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Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain: Why religions (wisely) don’t hold referendums

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue wrote for the Times Credo section on religions and referendums.


Whether you are for or against leaving the EU, everyone agrees that it has to be a democratic decision, but, curiously, democracy is not a value rooted in the Bible.

On the contrary, it is often the few who are right and the many who are wrong, such as Noah standing out from the rest of the population.

Then there is Abraham leaving his home to cross to the Promised Land, where he can set up a new faith that differs from the paganism that had surrounded him.

The Book of Genesis reflects the fact that a majority vote would have affirmed idolatry, sacred prostitutes and human sacrifices. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, it is not human opinion, but the will of God that counts. A popular backlash occurs when Korach tries to wrest control from Moses, accusing him of dismissing the rights of ordinary people: “You have taken too much upon yourself, seeing that all the Israelites are holy, every one of them . . . so why have you lifted yourself above them?” (Numbers xvi, 3).

However, Korach was not on a democratic crusade: he simply wanted to take over. Like many demagogues, he tried to appeal to populist causes to propel himself to power. His coup failed.

As other faiths arose, religious decision-making ranged from infallible authority in one person to a collegiate approach, such as the Church of England’s General Synod or Reform Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly. The turning point within Judaism came in Talmudic times (5th century), with the story of the leading rabbi, Eliezer. He was debating with other sages, who refused to accept his argument. In exasperation, he said, “If the law is according to me, let that tree prove it,” and it duly uprooted itself and moved.

The sages replied: “We do not take proof from a tree that moves.” He called on a nearby stream to prove his case and it began to flow backwards. Again, the sages were unimpressed, so a divine voice boomed forth saying that Eliezer was right. In response, the sages quoted from Deuteronomy: “The law is not far away in Heaven but is very near to you” (xxx, 12) and “since the law was given at Mount Sinai, it is now ours and we do not pay attention to heavenly voices!”

This story shows that issues are decided by majority verdict, not by an individual, and that God has handed responsibility to us to interpret the sacred texts.

This allows religious authorities to revise practices in the light of new knowledge or modern needs, such as permitting female clergy and gay marriages. There can be tensions mediating between what scriptures say and what leaders feel is appropriate. It is also important to act with religious integrity, not just follow fashion, for if you simply marry the zeitgeist, you may be widowed when it moves on.

Change can be difficult, but is undoubtedly a religious value. So far, though, no one has tried a religious referendum, perhaps wisely.


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