Question:

As far as I can see, democracy is the greatest thing that has happened to humanity. Democratic states don’t make war with one another, they protect the rights of their citizens, and they ensure prosperity and freedom for all. I’m looking forward to democracy taking over in the Middle East—I think that could change everything in the Arab lands.

Also, as far as I have been taught, democracy is a Greek idea. If Judaism is so great, why didn’t it give us democracy?

Response:

I know you want a quick, simple answer, but I would be doing you a disservice by providing that. A simple answer would have to confirm the very questionable assertions and assumptions of your question. So please allow me to present an alternative perspective first.

It’s indisputable that the modern era has seen dramatic increase in freedoms, prosperity and health. Hans Rosling’s website provides all the stats you need to demonstrate just how dramatic that has been. And despite the illusion we perceive through the eyes of the media, there has been a corresponding drop in violence over the past 500 years. Since the period after WWII alone, there’s been a 90% reduction in violent deaths worldwide.

The question is: what are the factors behind this phenomenal transformation in society? Is it democracy alone, or are there other dynamics? What about, for example, industrialization, exploration, the advance of science and especially medicine, capitalism, international banking and globalization?

All these factors weave together to form the complex and wondrous tapestry of the modern era. Yet beyond any of them, there is one I haven’t yet mentioned without which our world would be unrecognizably different. Really, it might be closer to the nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—both of them possible with all the above factors in place, including democracy.

I’m speaking of that which Thomas Jefferson called “inalienable rights.” Rights do not arise spontaneously out of democracy. On the contrary, in a very vital way, inalienable rights is in direct conflict with democracy, and can run smack up against it: Even if all the people of the land would vote tomorrow that Muslims can no longer read the Koran, or that the mentally retarded do not have a right to live, that vote would have to be declared invalid in the successful democratic states of today. Ironically, for democracy to be viable, it must allow itself to be limited, bridled and trumped by human rights.

History is sometimes called G‑d’s laboratory. We can’t replicate the experiments, but we can go back and see what happened. Democracy, it turns out, was an experiment that failed. We have the admittance of the Hellenist historian, Polybus, who coined the term “ochlacratia” meaning mob rule. In more recent times, it was a democratic republic that was responsible for the horrors of the Reign of Terror in post-revolution France. It was the “will of the people” that produced the Salem Witch Trials in America. It was a democratic election that brought the Third Reich to power in Germany, as well as the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza. I’m sorry to put a wet blanket on the world’s enthusiasm over the current wave of uprisings in the Middle East, but the facts remain: Democracy has often been a prelude to the worst forms of dictatorship.

It was fear of just such perils that led John Stuart Mill to insist on safeguards against the “tyranny of the majority.” Even democracy, it seems, needs a leash.

The problem is: who will determine what those safeguards should be, if not the majority? Whose authority could be recognized with so absolutely as to lie beyond even the will of the people?

The authors of the American Declaration of Independence had no problem with this question. In the second sentence of their declaration, they asserted openly that these “unalienable rights” are endowed upon men “by their Creator.” Who else could determine that, “all men are created equal” other than the One that made them that way? Democracy could work, therefore, because it remained bridled by the law of G‑d.

I think you’re beginning to see my point here: Who introduced this idea of human rights to the world? Did the Romans, the Greeks, the Sumerians or the wise men of ancient India or China teach that “all men are created equal” and that all have a right to justice before the law? As Joshua Berman demonstrates in scholarly yet lucid form (”Created Equal—How the Bible broke with ancient political thought”), the very concept of a nation forged by a covenant of duties, freedoms and rights was a unique and radical phenomenon of ancient Israel, not to be emulated by any other nation until 1776.

A fine example:

Ahab is often considered ancient Israel’s most notoriously wicked king. Yet read what happens when he finds himself pitted against a citizen’s divine rights:

Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, next to the palace of Ahab, the king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard so I can have it for a vegetable garden since it is near my house. I will give you instead of it a vineyard which is better than it. Or, if you like, I will pay you its worth.”

But Naboth said to Ahab, “G‑d forbids me to give the inheritance of my forefathers to you.”

So Ahab went home sad and upset because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him, when he said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my forefathers.” He lay on his bed, turned away his face, and did not eat bread.

Jezebel, Ahab’s non-Jewish wife, couldn’t understand the problem. Her husband is a king and he cannot get whatever he desires? To please her husband, she conspired a false accusation with hired witnesses against Naboth, thereby procuring his vineyard for hubby dear.

Yet the point remains: Even to the most immoral of kings, a citizen's property rights were inalienable. Ahab could not even imagine abrogating those rights and instead just lay sulking in his bed.

Now let’s deal directly with your question: We don’t really know how democracy evolved. In 8th century (BCE) Greece, it appears that a legislator named Solon introduced greater power to a larger number of citizens in the determination of political powers. Nevertheless, most of the time, most Greek states were governed by other means. Some point to (questionable) evidence of democratic rule in ancient Sumeria or India. Jared Diamond points out that small tribe and bands are inherently democratic in their unsophisticated way. At any rate, it was not until democracy was married to the idea of human rights, initially in Britain and in America, that it really became a viable proposition for large societies.

The Torah clearly demands a constitutional monarchy. Historically, however, things didn’t always work that way. The period of the Judges was marked by leaders who were chosen through the consensus of the elders of each tribe and community. According to Talmudic tradition, this system endured into the period of the Kings and later: Judges for the people were chosen by the people of each town, from there potentially moving on to sit on the Supreme Court assembly of 70 elders in Jerusalem. Maimonides outlines this system in vivid detail in his “Laws of the Sanhedrin.”

In the time of exile, it was common for Jewish communities to hold elections for a community council, often called the “tuvei ha-ir”—the “best of the town.” Yet, most of all, it was the value of education for every child and the love of learning that preserved the Jewish commitment of respect and honor for all of its members.

Democracy is certainly compatible with Jewish values. Is it the messiah for humankind? It may be part of the package. But without the prelude of a constitution protecting the rights of every individual, a democracy can easily burn down churches, persecute minorities, imprison political opponents, make futile, disastrous war and eventually implode upon itself to retrograde into a worse dictatorship than had ever stood before.

As paradoxical as it may sound, a stable and sustainable world in which every individual has liberty and equality before the law is only possible when we accept the voice of a single Higher Authority, one who cares for this world He has made, and for every creature He has placed within it. That is the potent idea Torah injects into the world; and in the past few hundred years we have seen its results unfolding before us.