After The Majority?

And why do we mention an individual opinion along with the majority, though the halakhah (law) follows the majority? So a Court may approve an individual view and rely on him; for a Court cannot gainsay a decision of its fellow court unless it is greater in wisdom and number. If it was greater in wisdom but not in number, in number but not in wisdom – it cannot gainsay its decision, only if it exceeds it in wisdom and number.

Rav Yehudah said, If so why record the opinion of an individual against that of a majority to no purpose? So that if a person says, here, I have a tradition – he will say to him, you heard it as the opinion of so-and-so [which was not the opinion of the majority].

Mishna Eduyot 1.5-6

The text is strange. Not only in the sense that all rabbinic texts appear strange to us (and there are many stranger than this), but in the sense that the text falls apart on its own terms. This is a perfect of example what Derrida calls ‘deconstruction’ just happening, without it being applied as an outside hermeneutic.

So the question addressed by the text is [far from] obvious. Why does rabbinic law bother to record minority opinions? Why does it, in the words of Rabbi Joel Levy, canonize the dialectic? Surely the key thing is simply to know what the law, in its final version, actually is. This is certainly the case with Judaism’s mediaeval legal codes, which aspired to instruct the practising Jew in how to live. Yet, the Talmud prints side by side the correct and the incorrect, the wise and the foolish, the practical and the ridiculous.

The first answer is the more radical. While a court should follow proto-democratic procedures, ruling with the majority of Judges, the minority opinion should be recorded so that a future court (albeit one that is bigger and ‘wiser’) can rely on that opinion in order to change the law. We record the opinion of the minority, in other words, because the majority might be wrong. Because truth is plural; or if singular, unobtainable in this world. The Talmud promotes relativism.

Rabbi Yehudah disagrees. He thinks the only reason we record the view of the minority is that they are totally wrong. If someone in the future comes up with that same opinion in the future we just show them the text and say ‘it was wrong then, it’s wrong now. So shut up. The truth is unitary, and the majority will get it right’.

So here comes the auto-deconstruction; Rav Yehudah is in the minority. The anonymous voice of the Mishna (i.e. everyone else) says that the voice of the minority might turn out to be right. Rav Yehudah alone, in the minority, says that the minority voice is only needed because it’s wrong. Rav Yehudah thus condemns himself.

Of course Rav Yehudah has been stitched up. His comment has been cut and pasted from elsewhere (the Tosefta) where his opinion was in the majority, and thus made perfect sense. But the point is fascinating; the text powerfully demonstrates that an over zealous majority, denying the views of others, may in time come to be a minority and have its own views denied. Whereas a majority that has foresight may allow others voices, in the hope that should that minority in a future become the majority, it will act with similar benevolence.

Shall we stop there? Do we need to draw out the implications? Of the tyranny of majorities who take Rav Yehudah’s approach, of people who jettison their position of justice when they become a minority group? Of the Constantinisation of Judaism, the corruption of Jewish ethics by its combination with state power? Of the sudden rejection of thousands of years of moral principle as ‘ghetto religion’, to be sacrificed to the Gods of warfare and the market.

In his remarkable book, the Essence of Judaism, Leo Baeck, a great 20th century Berlin Rabbi, argues that the status of Jews as a minority, is precisely the divine plan. The Jews (or any minority population) are the ethical test sine qua non for states or majority groups. Jews serve as the constant reminder that reality is not homogenous, that there is always another way of doing things. As the quintessential minority in the premodern era we are right to judge civilisations on the basis of how they treated Jews.

If the Talmud’s point, that minority voices must be recorded, is projected onto the Jewish people, a further question arises: who will be a Jew for the Jews? Who will remind the Jewish people, now a tyrannical majority themselves in a certain part of the world, of the need to recognise the other, that theirs is not the only way? The obvious candidate, though they are barely a minority in the whole land of Israel, are the Palestinians. Like most majority groups, Jewish Israelis would prefer that the Palestinians did not exist, acting as they do as a reminder of the land’s previous civilization that was largely obliterated, and as markers of ethic diversity which is a hindrance to the doctrine of ‘Jewish self determination’. While the extreme right in Israel has and does propose full transfer of Arabs out of the Land of Israel, the position taken by the Israeli mainstream, and the Zionist ‘left’ is hardly more respectful of the rights of the minority. It proposes ‘separation’ as it slogan, leaving Israel with as homogenous a state as possible, even by repatriating large numbers of Israeli Arabs to the new Palestinian state. In this climate, the Israeli Jewish population, still profoundly fearful, wilfully refuses to recognise the minority, in denial of ‘dvar aher’, another voice.

So it falls to us, somewhat more distanced, to be ‘Jews for the Jews’. Us fringe Jews, outsiders, whether we call ourselves, in Marc Ellis’ term ‘Jews of conscience’ or, in Isaac Deutscher’s formulation ‘non Jewish Jews’. To quietly assimilate, to claim that the Jewish world is just too awful for us will not do; it is an abdication of responsibility. If we want a minority voice to be recorded, so future generations will know that that there was and is an alternative expression of Jewishness, we can’t wait for someone else to provide it. . As a slogan it many need some improvement, but the point stands: Speak up, or Rav Yehudah wins.

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