Wednesday, February 10, 2010


To go according to the majority?

By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A well-known text appears in our Torah Portion, Mishpatim: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil, neither shalt thou speak in a cause to incline after a multitude to pervert (justice)." (Exodus 23:2) Actually, only the last words Acharei Rabim Lehatot (to incline after a multitude) are the famous ones. To go according to the majority is a kind of slogan that supports democratic regimes.

However, if we discuss the spirit of the verse, we will see that the Torah says the opposite of the impression gained from the text during the generations. The Torah says that the majority does not always make right decisions.

There are several midrashim on this verse that try to settle the issue, especially as it is known that the majority opinion was a supreme value in several fields of the Halachah. However, if we focus on the literal meaning of the biblical text, we will see that the Torah says the opposite of what is generally understood

At any rate, those last words (to incline after a multitude) received high standing among the Sages regarding several legal issues in the Gemara, and particularly in the famous case of Achnai's oven (Baba Metzia 59b). "Achnai's oven" deals with the severe controversy that erupted among the sages regarding the impure clay oven that broke and was put together again with sand.

The Gemara tells us that Rabbi Eliezer declared the oven to be pure and the sages declared it impure. Rabbi Eliezer, who held a minority opinion, called forth many signs from heaven to prove his point. A carob tree was pulled out of its place. An aqueduct changed its course. The walls of the Beit Midrash tilted as though they would fall, and even a celestial voice was heard to justify his stand. However, the majority opinion prevailed over the minority, even though G-d was on Rabbi Eliezer's side.

This issue has current relevance beyond the limited field of halachic decision.

Democracy is not just a matter of statistics that result from election campaigns. Democracy is not just a matter of "going according to the majority". Democracy has an obligation to safe-guard the rights of minority groups and freedom of expression. Democracy must be subject to high moral standards.

For example, many voted for the Hamas movement in the Palestinian Authority. Does that make the movement a legitimate entity? Does a majority vote legitimize a terror organization?

According to prevailing opinion (even among those states that that do not support the Hamas financially) there is some legitimacy here because it was the choice of an absolute majority of the population.

But sometimes democracy is only the illusion of justice, as is said in the well-known saying: "Democracy is like Mathematics: The one (1) draws strength from the number of zeros that follow it."

RaSHI, the greatest interpreter of Biblical texts tries to settle he issue. RaSHI says:

"Regarding this verse, there are various expositions by the Sages of Israel but they do not fit the syntax of the verse". After he mentions several midrashim on the subject, he continues: "But I offer an explanation to fit the verse's syntax according to its plain meaning. And this is its interpretation: If you see wicked men distorting justice, do not say, 'Since they are the majority I may as well lean towards them'."

RaSHI says unambiguously that the majority occasionally offers an illusion of the right way. This is hinted at in the famous fable about the flies. "If a milliard flies eat garbage, a milliard flies can't be wrong."

At any rate, let's leave the garbage to the flies…

Previous Drashot

Mishpatim 5766 – The most important letter