Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

One of the strongest claims against deepening the influence of Torah and halakha on the State of Israel and against the necessary reforms in the judicial system, is that the greater the power the halakhic position is given, the more the religious public will force their beliefs on the secular and traditional public.

Unfortunately, a representative from the Shas party reinforced their claim, in a proposed law calling for a six-month imprisonment of a woman coming to the Kotel dressed immodestly. Too many hours passed before the proposal was canceled. The refusal to allow the “Ezrat Yisrael” egalitarian prayer section on the southern side of the Western Wall also expresses coercion.

The question arises: According to halakha, must the observance of mitzvot be forced on Jews who are not interested?

Hatred of Religious Coercion

Our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l, said: “I hate religious coercion. With what justice, and with what honesty, can religion be imposed on a person?” In an interview, he thus explained his support of the “League for the Prevention of Religious Coercion”(his remarks are mentioned in “Ma’aracha Ha’Tziburit”, edited by Rabbi Yosef Bramson, pg. 122).

Opposition to religious coercion is in principle, because coercion harms a person’s freedom of choice. God created man in His image, giving him free choice to choose good or evil, and coercion prevents him from doing so.

Therefore, even when the vast majority of Knesset members are religious and wish to run the state according to halakha, if they are truly loyal to Torah, it would be forbidden for them to impose Shabbat observance, religious education, eating kosher food, avoiding the publication of blasphemy, and the like.

As I will explain further on, coercion may exist only with the full consent of the entire public, similar to the consent of punishing thieves and drug dealers in order to save society from their harm. This consent is shared by the entire public, including the criminals themselves, before they committed the crimes. This is the case as well in “kofim al ha-mitzvot” (imposing of the mitzvot) – only after the entire public is in agreement that enforcement of offenses committed in public is worthwhile, consequently, giving it the status of a ‘brit’ (covenant), plus the Sanhedrin is established and even it agrees on enforcement of offenses in public – only then, will it be possible to force individuals who transgress the endorsed covenant (the subject is more complex, but this is its essence).

So what is a Halakhic State without Coercion?

The disputers will ask: What have we gained by having a state ruled according to halakha if we cannot not punish transgressors and force them to fulfill the mitzvot?

A state ruled according to halakha is a state in which Torah values are emphasized and strengthened through the expanding and deepening of study of Torah. The values of chesed (loving kindness) and assisting others will receive further reinforcement according to Torah guidance, by way of helping those who are capable of studying a respectable profession in order to help them stand on their own two feet and earn an honorable living, and by assisting those who are unable to do so.

Such a state will work more intensely towards settlement of the entire country, in its length and breadth; will work to strengthen Jewish identity in Israel and in the Diaspora; and work harder for the sake of Jewish immigration and their best absorption.

The development of science will be encouraged, because science is in the sense of “ma’aseh Berishit” (the work of Creation), and by way of its development, humanity gains prosperity and blessing. The state will work as best it can to provide medical, scientific, and agricultural assistance to peoples of the world who are in distress, and develop bonds with countries and companies that seek Israel’s proximity.

It is worth noting with satisfaction that all these values are already fulfilled today in the State of Israel – some effectively, others, less – and therefore, this is not a revolution, rather a continuation of the present situation, but with better precision and intensity. The more people learning Torah properly there are, we will all become stronger in fulfilling these values, for the glory of the People and the Land of Israel, and the entire world.

We Must Learn from Mount Sinai that Coercion is with Full Consent

The coercion of mitzvot is dependent on the broad and deep consent of all of Israel. Israel’s virtue of saying “na’aseh v’nishma” (we will do, and we will hear) before the Revelation on Mount Sinai is well-known. However, the other side of the agreement should be noted: the Torah was accepted willingly, to teach us that God does not want to force the Torah and the mitzvot on Israel. Therefore, God asked Moshe to ask the people if they wanted to accept the Torah, and only after everyone agreed, without exception, was the Torah given, as written:

“All those assembled answered as one, saying, “All that God has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8).

The consent was deep, and shared, as written:

“Israel encamped there in front of the mountain” (Exodus 19:2), and our Sages interpreted: “As one man with one heart.”

After this, God requested to ask the people if they wanted to jjoin with Him in a covenant to accept the Torah,

“And all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that God has commanded we will do… Moses then wrote down all the commands of God… Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that God has spoken we will faithfully do!” (ibid, 24:4-7).

