The Democratic Teaching of the Covenant at Sinai

Jan. 25 2019

This week’s Torah reading of Yitro (Exodus 18-20) describes the covenant at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. As the climactic moment of revelation nears, God instructs Moses to gather together all the people—regardless of age, sex, or status—and convey to them the terms of the covenant; only after they accept these terms does God reveal Himself on the mountain. Jonathan Sacks sees here a profound political message:

At Sinai a new kind of nation was being formed, and a new kind of society—one that would be an antithesis of Egypt, in which the few had power and the many were enslaved. It was to be, in Abraham Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address, “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Indeed, without the covenant at Mount Sinai, Lincoln’s words might have been inconceivable. For nowhere else do we find anything like the politics of Mount Sinai, with its radical vision of a society held together not by power but by the free consent of its citizens to be bound, individually and collectively, by a moral code and by a covenant with God. . . .

Three things about that moment were to prove crucial. The first is that long before Israel entered the land and acquired its own system of government, it had entered into an overarching covenant with God. That covenant set moral limits to the exercise of power. The code we call the Torah established for the first time the primacy of right over might. Any king who behaved contrarily to Torah was acting ultra vires, and could be challenged. This is the single most important fact about biblical politics.

Democracy on the Greek model always had one fatal weakness. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill called it “the tyranny of the majority.” [The 20th-century historian] Jacob Talmon called it “totalitarian democracy.” The rule of the majority contains no guarantee of the rights of minorities. As Lord Acton rightly noted, it was this that led to the downfall of Athens: “There was no law superior to that of the state. The lawgiver was above the law.” In Judaism, by contrast, prophets were mandated to challenge the authority of the king if he acted against the terms of the Torah. . . .

The second key element . . . was that there is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed, even if the governor is the Creator of heaven and earth. . . . The third, equally ahead of its time, was that the partners to the covenant were to be “all the people”—men, women, and children.

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More about: Biblical Politics, Covenant, Democracy, Mount Sinai, Religion & Holidays, Ten Commandments

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