D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
High Holiday Sermon -- Kol Nidre 5780
Democracy (by Leonard Cohen)
It's coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It's coming from the feel
That this ain't exactly real
Or it's real, but it ain't exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA
In the song I just sang, Democracy, written in 1992 by Leonard Cohen of blessed memory-- Cohen a nice Jewish boy from Montreal notes that democracy won’t come through the government but through a fresh wind, a hole in the air -- It’s coming from the silence on the dock of the bay, from the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet; from the sorrow in the street, the holy places where races meet; from the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.
Cohen combines a certain amount of cynicism with hope-- that we are not the democracy we claim to be and that racism has yet to be abolished, but that America is trying to getting there.
In the Jerusalem Talmud Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai have a disagreement as to which is the most fundamental principle in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva quotes the book of Leviticus: וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה'You Shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). So well-known is this verse in relation to Rabbi Akiva that it was made into a popular song, Amar Rabi Akiva-- Rabbi Akiva said. Ben Azzai on the other hand, quotes Genesis: זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּֽוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם This is the book of the generations of Adam.(Gen. 5:1) Rabbi Akiva’s statement is straightforward-- the most important thing that the Torah teaches is to love your neighbor as yourself. But Ben Azzai’s statement is not quite so straightforward. What exactly might he have meant with his seemingly peculiar quotation from Genesis? It becomes much clearer if we look at the entire verse:
זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּֽוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ: זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם:
This is the book of generations of Adam—When God created man, God made man in the likeness of God; male and female God created them (Genesis 5:1–2).
Ben Azzai believed in the principle that all human beings were created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image and so no one person is superior to another. Both sides of the argument -- the feelings of love for one’s neighbor and the belief that all human beings are created in God’s image, have merit. 
However, without Ben Azzai’s principle that all men are created in God’s image the commandment to love your neighbor has no philosophic base. Because we are all created in God’s image, all born with equal dignity, it should stand that we love our neighbor. It’s on the basis of b’tzelem Elohim that God can say to the children of Adam -- Love your neighbor as yourself. As philosopher Hermann Cohen wrote: the love of a neighbor is dependent upon God’s creation of man, and not upon the subjective feeling with which I love myself or somebody else. 
The idea that certain essential rights and liberties are inseparable from the very creation of human beings is not just found in Ben Azzai’s quote from Genesis. It is deeply rooted elsewhere in the Bible as well-- in the idea of covenant, the belief that every man or woman is free to choose between good and evil, and the idea that the right law is ultimately founded on the righteousness of God and not on the will of any human being, even if that human being is a King or Judge.  Could it be that the American writer E. B. White was familiar with the argument between Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai when he wrote: do not try to save the world by loving your neighbor; it will only make him nervous. Save the world by respecting your neighbor’s rights under law and insisting that he respect yours [under the same law]. In short, save the world. 
Known more for his children’s books such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, than for his body of essays, White lived and wrote through several of the most contentious periods in our history-- the depression, World War II, the McCarthy era, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement-- writing about all of them in the New Yorker and Harper’s magazines. 
In the early days of World War II after the Nazis invaded Poland and plunged Europe into a war that would last 6 years, White described a day he spent on the waters in Maine:
It struck me as we worked our way homeward up the rough bay with our catch of lobsters and a fresh breeze in our teeth, that this was what the fight was all about. This was it. Either we would continue to have it or we wouldn’t, this right to speak our own minds, haul our own traps, mind our own business, and wallow in the wide, wide, sea. 
About democracy White wrote: It is the current suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor.
We often hear people say that in the United States “freedom is not free.” This is often used in reference to the military and wars fought and won to protect the values of the country- to remind people that democracy didn’t just magically happen. Thousands of people were killed and/or died for us to sit here and sip as Mark Manson writes in that same book I mentioned last week whose name I cannot entirely say on this bima: for us to sit here and sip overpriced mocha Frappuccinos and say whatever the bleepity bleep we want. It’s a reminder that the basic human rights we enjoy were earned through a sacrifice against some external force. 
But these rights were also earned through sacrifice against some internal force. As Manson writes: Democracy can only exist when we are willing to tolerate views that oppose our own, when we’re willing to give up some things we might want for the sake of a safe and healthy community…..democracy requires a citizenry of strong maturity and character …..Freedom demands discomfort. It demands dissatisfaction. Because the freer a society becomes, the more each person will be forced to reckon and compromise with views and lifestyles and ideas that conflict with their own. 
Life gets worse without democratic representation, in almost every way. And it’s not because democracy is so great. It’s more that a functioning democracy [bleepity bleeps] things up less often and less severely than any other form of government.  As Winston Churchill once famously said: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, a 19th century Hassidic rabbi also known as the Kotzker Rebbe once wrote: Who among you, created in the image of God, could compare himself with his creator? Yet I say unto you: Even if the heavens were to descend or the earth to break asunder, a man must not renounce his rights.
In his book, Judaism and the American Idea, Milton Konvitz notes how the biblical story of creation helped to establish the idea that there is an eternal order that is natural, moral, divinely ordained -- an order that was around prior to and independent of human life.  The same God who created the sun and the moon created Adam and Eve, and just as God was the law maker for the former, so, too, was God the law maker for the latter. If God can make laws that regulate the physical bodies, God can make laws to guide the actions of human beings. According to Konvitz, no man, no king, no government, can alter that moral order.