The Need for Everyone to Once Again Receive the Covenant

Not only that, but in order for it to be absolutely clear that Israel did want to accept the Torah and its mitzvot, after forty years, before his passing, Moshe takes another action. In the plains of Moab, Moshe once again asks the sons of those who stood at Mount Sinai if they are willing, once more, to make a covenant. Moshe Rabbeinu did not settle for consent of the leaders, instead, the agreement to affirm the covenant was of all of the people, as written:

“You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, is making with you this day…” (Deuteronomy 29: 9-11).

Accepting the Covenant in the Days of Yehoshua, and Ezra

Even after entering the land, in the ceremony between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, we were commanded to once again return and establish the covenant (Deuteronomy 11: 29-32; 27:1-26; Sotah 37a). Israel did so under the leadership of Yehoshua bin Nun (Yehoshua 8:30-35, and also in Chapter 24).

This covenant required reinforcement after the destruction of the First Temple. Therefore, when the Jews returned to Israel from Babylon, they once again returned and accepted the covenant (Nehemiah, chapters 9-10; see, Ramban, Shabbat 88a), and by way of this, renewed the authority of the Batei Din (courts), and the obligation of the mitzvot dependent on the Land (Jerusalem Talmud, Shivi’it 6:1; Bavli, Arachin 32b: Peninei Halakha: Kashrut 12:6).


According to the Torah, coercion without a broad and deep agreement of all parts of the public is impossible. Just as in the previous covenants where acceptance of Torah’s law was achieved by all circles, as well as woodcutters and children, similarly, in the new covenant the People of Israel will make in the future, all circles will participate, without exception.

Moreover, the world’s over-all progresses is towards redemption, when the mitzvot will performed out of choice and desire, and not out of coercion. Therefore, there is no room for talk about religious coercion.

True, it is possible for public norms to be established, reflecting the values special to Israel, but they will be similar to all accepted conduct in the world, every place according to its own values, without extraordinary coercion.

Unfortunately, because of the prevailing concept that Jewish religion favors coercion, there are those who prefer the current judiciary system, even though in its decisions, it imposes the minority opinion on the majority, and prevents the People of Israel from fulfilling its vision of establishing a Jewish state, on the pretext of protection against coercion (see, Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am v’ Ha’Aretz, 6:1).

Ideas from the Torah Portion of the Holy Ark and its Form

In the Torah portion relating to the Aron (Holy Ark) there are seven verses (Exodus 25: 10-16), four dealing with the poles with which the Aron would be carried. It seems that we can learn from this that our greatest challenge is the way to connect to the Torah – how to study, and fulfill it, for indeed, its spiritual light is great and awesome, and when its light and guidance is learned improperly, its sanctity is misappropriated, as our Sages interpreted the verse:

“This is the Teaching that Moses set (in Hebrew, ‘sam’, or potion) before the Israelites” (Deuteronomy 4:44): “If one is deserving, the Torah becomes a potion [sam] of life for him. If one is not deserving, the Torah becomes a potion of death for him” (Yoma 72b).

Another interesting fact is that all of its dimensions are in half cubits –

“Two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high” (Exodus 25:10).

A whole cubit hints to a complete measure, while half, hints to something endless. Since the Torah is immeasurable, for by way of it, the infinite Divine wisdom is revealed, all its dimensions end in halves of cubits, alluding there is more to add to its understanding – in its length, width, and height. And as our Sages said (Genesis Rabbah 10: 1), everything is limited, heaven and earth, but the Torah is limitless, as written: “Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea” (Job 11: 9).

The Shulchan (Table) Alludes to Earning a Living

The Shulchan, located in the Kodesh (Inner Sanctuary) section of the Holy Temple, on which the Lechem HaPanim (Showbread) was sacrificed, expresses the value of work and earning a livelihood, for by means of working, man participates with God in the existence and development of the world. Its length and width was in whole cubits, and only its height was a cubit and a half, as written:

“You shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide, and a cubit and a half high” (Exodus 25:23).

This, implying that earning a living is indeed very important, and thus one should strive in its development, but there is a limit to its length and width — one should not worry about its stability (width) and development (length) limitlessly. But its height is a cubit and a half, implying there is no limit to the good intentions that can be added through the occupation in yishuvo shel ha’olam (settling the world).

The Inner Altar

The utensil made of entirely whole cubits was the Inner Altar, as written:

“It shall be a cubit long and a cubit wide—it shall be square—and two cubits high, its horns of one piece with it” (Exodus 30:2).

The altar alludes to sacrifice and prayers, which need to be fixed and limited, for if not, a person is liable to rely on a miracle, and not fulfill his purpose of being a partner with God in the existence of the world, and its perfection. On the other hand, its dimensions are fixed, so we will always remember through the fixed prayers, that everything is from God.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.