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When The Majority Rules - And When It Doesn't

Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

In most years, there is a mandatory post-election ritual in America, in which the losing candidate graciously acknowedges the will of the people as expressed in their democratic vote and calls upon everyone to unite behind the winner. It is as if the entire electorate (and not just 50.01%) has chosen him. This ritual---thus far delayed by the acrimonious re-countings in Florida---has in it an echo of the Jewish principle of majority rule.

The Sanhedrin, the highest court in Jewish law, makes its decisions by majority vote. Questions of life and death, war and peace, were decided by a majority of the 71 sages who sat on the Sanhedrin. But in Judaism majority rule is taken a cosmic step further: once the vote is taken, the minority is subsumed in the majority, and it is no longer the majority of the Sanhedrin, but the Sanhedrin as a whole, which has ruled. This principle applies to lower courts, councils and communities, as well.

Nor is majority rule limited to the judiciary. In Jewish law, the concept of majority rule has many and varied applications. When forbidden and permitted foods get mixed together, the status of the entire mixture may be determined by which is the greater quantity. For example, If one accidentally mixes forbidden and permitted food and the ratio of permitted food to forbidden food is 60:1, one is allowed to eat the mixture.* The lesser amount of forbidden food is subsumed into the greater amount of permitted food, and it no longer exists. As a consequence, any particle thereafter separated from the mixture retains the status of the majority ingredient of the mixture.

The presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty is likewise based on the fact that the majority of the population is indeed innocent of wrongdoing. Nothing less than eyewitness testimony can reverse that status conferred upon every individual by the majority.

The validity of the parent/child relationship is yet another instance in which majority rule plays an indispensible part. Since, in most cases, a married woman's sexual activity is with her husband, there is a presumption that her husband is the father of her children.

The democratic character of Jewish law must be seen in perspective, however. Democracy is an important element in Judaism; but Judaism is not a democracy. Judges are appointed, not elected. The kings of ancient Israel were annointed by prophetic decree, not by party caucus. The priestly caste was exclusive to the descendants of Aharon.

In Judaism, power does not derive from the people, but from God. The majority rules, insofar as it does, because God says so, not because the majority says so.

Indeed, there are times when Judaism does not recognize any correlation between truth and numbers. The testimony of two qualified witnesses override presumptions based on the majority. In permitted-forbidden mixtures, whole creatures are not sub-sumed by the majority. So, according to Jewish law, a fly in your soup is still a fly in your soup, and you have to take it out.

And on fundamental questions of belief, we do not appeal to the majority. Abraham, the first Jew, was called Ha-Ivri, meaning the one from the other side. All the world was on one side, worshipping idols; Abraham was on the other, a minority of one. Yet, the truth was on his side.

The story is told of a gentile cleric who asked of the young Torah scholar, Rabbi Yonason Eybeshutz, the following question: "It's written in your own Torah that you must follow the majority. If so, you Jews must all convert to Christianity, for we, after all, are the majority." To this, Rabbi Eybeshutz gave his now-classic reply: "The rule of the majority applies only in cases of doubt. When it comes to the truth of the Torah, we have no doubt. Therefore, the majority does not rule."

That is the wisdom of the Torah. Not only that the majority should rule, but when it should rule.

* This is not always true. A competent rabbi should be consulted in the practical application of these laws.

This article was provided by, publisher: Rabbi Yechezkel Fox. Please visit their website,



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