Note: This is not intended to take sides as to the issue of judicial reform, but merely to refer to the Talmud’s daily daf to bring encouragement to those concerned about the future of democracy in Israel, and what can still be done to strengthen it.
There is no need to belabor the point that the country of Israel seems closer to civil war, God forbid, than at any time since the Altalena Affair of 1948, when Jews followed the orders of Israel’s liberal, founding and long-time prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and literally, intentionally shot at Irgun Jews—including at the ship bearing Israel’s future prime minister, Menachem Begin—on the grounds that members of the Irgun were perceived as a threat to the Ben Gurion government and therefore to democracy itself.
Actually, this might be a good time to note that, many years later, on the eve of the Six Day War, Begin, then the leader of the opposition, joined a delegation to visit the by-then-retired Ben Gurion, to ask him to return and accept the premiership again, for the good of the country. This prompted Ben Gurion to comment that had he known Begin at the time of the Altalena the way he knew him when Begin participated in this delegation, “the face of history would have been different.” (Look it up! It’s even in Wikipedia under the Altalena Affair.)
One would think that the last place to seek advice on how to avert a civil war would be in the Talmudic tractate of Gittin, focusing on the laws of divorce, where spouses failed to reconcile their disputes. Spouses, after all, are closer to each other than fellow soldiers or citizens from different political parties, and if spouses can’t reconcile their differences, what can we possibly learn from a study of their writs of divorce?
Nevertheless, Jews all over the world will find inspirational guidance in Gittin, page 81a, this Shabbat.
Very often, where there is smoke, there is fire, and when there are rumors, there are often grounds for divorce. Nevertheless, courts were always encouraged to investigate “voices” or rumors to ascertain whether they were justified. And if they were not justified, they could be officially quashed by the court, so that spouses could remain happily married.
The city of Neharda’ah was one of the leading cities in Babylonia in Talmudic times, and Rashi says (at page 81a in the Talmud) that in this important city, the judges did not have a custom or routine procedure of quashing rumors (presumably without fully investigating their validity, doing the research and checking out the facts), because of concern that there would be a chshad, suspicion, that if they were to quash rumors as a matter of course—and based on a presumption of proper behavior—they could get the reputation of covering up other people’s sins.
The point Rashi made was that the judges of the jurisdiction must be trusted and must be beyond reproach for society to continue. If judges and the judiciary are perceived as crooked, the rule of law cannot stand, and we cannot stand for it, march for it or demonstrate for it.
We can also learn a lesson from the language of the Talmud that even the rabbis in the Talmud probably did not intend, despite all their brilliance and foresight. The Talmud discusses the dangers of quashing rumors with too heavy a hand, but the word for rumor in the Talmud is kallah or kol, literally, “voice.” In modern Hebrew a vote is also referred to as a kol, literally a voice. So perhaps an unintended lesson from the page of the Talmud studied this Shabbat is that we must consider every voter, every vote—whether in the majority or in the minority—even if we may not “need” the vote in the coalition. A consensus must be sought, or at least a modification of the extreme point of view to consider the minority point of view. That is why before passing the reasonable law, the right wing parties met with the left wing parties under the auspices of the nominally apolitical president of Israel—and then passed a law that fell far short of what the members of the right actually advocated, though more may yet to come.
The bottom line: People who believe they are saving democracy by demonstrating deserve praise — unless they are doing it for the money (purportedly 1,000 NIS for a day’s “work”) but the spirit of Rashi would encourage the demonstrators—and people who can influence them—to always think of the repercussions. In this case, depriving many people of the right to make money the old fashioned way, by hard work—and adversely impacting hundreds of thousands of lives in countless additional ways for hours at a time; each rally that involves intentional roadblocks, not to mention—again—the other devastating repercussions summarized above.
Let us encourage our politicians and judges to turn to the Talmud for advice, and to figure out ways to return the judiciary to a position of being above reproach, so that our society, in Israel and in America, will continue to shine as beacons of democracy; so that Israelis will not try to undermine their nation, but so they may help Israel to resume its place, once again, as a light unto the nations.
Rabbi Reichel is an attorney, an administrator, and an author and editor of books, especially biographies of people who won over people with inspiration and persuasion, not coercion or blackmail.