Are there limits to the exercise of power?

Do Torah Jews have an obligation to use any power, political or economic, that they can muster to force the not-yet religious to live in greater conformity with the Torah’s commands? In determining whether to employ the power at our disposal, is it permissible to take into account such factors as the norms of a democratic society, the chances of stirring up a backlash against religious Jews, or the possibility that coerced conformity to halachic norms could be at the cost of a genuine religious commitment at some later date?

Let me give an example of the type of situation that I have in mind in posing these questions. Imagine a formerly secular neighborhood in Jerusalem into which chareidi Jews have begun to move. The neighborhood has a communal swimming pool. When the chareidi population reaches 30% of the neighborhood, the chareidim ask the community center to set aside hours for separate swimming for men and women, and the community center acquiesces.

Now what happens when the chareidi population reaches 70%? Let us say that the chareidim are in a position to end all mixed swimming and institute only separate hours. Would they be halachically obligated to do so? Would the failure to do so constitute a de facto approval of mixed swimming?

What might be some of the countervailing considerations to exercising our power? For one thing, the hypothetical case described above involves a degree of religious coercion. The chareidi population would not just be acting to ensure its own ability to live as Torah observant Jews, but imposing halachic norms on other Jews. There is no greater hot button issue for the secular population than religious coercion, or one that does more to provoke hostile responses to religious Jews.

Nor would the backlash in such a case be hard to understand. One of the basic principles of a democratic polity is reciprocity: The basic social contract is predicated upon the mutual recognition of various “rights” in each citizen. Many democracies have excluded certain groups – Communists, Jihadists – from the political process on the grounds that if they were ever to emerge victorious they would deny the same political rights to others.

If chareidi Jews establish the principle that they recognize no “rights” for non-observant neighbors when they become the majority of a neighborhood, we can hardly be surprised if secular Jews react with hostility as soon as the first chareidi moves into a neighborhood. The secular Jews would simply be acting in self-defense in preventing a BaDaTz eruv, for instance, from being erected around the neighborhood, as part of an effort to exclude chareidim.

Similar issues arise in many different contexts. Road closings are another example. When chareidim move into a neighborhood knowing that certain streets and throughways have Shabbos traffic, what should they do when they become the majority? Must they seek to close local streets or should recognition be given to the previous status quo and the “rights” of long-time secular residents? And what if the neighborhood becomes completely religious? Are they halachically obligated to seek the closure of through streets that connect non-religious neighborhoods? And what are the limits on the means employed to attain that result?

FRANKLY, I have no idea what is the right answer to these questions. At most, it is possible to bring proofs that the impact of our actions on the future religious development of not-yet religious Jews is a valid consideration. In one famous passage, the Chazon Ish writes that the din of mordim v’ein ma’alin for flagrant evildoers no longer applies in a period of hester panim. Application of the din today would only be viewed by the general public as an act of cruelty and violence. Rather than preventing breaches in the fence of mitzvah observance, as originally intended, its application would only result in further breaches (Chazon Ish, Yore Deah 2:16). In a similar vein, the Chazon Ish told a certain rabbi that he should allow Shabbos violators to be given aliyos. Today, when Shabbos violators are the majority, refusing to give them aliyos will not cause them to repent, and thus the migdar milsa is no longer in force.

It is also clear that there are circumstances in which we do not have to use every ounce of our coercive power. The Chazon Ish writes in one of his letters: “It is impossible to impose the authority of the Torah upon the masses. [O]nly through the select individuals among the people for whom Torah and mitzvos are their life and soul. . . is it impossible for the authority of Torah to be accepted, even in small measure” (Kovetz Igros III: 102).

Rabbi Grylak shared with me recently the following story. A newly minted ba’al teshuva complained to Rav Shach that his wife continued to watch TV on Shabbos. Rav Shach told him that his wife had not married him with any thought of becoming religious, and as long as she observed the minimum halachos required for them to continue living together, he had no right to place further demands upon her. If the TV on Shabbos bothered him, then he should go into the other room. (Unquestionably, Rav Shach knew that no other approach offered any hope of the wife also accepting the yoke of mitzvos.)

