Parshas Beshalach records the first trials of Moshe’s leadership. Twice in the parashah we find the nation complaining to Moshe – once concerning a lack of food, and once a lack of water.

The wording of the complaints is particularly harsh. In the first instance, the people even expressed regret at having left the bondage of Egypt: “The Children of Israel said to them: Would that we had died by the hand of Hashem in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Shemos 16:3).

We take the opportunity to reflect on the subject of leadership – a theme that occurs frequently both in the book of Shemos and in the book of Bamidbar – and in particular of democratic leadership.

As we know, all countries of the Western world have adopted some form democratic elections for leadership whereby the people choose their leader(s). What is the Torah view of democracy? Are there specific halachos that pertain to democratic elections? Can the results of a given election be disqualified on account of election fraud or corruption?

These questions, which are always timely, are discussed below.

Democracy in Judaism

Elections, as we are accustomed to them in democratic countries, are a relatively modern phenomenon. In Biblical times there was no elected leadership. The rule of kings was prevalent – though in the period of Judges that preceded the reigns of Saul and David, leaders arose spontaneously or were called to public service by popular demand.

This does not mean that kings were able to do as they wished, without a degree of accountability to the people. The rebellions against Kings David and Shlomo, and the popular opposition to corruption throughout the Biblical period, indicate that all branches of leadership – including kings, priests and scholars – were subject to some sort of popular judgment.

Moreover, in halachah a form of democracy prevailed in the Sanhedrin, where the weightiest matters of Torah law were decided by vote. The principle of following the majority opinion has remained a guiding rule – among other halachic principles – in arriving at halachic decisions.

In later years, and in particular in communities of Eastern Europe, the choice of lay community leadership and of the rabbinate was often subject to public approval. Leaders were chosen by a democratic process of sorts.

This process finds a precedent in the Gemara (Berachos 55), which states that a community leader is not appointed without prior consultation with the people. The statement is extended by the Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat 19), who comes out strongly against a rabbi who reached his position by imposition on a community from without. In his words, “How can anybody be appointed to a communal position without consulting the will of the people?”

Voting in Communities

In an important teshuvah, the Rosh (Kelal 6, no. 5)writes that community decisions are made based on majority vote (this will apply to decisions made concerning a communally owned building, such as Vaad Bayit, tenant council decisions, and so on). The minority cannot veto the majority decision, and all are bound to it.

The Rosh bases this ruling on the general Torah concept of following the majority:

“Know that in all community matters the Torah declares that we follow the majority. This means that for all matters on which there is no universal agreement, we follow the majority, and individuals must fall into line with the many. Were this not the case, the community would never be able to agree on anything, because individuals would have the power to veto their agreement. This is why the Torah teaches us to follow the majority.”

The Rashba (Vol. 7, no. 490) writes along similar lines, explaining that individuals are bound to the many just like individual rabbis are bound to the authority of the Great Beis Din that sits in Jerusalem. The Rashba elsewhere (Meyuchasos no. 280) makes an explicit parallel between the power of the community and the power of Beis Din Ha-Gadol, and a similar concept is found in Tosafos (Nedarim 27b).

The halachic principle of following the majority is ruled by the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 163:1), citing Maharam of Rottenberg: “For all community matters in which universal agreement is not reached, all those who pay taxes … must declare their opinion for the sake of heaven. The majority vote is binding, and the minority cannot object. The majority can even impose their opinion on the minority in non-Jewish courts, and extract relevant monetary contributions in which the minority must also participate.”

At the same time, a majority may not vote for something that is solely for its own benefit, and from which the minority stands to lose. A number of Poskim – most specifically the Chazaon Ish (Bava Basra 4:5, s.v. Ba-Maharik) – mention that “tyranny of the majority” is not acceptable, and the majority cannot abuse its power against the interests of a minority.

The concept of a “balance of powers,” whereby the judiciary can limit the power of a democratic majority, is thus not foreign to Torah law (indeed, even the power of the king was limited, to a degree, by the Sanhedrin).

For the Sake of Heaven

The words of the Rema, “must declare his opinion for the sake of Heaven” should not be missed.

The motivation of the voter, whose vote has the capacity to form a majority and bring an individual or a party to power, must be “for the sake of Heaven.” This is the communal equivalent of the values of truth and justice that exemplify a Torah Beis Din. The principle, moreover, applies both to the voter, and, where relevant, to the person standing for election.