This is perhaps the origin of the notion of the Rule of Law, that all things, events, and actions are subject to law. As a system of values, Judaism places an emphasis on law. In addition to the Torah we have the Mishnah, the Talmud, rabbinic commentaries, codes of law, responsa literature, and on and on.
From the very beginning of American civlization, the founding fathers who thought of themselves as Israelites who had left Egypt and entered the Promised Land, where they might live under the laws of God and not men, moved towards a law-centered civilization. So fully did they identify with the Israelites that Benjamin Franklin wanted the country’s great seal to depict Moses parting the Red Sea. 
Judaism accepts the teaching of the school of Rabbi Ishmael that “the Torah speaks in the language of men” and so there are bound to be differences of opinions over what the law is and what it requires. But this is no way weakened Halakha, Jewish law. Rabbinic texts record hundreds of disputes; between Hillel and Shammai; between Rav and Shmuel; between Abaye and Rava. All opinions were duly recorded as disputes for the sake of heaven. Each opinion was regarded as of value. Not only did the sages call out errors made by other rabbis but some called out their own errors.
The greatest test for the Rule of Law comes when the head of a government asserts he or she is beyond the reach of the law. The Tanakh provides several examples of rulers who were not beyond the law no matter how much they tried.
In the II Book of Samuel, King David sets up Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband to be killed in battle so he could be free to take Bathsheba as a wife for himself. When Bathsheba gives birth to David’s child, the prophet Nathan confronts David with his crime and David responds: חָטָ֖אתִי לַֽה' I have sinned before God (IISam 12:13)
In I Kings, King Ahab of Samaria lets his wife Jezebel contrive the murder of Naboth, whose vineyard is coveted by the king. The prophet Elijah confronts him with his crime. Ahab responds by fasting, renting his clothes and putting sackcloth on his body.
In each story the king tried to take what was not his to take. In each case the king plotted the murder of someone standing in the way of his getting what he wanted. In each case the king was held accountable by the prophet of his day. In each case the King repented. In Tanakh the prophet was the voice of God, the voice of conscience; the voice of outraged morality. Prophets were at the very least, the journalists, congressional oversight committees, and grand juries of their day. 
If in the Bible we can trace the origins of the human race to a single person who was formed by God in God’s own image, the Talmud brings that idea to its fullest maturity.  The Talmud sought to protect the accused against a miscarriage of justice. Circumstantial evidence no matter how convincing, was not acceptable (Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:3). Juror-judges could reverse a vote from guilty to not guilty but not the other way around. The younger members of the court were first to announce their vote, so as not to be influenced by the actions of their seniors. In civil cases a majority of one was sufficient to establish guilt but in criminal cases a majority of two was required.
The Talmudists developed a system of democratically constituted town councils which were charged with the administration of local municipalities. Since this whole process would bring individuals in positions where they exercised power over the lives of others, it was then the job of the community to develop instruments of social control to temper that power. 
The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court system at the time of the Temple, ruled that in order to make sure a King was kept humble, he was required as soon as he took the throne, to write his own Torah scroll for himself. He was required to have that scroll with him on all occasions, even when he sat down to eat. The king was not allowed to have more than a certain number of wives and if he did he was flogged. He was not allowed to have more than a certain number of horses, and if he did he was flogged. He was forbidden from filling his private treasury and if he did he was flogged. 
As E. B. White wrote: I just want to tell before I get slowed down, that I am in love with freedom and that it is an affair of long standing and that it is a fine state to be in, and that I am deeply suspicious of people who are beginning to adjust to fascism and dictators merely because they are succeeding in war. From such adaptable natures a smell rises. I pinch my nose  ........ Democracy, if I understand it at all, is a society in which the unbeliever feels undisturbed and at home. If there were only half a dozen unbelievers in America, their well-being would be a est of our democracy, their tranquility would be its proof. 
It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely sa
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA
Sail on sail on
O mighty ship of state
To the shores of need, pass the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on......
G’mar Chatima Tova
1. Milton R. Konvitz. Judaism and the American Idea. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, c1978) 44.
2. Ibid. 45
3. Ibid. 38
4. Martha White, ed. E. B. White on Democracy (New York : Harper Collins, c2019) location 853
5. Ibid. location 90
6. Ibid. location 95.
7. Mark Manson. Everything is fu’d. (New York : Harper Collins, c2019) 21.
8. Ibid. 212.
10. Milton R. Konvitz. Judaism and the American Idea. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, c1978) 41.
11. Bari Weiss. How to Fight anti-Semitism. (New York : Random House, c2019) location 19.
12. Milton R. Konvitz. Judaism and the American Idea. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, c1978) 60
13. Ben Zion Bokser. “Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism.” In Judaism and Human Rights (New York : W.
14. Ibid. 148.
15. Milton R. Konvitz. Judaism and the American Idea. (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, c1978) 62.
16. White, Martha, ed. E. B. White on Democracy (New York : Harper Collins, c2019) location 488.
17. Ibid. 1481.
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