I do not claim that these citations resolve the questions with which we began. I am not qualified to medameh milsa l’milsa (compare one situation to another). But such questions will only multiply, especially as the chareidi population becomes an ever greater percentage of the population. (Recently I was asked by a major American journal to write an article on how chareidim will rule in Israel when they become a majority. I had no idea where to look for guidance.)

Three weeks ago, the Israeli media carried three stories related to the questions posed at the outset in a 24-hour period. One involved a woman allegedly attacked on a bus in Ramat Beit Shemesh for refusing to move to the back of the bus; another the violent confrontations in Ramat Beit Shemesh Beit (the closing of a pizza store that had mixed seating even made it to the front page of The New York Times); and a third story dealt with opposition by residents of Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, into which large numbers of chareidim are moving, to a BaDaTz eruv.

The issues of how we relate to our non-religious neighbors and to Israeli democracy in general are not trivial, and they will not go away. They require the attention of our finest Torah scholars.

This article appeared in the Hebrew Mishpacha on November 23 2007.

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12 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    The issues of how we relate to our non-religious neighbors and to Israeli democracy in general are not trivial, and they will not go away. They require the attention of our finest Torah scholars.

    Agreed, yet thses issues are not new. What has the response been on closing roads etc? Given the proclivity in this community to run one’s total life by daat torah, surely the question has been raised.

  2. Ori says:

    Well said. May I add something from the perspective of somebody who grew up Chiloni in Israel? This fear of religious coercion is very real, and the hostility it generates causes great harm.

    If there are Halachic limits on religious coercion, it would be great Kidush haShem if Gdoley Israel were to articulate them in a way that Chilonim would understand and be able to trust.

  3. Harry Maryles says:

    The issues of how we relate to our non-religious neighbors and to Israeli democracy in general are not trivial, and they will not go away. They require the attention of our finest Torah scholars.

    Fascinating article. I lean heavily to not ‘shoving religion down people’s throats’ …and I think that was the CI’s point. But if you feel that we still need to ask ‘our finest Torah scholars’ …the question in my mind is who exactly do we rely upon that is in the category of ‘our finest Torah scholars’?

    Do we speak to a R. Elyashiv? …or do we speak to a Rav Lichtenstien? I’m not trying to say that they are equally qualified or that they have equal Torah knowledge. I’m not the one to judge that.

    But Torah knowledge alone is not necessarily enough. Free access to a Posek and the ability to transmit all relevant information accurately to him… in a non biased way… is a necessary component for him to be able to Paskin correctly. Furthermore, a Gadol’s Hashkafic orientation is a factor too. And that can easily result in two opposite Halachic decisions on the part of two very qualified Poskim. Who do we listen to then?

  4. zalman says:

    Well said.
    Perhaps our finest Torah scholars will determine that an evaluation of our actions should ab initio take into account the impact on all Jews, such that the impact on “not-yet religious Jews” will be more than a “valid consideration.”

  5. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Beyond the issues of religious coercion, the charedi leadership will need to positively address broad issues. Prof. Ish Shalom during his famous interview on conversion that I assume many have heard about, said as follows:

    “Many questions arise from the establishment of a Jewish sovereign state, questions that never arose in the Diaspora,” he notes. “How do we build a national economy? On what values do we base our national budget? The rabbinate has no view on this. We have an army now, we deal with counterterrorism, fighting in the middle of a civilian population, facing situations of kidnapped and missing soldiers, roadblocks. What are the ethics a Jewish army should have? How much should we pay for [kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl.] Gilad Schalit’s release?

    “Judaism doesn’t have an opinion on this? Of course it does! But the rabbinate is silent. Or social justice – Judaism has nothing to say about social justice? Of course it does! But the rabbinate doesn’t say it. Should Israel conduct foreign relations with dictatorial regimes? Is Israel permitted to supply weapons to certain countries, according to Judaism? Is there room for moral considerations in all this? Of course there is. But the rabbinate doesn’t deal with it….

