Political Problems, Torah Solutions: The Loudest Wins? – Of Sparta, Johnson, and Rashi

Posted on January 4, 2012 In Archives

IPA’s Director of Political Affairs, Maury Litwack, explores modern political problems within the context of Torah solutions.  Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official p’sak or policy of the OU.


“One man with courage makes a majority.”  – President Andrew Jackson

The Political Problem

Group discussions and group actions, especially in politics or communal decision making, are often full of a few people who are loud – very loud, which make it difficult for the remaining quieter voices to express their opinions or implement their input. This is a problem because the loudest voices aren’t inherently the smartest and important consensus building is often ignored or delayed due to these louder mouths.

The Political Solution

The loudest person appears often to be the most effective. If someone feels passionate about a particular topic and raises their voice louder than their peers perhaps their position is or seems to be worth more attention. The quieter voices, we assume, clearly just don’t believe enough in their position to properly broadcast their point. The political solution would argue that one doesn’t just need sharp elbows but a loud mouth as well to get things accomplished.

Historically, this goes back a ways to at least ancient Sparta, where they decided elections not by voting, but by shouting. Aristotle described this as “excessively childish,” but this ancient process did not stop with the Greeks. In the lead up to the Civil War, many of the passionate debates in Congress descended into shouting. Andrew Johnson faced similar difficulty during Reconstruction when during his Swing-Around-The-Circle speech tour he, President of the United States mind you, was forced to engage in shouting matches with many hecklers. Those shouters actually affected the sitting President’s popularity which spiraled down until his eventual impeachment. Not a bad result for those who challenged a sitting President in a shouting contest. Obviously, we can’t forget the more recent example of Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) yelling “you lie” during President Obama’s address to Congress. Wilson was largely condemned for this action but his point was carried on the media for many days. Being loud seemed to work for those who would shout in Sparta or those who would shout down or at sitting Presidents. Why wouldn’t this work for a school board meeting or shul event?

Truth be told, in Jewish life many would claim you must behave this way in order to have your voice heard. It is often argued that there are so many voices already doing this that if you don’t engage in the same behavior you simply won’t be heard.

The political solution would seem to be that if you can’t beat em join em. Why try to wait patiently when your turn may never come? Instead, rest those vocal chords until you will need them to shout down the opposition and make your point in as loud a manner as possible.

The Torah Solution

“The words of the wise are heard softly, more than the shout of a ruler of fools.”

Rashi comments on this pasuk from Koheles by comparing the impact of Moshe on the Jewish people, versus the impact that foreign kings had on us. Moshe’s rulings are still in place, which can hardly be said for so many who dictated opposing rules to the Jewish people. The difference Rashi seems to be getting at is that if you are someone of substance you will be listened to regardless of the shouting or even sheer numbers or power around you. And even if you lack an army to command it. Whereas even others with might and power and arms are ignored.

Many people would be scared to take this advice fearing they will be only one small, quiet voice. But, if you value your opinion as wise and worthwhile you must speak amongst the loudmouths who may choose to battle not based on wisdom but based on bluster. You may be one voice but if you have something to offer and that has meaning it will stand out, regardless of how difficult it may be to get your wisdom out there.

What we must realize is that most of the people in the room not shouting are pretty sick of hearing from the same people. I travel a lot and hear the same complaints from members of the Jewish community, the louder voices are too prevalent and moreover, they are not always right. There’s a real desire for more thoughtful dialogue in our community and I don’t think it has to be done within the context of a shouting match.

This desire for more wise and soft voices isn’t just reserved for the Jewish community. In Kansas City, one nonprofit group conducted 20 focus groups on political discourse. From citizens who belonged to the tea party to those who belonged to the NAACP, everyone agreed that the loudest voices often dominate the debate in a destructive manner. This group came to the recommendation that it was time to abandon “democracy by decibels.”

While I certainly can’t disagree that banning democracy by decibels is a cogent piece of advice, I think the Torah solution is to go further and encourage an injection of wise voices. Those who have something valuable to say must give the rest of us a chance to hear it and determine if it stands in contrast to the other sounds in the room and if we’d like to heed it.