Thus, voters are charged with having the greater good of the community, town or country in mind – for the sake of Heaven – and not voting on grounds of narrow and often personal interests. It goes without saying that the requirement to vote for the sake of Heaven implies a clear prohibition on any form of election pay-offs and bribery – which can be termed shochad based on the comparison with the Sanhedrin – that we unfortunately hear of in various election contexts.

The Shulchan Aruch addresses receiving bribes in the context of community appointees: “Not only is a Dayan forbidden to receive bribes. So, too, all those appointed over the community and those who deal in communal matters are forbidden from making basic their decisions on personal interests, and the more so from receiving bribes.”

In the context of payment for positions, Rabbi Yaakov Sasportas (of the Seventeenth Century) wrote vehemently of the immoral practice (Kovetz Al Yad, Vol. 4., p. 157):

“If those appointed over the communities receive their appointment legitimately, I would be silent, lest I injure their dignity. However, those who took their appointment by means of their money, and rise to glory by means of paying the lords of the land, taking vacant positions irrespective of whether they are suited or not – of this is said that ‘money will answer for all,’ and it is an evil that cannot be mended. Most are of this type.”

The problematic nature of paying for positions is already noted by the Gemara (Yevamos 61a; Yoma 18a) in the context of payments made to the authorities for appointment as Kohen Gadol. Some social troubles, it appears, are hard to cure.

Bribery of Voters

The Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat, no. 160) addresses a case in which a group of voters was bribed to vote for a particular candidate in rabbinical elections. In issuing his decision the Chasam Sofer stresses that a mere suspicion of illegitimate measures is not sufficient, and proper proof must be brought for any accusation of election fraud. However, under the assumption that there is indeed proof, the Chasam Sofer rules: “The appointment is null and void, because the voters were charged to declare their opinion for the sake of Heaven.”

To this he adds that even if the voters who were bribed are the minority, and the rabbi in question would have been elected even if we deduct the fraudulent votes from his tally, the entire election should nonetheless be declared null and void. Although this decision is based on the special system used in the specific case of the question, he proceeds to note a comparison with the laws of a Dayan who receives bribery, whereby all his rulings are disqualified.

Indeed, if the rabbinic candidate was found to bear responsibility for the bribery, the Chasam Sofer writes that he is automatically disqualified from functioning in all communal positions, until he repents his misdeeds.

As for the voters themselves, the Chasam Sofer rules that those who accept bribes should be excluded from the voting body until they sincerely repent, and make an oath that they will never again accept payment for voting. Even given their repentance, the Chasam Sofer writes that they cannot vote again in the same election, and raises the possibility that they can never stand for election for a communal position.

Who Can Stand for Election?

A major issue that often arises in the modern context is the question of who is legible for election. In particular, can somebody who was previously convicted of criminal offenses stand for public election?

In Israeli secular law this question has received significant attention of late with regard to the question of whether a number of mayors indicted (but not convicted) on criminal charges could stand for reelection or not (in practice, the mayors stood for reelections, and were all reelected).

The general rule is that all Israeli citizens have the right to vote and to be voted for – in spite of criminal offenses, including those they were previously convicted of. However, a number of laws (see Basic Law: The Knesset) disqualify individuals convicted of a crime involving “moral turpitude” from election to the Israeli Knesset and from performing specific communal duties.

In Jewish communities under the authority of halachah, we find certain limitations on the election of those convicted of sinful behavior. For instance, in the community of Moravia an enactment was issued stating that somebody found guilty of immoral behavior is rendered not eligible for election and for voting (see Kovetz Al Yad, p. 187).

On the other hand, the Chasam Sofer writes that such a disqualification is not automatic, and a person cannot be disqualified from serving in a communal position unless this is authorized by the local rabbinic authority and Beis Din (Likkurim, Yoreh De’ah 68). It thus appears that there is no halachic standard disqualifying somebody found guilty of inappropriate or sinful behavior, and each case must be judged on its own merits.

After the Elections

The Rema, as noted above, writes that voters must cast their ballot “for the sake of Heaven.” Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer Vol. 19, no. 49; see also his Hilchos Medinah, p. 134-5) notes, from the Chazon Ish, that this obligation applies even to those elected into office.

If both voters and those voted into office perform their respective duties for the sake of Heaven, and not out of personal and narrow interests, our world would surely be a far better place.

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