Judaism and Democracy: An Educational Perspective (Hebrew)

Shlomit Demsky-Cohen

With the establishment of an autonomous state for the Jewish people, questions and issues that were deemed irrelevant in the area of state and religion were opened. One such issue is related to the desired form of government particularly a democratic one and its value system, which was established in the newborn State of Israel. Many ensuing questions were raised: Does the Torah endorse a particular form of government? What is the place and authority of halakhah in government? Does the democratic value system reflect Jewish sources and/or derives from them - or on the other hand, is it in conflict with them?

The first section of this paper is an analysis of the different approaches in modern Orthodoxy to the relationship between Judaism and Democracy:

  1. The inclusive approach which sees the roots and origin of Democracy in Judaism. Accordingly, a correct reading of Judaism will show the compatibility between the two.

  2. The second approach sees a conflict between the tenets of Judaism and Democracy. However elements of the democratic system after undergoing strict evaluation can be accepted.

  3. The third approach proposes no inherent conflict between the two because there is no connection between their two worldviews.

  4. The dialogue approach emphasizes the differences and variations in both Judaism and Democracy and seeks to find their common denominator without hiding the inherent tension and contradictions of both worlds of thought.

These approaches are presented as "ideal" types - however it is clear that persons taking a position on these issues will often adopt and identify with various shades and over lapping aspects of the different approaches.

These approaches are analyzed according to the following categories:

  • The extent of the relevancy of the classical Jewish sources that touch upon the subjects of government and society. Do matters of government and democratic values have to be judged in the light of halakhah or are they outside of the realm of halakhah?

  • Is Democracy just a form of government or is it a worldview?

  • How is one to relate to Democracy? - Should Democracy be adopted as a fundamental philosophy of life or can one identify with democratic principles based on pragmatic concerns? Is it a lehathila - an a priori matter or a bedi`avad - a post factum issue?

  • Educational application of these approaches. What are the deficiencies and advantages of each approach in the educational process? What are the problems for the teacher who has a fixed philosophy and how can that teacher be flexible in presenting the different approaches?

The second section of this paper presents an analysis of the interviews conducted with Civics ('ezrahut) teachers from religious high schools in the Jerusalem area. The interviews concentrated on the question of the relationship between Judaism and Democracy and the teaching of Civics in religious schools.

The following subjects were examined:

What is the approach of the teachers to Judaism and Democracy? What are the challenges and difficulties in teaching Civics in the religious school in general? What are the actual contradictions between Jewish and democratic values based on examples and real life situations? How do the beliefs and opinions of the teachers and the students influence the nature of the discussions and the dilemmas that arise? What is the message that the teacher wants to convey other than general knowledge or facts?

The conclusions of this study:

  1. The relationship between Judaism and Democracy should be studied in the religious school system. The "sanctified" democratic values such as individualism and open critique are part of our modern society and should be discussed and clarified in class. Discussion of this subject is naturally part of the framework of Civic Studies which is the proper venue for the clarification of their compatibility, non-compatibility, conflicts and harmony - as seen through actual real-life situations and questions and answer sessions.

  2. In the past, Civics in high school was technical and informative (function of the Knesset and its authority, how Knesset members were elected, etc.). Today the study is more on the essence of government - how events change and develop - with class participation and analysis.

  3. In light of the analysis in the first section of this paper, it is important to know which approach is presented in the chosen textbook now used in class. This textbook takes the first approach mentioned above.

The object of this study is to bring the subject of Civics in the religious high school to a new level, i.e., to clarify the relationship between Judaism and Democracy. Religious students live and struggle with this complex dichotomy in their private lives. The classroom should bring out these inner conflicts between Judaism and Democracy. (It is important that the teacher knows the opinions of the students and the climate of the school and is able to define his/her own position in this matter.)


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