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Shemot/Exodus 23:2 You shall not be after the many for evil; and you shall not testify over a dispute to turn away after the many to pervert.
This verse is one of the key texts in the empowerment of the rabbis to give them authority in matters of Jewish law and lifestyle. The plain text meaning - "Do not follow a majority to do evil" - is inverted to mean - "Follow the majority to do good" - and so enables majority decisions in rabbinic discussions and courts to have the force of Torah.Ibn Ezra states the case: "You shall not side with the majority to do wrong. But by the same token, it is a commandment to side with them when they do right."
Although most English translations render as if it were a verb - "to do wrong" (ESV, JPS, NKJV) or "in doing wrong" (NASB, NIV, NRSV) - it is in fact a feminine plural noun from the root , "to break, break in pieces, be evil, do evil", so strictly "evil or wicked things". The word , used twice in this verse, is an adjective meaning either 'mighty' or 'many'. Some argue that the context of this verse, which seems to suggest a court setting and where the next verse says, "nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute" (v. 3, JPS), favours translating "the mighty", so that the paragraph (vv. 1-3) instructs judges not to favour either side - the mighty or the poor - in litigation. The majority prefer "the many" or "the multitude", emphasising the dangers of judges being swayed either by peer pressure or the crowd to give an opinion they know is wrong or evil. Richard Elliott Friedman's modern commentary sums this up well: "Do not follow a group, a crowd, a majority if what they are doing is wrong. Do not do it for acceptance, for the secure feeling of being in a group, or for the sadistic pleasure of being able to exclude someone. It is easy to be hurtful in a group. And it is easy to keep silent when one's group does harm. All of this is forbidden. It is utterly inconsistent with the Torah's conceptions of what a human should be and how one should behave toward other human beings."
The question of justice is clearly important, soRashi explains that, "The plain meaning of the verse is that if you see wicked people perverting justice, do not follow them just because they are the majority; rather, state the judgement as it is and let the chain [of responsibility for false judgement] hang from the neck of the majority." This is echoed by the Rashbam - "If, in your opinion, your fellow judges' decision is an unjust one, you shall not side with them even if you know that people will follow the majority and not believe you" - and Bekhor Shor: "Even though it is right to follow the majority, if you think they are wrong, it is better to side with the minority, since the majority will do what it wants anyway. You should always say what you think - for the majority might change its mind, follow your opinion and make things come out right." During the process, then, everything can be done to argue different opinions, but Hirsch sums up, "the last phrase declares absolutely that all views must finally incline to that of the majority. Once the opinion of every member has been given, the vote of the majority becomes law and verdict, and the minority who differ have to accept the opinion of the majority as being true."
Targum Onkelos paraphrases the middle clause of the verse as, "do not restrain yourself from teaching what is [correct] in your eyes", agreeing with the other commentators that during discussion, the truth as each one sees it must be brought to the fore. He inverts the sense of the last phrase, however, into a positive statement: "conclude the lawsuit like the majority." This can be difficult if one is convinced that a miscarriage of justice is taking place, or that the arguments have not been heard properly.
In Rabbinic Judaism, even G-d is excluded from opposing the rabbinic majority. In one of the more celebrated stories in the Talmud, The Oven of Aknai - b. Bava Metzia 59a/b, the rabbis are discussing the halachic purity of an oven. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus argues that because the oven is constructed from multiple components separated by layers of sand, it is not subject to the regulations regarding ritual purity. The rabbis argue to the contrary that, as it is encased in one outer shell, it is a single item and is subject to the regulations. Rabbi Eliezer calls several miracles and evenHaShem's voice from heaven to testify that his argument is correct, at which point "Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'Lo b'shamayim, it is not in heaven' (D'varim 30:12). What did he mean by this? - Said Rabbi. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, 'After the majority must one incline' (Shemot 23:2)." By this reckoning, HaShem placed Himself in subordination to the rabbinic courts.
The Wisdom literature is full of warnings not to follow the wicked into sin: "My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent" (Proverbs 1:10, ESV) or "Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil" (4:14, ESV). The Psalmist promises blessing for those who avoid sin but stay focused upon G-d: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the L-RD, and on His law he meditates day and night" (Psalm 1:1-2, ESV). The gospels hold Pilate up as a man who failed uphold justice, even though he knew that Yeshua was innocent, because of the supposed majority of protesters: "So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the mob, set Bar-Abba free for them; but he had Yeshua whipped and then handed Him over to be executed on the stake" (Mark 15:15, CJB). The Roman governor Felix also showed himself more concerned about popularity than justice: "After two years, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus; but because Felix wanted to grant the Judeans a favor, he left Sha'ul still a prisoner" (Acts 24:27, CJB).
In an argument with some Torah teachers, Yeshua rebuked them for their attitudes showing complicity with previous generations who had mistreated G-d's messengers: "Woe to you! You build tombs in memory of the prophets, but your fathers murdered them! Thus you testify that you completely approve of what your fathers did - they did the killing, you do the building!" (Luke 11:47-48, CJB). The prophets stood out from the crowd, proclaiming G-d's message to the leaders and the people, calling them to repent from their sin and return to G-d's ways and covenant; they refused to go along with a disobedient majority. James uses them as an example for the early church: "As an example of suffering mistreatment and being patient, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of ADONAI" (James 5:10, CJB).
On the other side of the coin, Rav Sha'ul warns us about those people who go their own way and engage in wrong behaviour: "They know well enough God's righteous decree that people who do such things deserve to die; yet not only do they keep doing them, but they applaud others who do the same" (Romans 1:32, CJB). Not only do they actively commit sin, but they build up a majority around them to support them, claiming that their behaviour is perfectly normal, good and appropriate; throwing off the social mores of the Christian heritage, they change the definitions and boundaries of life itself to suit themselves and collect others to vote with them and constitute a majority of opinion. We can hear Isaiah's words being fulfilled: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who change darkness into light and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter!" (Isaiah 5:20, CJB).
A wit once said that it is only the live fish that swim upstream; the dead ones just float and go with the flow. The story is told of a man with a sandwich board protesting in the city of Sodom. When asked what he hoped to accomplish, he confessed that while he had once hoped to change the city, then to change his neighbours, he now protested every day, because it was only by protesting that he could stop the city of Sodom changing him. As believers in Messiah Yeshua, we are called to be counter-cultural and to demonstrate the wisdom of the kingdom - the wisdom that the world consider foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:21) - to those around us. Of course, we are not to bring the kingdom into disrepute by our stupidity, but we have to be prepared to stand up and be counted. We need to declare what is good and what is true, so that people are aware that there is a difference and that all our our lifestyle choices have consequences and costs. We need to allow G-d to shine His light through us into the people around us - not just those dark corners, after all you may not know many of those people, but all the shades of grey and shadow - so that the darkness is pushed back and the truth is known.
Further Study: Jeremiah 8:7; Luke 11:34-35; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Application: Where are you? What are you doing - are you protesting and swimming upstream, or are you just going with the flow? How can you take a stand, however small, today for the kingdom of G-d?
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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