In the three centuries since the prince-elector of Hanover became George I of Great Britain, few power brokers have been more detached from the populace they affected than Rabbi Menachem Shach (1898–2001). Born and bred in Lithuania, where he devoted himself to Talmudic study with some of the great masters, he arrived in Palestine in 1941 and taught at a variety of institutions, not all to his ideological liking. By the 1960s he was teaching at the elite Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Two decades later, in his eighties, he had become the undisputed oracle of non-Zionist, non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Orthodoxy.
Rabbi Shach’s signature moment of indifference to the general public came during the cabinet crisis of 1990. He controlled enough Orthodox votes in the Knesset to decide whether Yitzhak Shamir or Shimon Peres became prime minister. He explained his verdict at a religious event, televised only because of its secular political import. Beginning his remarks in Hebrew, Shach lapsed into Yiddish, oblivious to the eavesdropping audience to which his remarks were being broadcast. Although his dovish opinion on Israeli security policy was closer to Peres than to Shamir, he opted for Shamir. His judgment about which candidate best served the interests of the Orthodox institutions determined the government.
R. Shach’s home was the Talmudic study hall, not the corridors of power. Yet his views mattered to his followers and their attitude to politics. He thus wrote letters and granted interviews on issues of the day. He was no fan of democracy, though he offered no alternative. The one he knew firsthand was Soviet Communism. He perceived similarities between it and liberal democracy, and those parallels did nothing to make what we often assume to be our superior system more appealing to him.
Much of Shach’s anger at Israeli democracy stemmed from its failure to propagate his kind of Judaism, as well as the hostility to religion expressed by some political and cultural spokesmen. But he had more universal objections as well.
Democracy, he liked to point out, is not government for the people. Electioneering amounts to mass bribery: “Look at their democracy,” he says. “Vote for me and I’ll give you a job.” Parliamentary corruption does not end on Election Day. Officeholders are bound to curry the favor of their constituency rather than doing what’s right for the country as a whole. By his reckoning, dishonesty is built into the system of popular suffrage.
Worse still, the trade-offs of democratic politics can bring about ill-considered acquiescence in policies leading to war. A horror of bloodshed was part of R. Shach’s religious DNA—although, let us note, it did not prevent him from playing the special interests game himself.
As Americans, we take the blessings of democracy for granted. Answering Shach’s naively phrased criticisms, however, is not that easy. The standard responses are as old as the Federalist Papers. Separation of powers and the clash of group interests beget compromise.
This sounds good, but Americans forget the 1850s, a time when moral collision and sectional hatred wrecked the best-laid plans of Madison and his allies. Secession is virtually unthinkable today, if only because of the economic turmoil it would cause. Yet one wonders how well, how constructively, today’s America can navigate the great challenges of war and peace, substantial environmental change, or other traumas to the body politic. The nation is characterized by a deep spiritual division and even deeper spiritual emptiness that cannot be ameliorated by the never-ending campaign cycles, marked as they are by pandering rhetoric that tends to debase public discourse.
Once these doubts are unleashed they cannot easily be quelled, at least not in my mind. Reading R. Shach, I can’t help noticing how much his idea of honest politics draws from the standard of judicial impartiality that the Talmudic tradition insists upon. The rabbinic judge, regardless of whether the case is ritual or civil, is enjoined to maintain absolute fidelity to his vision of the right and is prohibited from changing his vote merely to conform to an eminent colleague’s judgment. Not surprisingly, the democratic marketplace is venal by comparison.
Yet perhaps the ugliness of democratic politics answers to a practical necessity that Shach, and many others, prefer to ignore. The judicial model of public leadership has a natural allure. Judging is pure in a way that legislation is not. It is easy to idealize the judge and correspondingly to derogate the elected legislator yoked to the interests of those who elected him or her and will re-elect him or empower his successor, interests that must be negotiated and bargained for. The idealist is inclined to say “legislate not, lest you be judged”—a potent motto, but a dangerous one.
One sees this idealistic tendency in American civil culture. Judging appeals to our desire for something pure in public life. The heroic judge, even when we disagree with his conclusions, exudes rectitude and integrity; the deal-making legislator does not. New York University law professor Jeremy Waldron called his book The Dignity of Legislation, because he knows that it needs defense, for many of his fellow academics who don’t find it an inspiring subject for celebration or research.
Bismarck is said to have remarked that the appetite for law and sausages is diminished when we know how they are manufactured. R. Shach scores points for his dim view of “their democracy” by pointing this out. But we must check our inclination to follow him to the conclusion. At present, we are a society deeply divided, perhaps even divided against itself. In the difficult times ahead, it may be in the interests of us all to recognize that our immediate fate may depend as much, if not more, on legislative skills than on judicial or logical rigor. If we are to enjoy the sausage of workable, decent laws, we need to lend encouragement to the practitioners of responsible compromise.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva College and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.