Shabbat-Table Talks: Noah
To read last year's Table Talk on Noah click here.
By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <email@example.com>
Value: Suspect uniformity. The “majority” is not necessarily right. In our democratic society we are used to the idea that “majority rules.” It is important to emphasize to our children that although we adopt that procedure as a practical measure when coming to decisions, it does not mean that the majority is necessarily the correct view. In fact, in things that are not in doubt we do not rely on the majority at all.
In addition, even though “majority rules,” we must be ever aware of the minority voices in our society. Majority rules, but it shouldn’t annihilate.
Text: Beresheet 11:1-9
Now all the earth was of one language and one set-of-words. And it was when they migrated to the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.
They said, each man to his neighbor: Come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt! So for them brick-stone was like building-stone, and raw-bitumen was for them like red-mortar. Now they said: Come-now! Let us build ourselves a city and a tower, its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of all the earth!
But the Lord came down to look over the city and the tower that the humans were building.
The Lord said: Here, (they are) one people with one language for them all and this is merely the first of their doings—now there will be no barrier in all that they scheme to do!
Come-now! Let us go down and there let us baffle their language, so that no man will understand the language of his neighbor. So the Lord scattered them from over the face of all the earth, and they had to stop building the city.
Therefore its name was called Bavel/Babble, for there the Lord baffled the language of al the earth-folk, and from there, the Lord scattered them over the face of all the earth.
Analysis: In this situation there was not only a majority, but a complete uniformity of opinion. No one disagreed—except Hashem. Since the will of the people to gather in one place was expressly against Hashem’s commandment that they should be spread out and fill the world, Hashem overruled the majority and thwarted its goals.
Discussion: Just because most people say something, does it mean that it is right? (No. The majority can still be wrong. In the story of the builders of the Tower of Babel, they were the majority, but they were most definitely wrong.)
What are some situations where even though there is a majority, we do not follow the majority opinion? (We do not follow the majority to do wrong.) The Torah states this idea expressly:
You are not to go after the majority to do evil. (23:2)
From the time that Abraham our father discovered Hashem until today, those that believe in God are not the majority. Yet, we believe in God, even though we are a minority, because from the Exodus from Egypt, and the receiving of the Torah until today, Hashem has a special relationship with Israel. We have no doubt about the truth of the Torah; therefore, the idea of following the majority is not relevant.
However, doesn’t halakha and democracy work on the idea that majority rules? (That is true, for the most part. Yet, it doesn’t mean that the majority is correct. It is a practical method of deciding what to do when we are in doubt and can only choose one direction.) [In fact, regarding presidential elections, the American democratic system does not work solely on the popular vote. The Electoral College can overturn the popular vote if the people should choose an inappropriate president.]
Following the majority as a practical method does not mean that the minority opinion or idea is erased as if it did not exist. There is a practice in the Torah, which is also found in the legal/justice system in America of recording the minority opinion. The Mishnah explains why the halakha developed the system of recording the minority opinion:
Why are the words of the individual mentioned along with the majority, if the halakha is [decided] like the majority? If a later court sees the words of the individual [to be appropriate], it will rely on them, because one court cannot annul the rulings of another unless it is greater in wisdom and number…. (Eduyot 1:5)
The Rabad explained that the later court could rely on the opinion of an individual against a majority opinion even of a greater court.
There will be situations when many of your friends might want to do something that you know is wrong. Remember just because many people are doing something it does not make it right. (This can be applied to different situations depending on the children’s age and the type of peer pressure they might be facing. You might examine yourself to see if there are things that you do only because of the majority and their pressure.)
An interesting halakha teaches that uniformity might even be suspect. In a capital case, if, during the stage of the initial arguments of the judges, after they have heard the witnesses, there is no judge that will take the side of the accused, the accused is acquitted until a judge is found that can argue his side. (This is not reciprocal, if all the judges find him innocent, they will acquit the accused as well.) The case must proceed with some judges arguing the accused side. The unanimity against the accused is suspect. (See Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 9:1)
Of course, the majority is not always wrong either. Rather than accepting or rejecting an opinion because it happens to be a majority opinion, we should examine all positions with an open mind to see that opinion or action is in line with our values and beliefs.
To read last year's Table Talk on Noah click here.
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