, not only in the USA, but all across the world. Words matter – and their significance is directly proportional to their author’s position within the social hierarchy. This is why all leaders, both religious and political, must be very careful about what they say. In addition, they have to make sure to express themselves in a precise manner. And if they must be careful with their words, then even more so with their decisions, their actions and their consequences. Private wars waged by religious leaders can destroy many religious communities.
In the modern Western world many institutions have been democratized, since democracy is viewed as the best ruling system we’ve been able to invent so far. Democracy comes in different shapes and forms, but we won’t go into details here. However, it is a well-known fact that our mechanisms for the democratic election of our representatives do not guarantee that we will elect individuals with outstanding leadership, intellectual or moral attributes. In other words, nothing can guarantee that the representatives we elect won’t make any mistakes or commit any sins, the burden of which will ultimately fall upon those who elected them. The members of our parliaments are essentially a “statistical cross section” of that part of the society which participates in the elections. As George Bernard Shaw put it:
Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.
Joseph de Maistre spoke in the exact same spirit:
Democracy is the most just of all systems, since it guarantees that every society gets what it deserves.
These quotes may sound quite cynical, but many other thinkers and philosophers who were by no means opponents of democracy, for example Bertrand Russell, also spoke in a similar fashion about democracy:
Democracy has at least one merit, namely that a Member of Parliament cannot be stupider than his constituents, for the more stupid he is, the more stupid they were to elect him.
In a democracy the fools have a right to vote. In a dictatorship the fools have a right to rule.
And while it is obvious that democracy does not guarantee that we won’t be ruled by irresponsible or simply stupid people, this cannot be guaranteed and has never been guaranteed by any other way of anointing people for public office. Every power tends to lead to degeneration, to recall John Acton’s famous quote:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Someone who has been granted power, privileges and responsibilities must be able to find the appropriate balance between all of them. Only then will they be able to rule for a long time and in a just way. In my opinion being appointed as a leader should automatically entail the following message: From now on your own ego will have to repeatedly give way to the responsibility that you’ve been entrusted with. In ancient Israel the prophets were the ones who acted as the conscience of those in power, who had a deep understanding of the nature of power as well as insightful, normative visions regarding the way it should be wielded. Let’s conclude by recalling once more the words of Rabbi Heschel:
The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka