A democratic Judaism: no reason for complacency

by Maskil on 22 Apr 2008

This excellent article (“A Democratic Islam?”) by Daniel Pipes appeared in both the Jerusalem Post and Middle East Forum websites. It deals with the question of whether Islam is anti-democratic by nature, and also touches on the slow process of Christianity becoming reconciled to democracy. This gives the (presumably unintended) impression that Judaism has nothing to worry about regarding its relationship with democracy. But how true is this? Let’s have a look at some of the arguments for and against Judaism being compatible with democracy.


  • Jews (although usually not organised Judaism) have always been in the forefront of the struggle for freedom and democracy everywhere they are represented, usually far in excess of their numbers.
  • Israel is generally considered to be the only genuine, thriving democracy in the Middle East.


  • Our body of law (Halacha) hasn’t had to confront issues relating to religion and state for 2,000 odd years.
  • We’ve only been in the statehood business for 60 years. Organised, legal Jewish national political life only began with the liberation of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire; let’s call it 90 years. Even stretching it to 150 years (since the start of practical Zionism) is not a long time for a pre-democratic faith to adapt to democracy.
  • The boundaries between religion and state in Israel are not clear (so much so that Israel has even been described as a theocracy with some democratic features).
  • A significant minority calls for Israel to become a Halachic State. That minority is also demographically the fastest growing in Israel, threatening to displace Israel’s secular/traditional majority, until now the guardians of Israel’s democracy.
  • That same sector is attempting to impose a level of public observance that most are not comfortable with, while at the same time attempting to shirk the obligations of adulthood and citizenship on a vast scale, and laying claim to a disproportionate share of the public purse.
  • The interpreters and practitioners of Halacha who currently hold sway may well be the most anti-intellectual, backward, misogynistic, sexist, superstitious, and xenophobic group ever to have filled that role in Jewish history.

My take? Israeli democracy is not a fragile hothouse bloom, but it is under threat from a significant sector within Israeli society. This sector believes that Halacha is immutable, and that democracy should give way to it, rather than the other way around.

Democracy has always enjoyed solid support from mainstream Zionism and Israeli society, but this support hasn’t necessarily been internalised by Judaism itself (at least not the Orthodox streams we need to be concerned with).

In my opinion, we don’t need to choose between Judaism and democracy. If we commit fully to democracy, Judaism will flourish, as it has in virtually all modern democratic societies.

I’d like to see a far greater emphasis on the part of those involved with Jewish and Middle East studies (in both academia and think tanks) to address the relationships between religion and state, Judaism and Israeli democracy and educate the public regarding the trends, pitfalls and similarities with other religions.

Still not convinced? I’ve included a lengthy extract from Pipes’ article. Just substitute Judaism and Halacha for Islam and Shari‘a and see if you think there’s still reason for complacency.

I disagree with that conclusion. Today’s Muslim predicament, rather, reflects historical circumstances more than innate features of Islam. Put differently, Islam, like all pre-modern religions is undemocratic in spirit. No less than the others, however, it has the potential to evolve in a democratic direction.

Such evolution is not easy for any religion. In the Christian case, the battle to limit the Catholic Church’s political role lasted painfully long. If the transition began when Marsiglio of Padua published Defensor pacis in the year 1324, it took another six centuries for the Church fully to reconcile itself to democracy. Why should Islam’s transition be smoother or easier?

To render Islam consistent with democratic ways will require profound changes in its interpretation. For example, the anti-democratic law of Islam, the Shari‘a, lies at the core of the problem.

For Muslims to build fully functioning democracies, they basically must reject the Shari‘a’s public aspects. Atatürk frontally did just that in Turkey, but others have offered more subtle approaches. Mahmud Muhammad Taha, a Sudanese thinker, dispatched the public Islamic laws by fundamentally reinterpreting the Koran.

Atatürk’s efforts and Taha’s ideas imply that Islam is ever-evolving, and that to see it as unchanging is a grave mistake. Or, in the lively metaphor of Hassan Hanafi, professor of philosophy at the University of Cairo, the Koran “is a supermarket, where one takes what one wants and leaves what one doesn’t want.”

A Democratic Islam? – Middle East Forum

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