    “There are many more questions connected to the meaning and structure of a Jewish state, for which the rabbinate could have been the intellectual and spiritual resource that inspires [us] and to which we turn to hear Judaism’s opinion on legislation, policy, and such. Not merely an enforcing body on marriage, divorce, mikvaot and kashrut. But all these great and important national questions aren’t heard in the rabbinate.”

    And this has been a major factor in the rabbinate’s current irrelevance, he adds. The secular public doesn’t turn to the rabbinate, nor does the rabbinate attempt to speak to the secular public.

    The challenge for what Rabbi Rosenblum terms “our finest Torah scholars” is much deeper than imagined. Dealing with these issues would have profound impact for all sides.

  6. YM says:

    These policies must be set by the G’dolim in Israel. Hashem should bless them with wisdom.

  7. Garnel Ironheart says:

    If the one of the main purposes of being a Torah-observant Jew is to cause the name of Heaven to be loved by all, as on Yoma 86a, then religious coercion is certainly not a tactic that should be adopted even when Chareidim become 95% of a neighbourhood.

    Koheles tells us that the words of the Sages are heard when said pleasntly. Mishlei tells us that a kind word turns away much wrath. If 95% of the neighbourhood is Chareidi, the biggest way to get the last 5% to agree to separate hours at the pool and a BaDatz eiruv is to live an exemplary Torah lifestyle that they wil be attracted to. Religious coercion will receive only a backlash and episodes of chilul HaShem, chas v’shalom.

  8. Phil says:

    “The issues of how we relate to our non-religious neighbors and to Israeli democracy in general are not trivial, and they will not go away. They require the attention of our finest Torah scholars.”

    Since these issues have been around for decades, surely no one has to bring them to the finest Torah scholars’ attention. Can a reader of Cross-Currents please link to an essay in which a great Torah scholar addresses this issue? (besides the Chazon Ish and Rav Shach, since they’ve already been mentioned.)

  9. YM says:

    If Garnel Ironheart’s reasoning is taken further, we could also say that Hashem could have made his name more beloved by commanding us to pursue pleasure and by not prohibiting anything that anybody wants to do.

    I’m not even sure where we draw the line concerning what is and what isn’t “religious coercion”. Prohibiting murder, I think we agree is not religious coercion; Banning mixed swimming, we would agree, is. What about prohibiting pictures of almost naked women on bus stop shelters? What about mandating monetary disputes be adjudicated according to halacha? Isn’t the fact that Israel uses civil law for monetary disputes coercion?

  10. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “There is no greater hot button issue for the secular population than religious coercion, or one that does more to provoke hostile responses to religious Jews.”

    It’s important for both religious and secular Jews to at least be able to enter the mindset of each other and to understand where the other is coming from. If the Torah community has no choice but to inconvenience people on issues of major importance, it needs to be able to demonstrate good-will, by being able to compromise in other, lesser, areas. This is based on assigning a relative level of importance to various issues.

    Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz mentions this point in “Is Everything a Ten?”, linked below(I remember that this was also mentioned in a Jewish Observer article following the Tommy Lapid victory). As Dr. Richard Carlson writes(“Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”), “if you choose your battles wisely, you’ll be far more effective in winning those battles that are truly important”.

  11. szn says:

    in addition to ”The issues of how we relate to our non-religious neighbors and to Israeli democracy in general are not trivial, and they will not go away.” , the issue of how charedi community should relate to the RZ or MO community also needs to be explored. sometimes one needs to push harder at the ‘closer relative’, lest they influence each other…

  12. cvmay says:

    “One involved a woman allegedly attacked on a bus in Ramat Beit Shemesh”, why is there still an alleged assumption for this attack on a woman in RBS?
    I would imagine that it can be verified by now. This event on the bus and the attack on the Pizza shop are NOT examples of religious coercion, rather RELIGIOUS BULLYING, which is quite different and much more different to contain and rein in.

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