Parashat Shelach: Truth isn’t always a majority vote


Significant votes, those anticipated and those not anticipated, seem constant and endless. As soon as the 2008 Presidential and national elections concluded, political pundits pointed to candidates for 2012 national elections. Soon we face meaningful 2010 mid-term elections. And dramatic votes have engaged us for the past year – from the stimulus bill and national health care to Arizona’s immigration law, and the decision in Texas on the content of American history books and the soon-to-be Senate confirmation vote of Elena Kagan as Supreme Court Justice. I sense an unarticulated equation: Voting is synonymous with truth and right. It is a false equation. 

Voting is central to Parashat Shelach-l’cha. By a 10-2 vote, a “supermajority,” the scouts whom Moshe had appointed to survey the land for conquest, one representative from each tribe, informally vote to decline the mission. Western democratic thinking might have, in effect, regarded the matter as settled.

To be sure, the 10 scouts had their reasons: The population was too numerous and too strong, generally a reasonable reason not to fight. Moderns might add reasons not articulated by the 10. But in the end, their vote was regarded as diametrically opposed to God’s vote, and was thus invalid and inconsequential. (Actually, voicing their opinions on the matter exceeded the goals of the mission for which they were chosen.)

Indeed, our connection to the land of Israel, our peoplehood, and our religious faith, would not exist today had their “vote” been regarded as “right,” and as authoritative and determinative. And, thousands of years later (August 1903), the Sixth Zionist Congress voted 295-175-99 to accept Uganda (currently Kenya) as the national home of the Jewish people. If the peoples of the Middle East believe and have persuaded many others that despite the Jewish people’s historic and religious right to the land of Israel, that Zionists are illegitimate interlopers, imagine what would happen if the vote was implemented for Africa, where we have no such connection!

Several years ago I heard a cute story. Second graders were learning about turtles. One boy wanted to know if it was a “boy turtle” or a “girl turtle.” The teacher took a look but told the class, “I do not know.” One girl excitedly waved her hand and was recognized. “I know,” she exclaimed. Curious, the teacher asked her, “What is it?” The girl said, “We’ll vote on it.”

These three radically different examples illustrate the inherent limitations of voting. Voting is not a substitute for scientific fact; votes do not prove truth; and in our parashah, votes do not supersede divine imperatives. And yet, informed voting is important, for how else can humans face challenges?, and human indecision is no less a vote and either way there are consequences. One practical lesson is that as we decide, even with deep conviction, we endeavor to consider the above examples with humility.

But our parashah illustrates a particular aspect: God’s truth amidst human decision-making. Over the course of time, the western world has divided over the place of religious teachings in general discourse. Some have regarded religious views as low-level opinion, religiously biased and subordinate to pure reason. Others believe that religious teachings contain timeless teachings, higher level truths that clever reasoning overrides at its peril.

Traditional Jewish teaching asserts the basic premise that Torah is true and authoritative. We cannot do what God finds wrong without terrible consequences, even by vote. And while there are many nuances to this issue  – what exactly is God’s message, how is it interpreted, who interprets – it begins with exploring and engaging our sacred texts seriously and openly.

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.