Dec 8, 2009

religious and secular coercion

In light of Minister Neeman's statement about introducing Jewish law into the Israeli lawbooks, I wonder how it would work. I don't know what his intentions were, and I do not know if he meant to redesign Israel into a "Halachic State" (whatever that is), or if he just wants the State law to be more inclusive of Jewish law in society.

Regardless of that, the response has been quick to come. The various secular MKs and others have been quick to condemn Neeman's statement claiming it will lead to religious coercion and all sorts of other problems inherent in a "Halacha State".

After seeing a few condemnations, I decided to pose a hypothetical question on Twitter.

I asked why is it ok to impose law on people not interested or against their beliefs as long as the law is secular but if we adopt religious law and make that the law of country than they would consider it consider it coercion?

Meaning, if we make a law that one is not allowed to eat pork, for example, someone secular and opposed to such a law would consider it religious coercion, and therefore opposes the implementation of a lawbook based on halacha.

But if the law says that one is not allowed to cross the street against the light, for example, I am not allowed to oppose that law. Can I call it secular coercion?

Why is it legitimate for the secular state have the right to impose its laws, thereby imposing its set of values, on religious Jews, while a religious state (or call it a halacha state) would be considered religious coercion?

The ensuing discussion was interesting, though mostly off topic. It started out discussing the idea that if a religious law is "bad" it cannot be changed, because the law is imposed on us and we have to accept it as is (by definition of "halacha state" I assume), whereas with State law or "secular" law (for lack of a better word), if a law is deemed to be bad it can be changed. From there the discussion became one of mostly whether circumcision is good or bad and if it is wrong to main ones children.

What do you think about the original question - why is it ok for one set of laws to be introduced, with no opposition about coercion, while another set of laws is considered inherently wrong?


  1. It is an interesting question. The particular example you used was a bit faulty - because that secular law is a safety issue (for pedestrians and drivers), but the essential point remain valid.
    But I think a basic distinction from a secular point a view is whether the law is imposed externally - without regard to whether you feel the external source is valid/true, on the one hand. And on the other hand a law which comes from within, based on some sort of agreement of the members of that society (depending on the political system).

  2. "Why is it legitimate for the secular state have the right to impose its laws, thereby imposing its set of values, on religious Jews, while a religious state (or call it a halacha state) would be considered religious coercion?"

    because the majority of the country is not religious.

  3. Currently, laws are created by an elected legislative body, and go through a process of approval. In addition, they are subject to being cancelled or amended. Under this system, new laws may be added as needed.

    If halacha would be adopted as the new law of the land, the above process would be irrelevant, and the laws would no longer have any conenction to the people. Instead, they would be imposed from an outside source, upon which the people being governed have no influence or control.

    I'm not arguing the merits of one system over the other. I'm just stating one difference.

  4. LOZ - so if the majority was religious, which might not be too far off, then it would not be coercion to vote and change everything to halacha law? I dont think most people would agree with you.

    Yoni - that was the main thrust of our short conversation, but many laws are not dealt with in halacha, and would still need to be legislated, with halachic consideration perhaps.

  5. anonymous and yoni - but if the halacha law is adopted by that internal process, i.e. the knesset votes and decides to adopt halcha as the basis for laws, then it is self-imposed.

  6. Rafi, I agree, but if the law can never be reviewed by the knesset again - then it would be undemocratic. And if it could be reviewed/abolished in would be un-halachik, no?

  7. just like you can go from a secular legal system to a halachic system by a vote, why can it not be reversed and voted to go back to the secular system?

  8. that was my point - wouldn't a halachic system preclude that option of switching back with a vote?

  9. The problem with people speaking about a halachic legal system is that most people do not know how a modern halachic legal system would be constructed. Also, I do not believe that a halachic system is inherently undemocratic. The secular legal representatives are not simply elected; rather, most are appointed. The people that are appointed are not just anybody off of the street; rather, they have to go through a rigorous process of education and vetting. It is no different for a halachic judge. The difference is that the standards are set by Torah and not some vague code as it is now. Halachic judges must also go through a rigorous process of education and vetting. People that would want to enter such a profession could still do so as long as they are Jewish and are willing to accept the law as binding and applicable in their own life. And contrary to popular secular belief there are many places for professional women in a halachic court system. I think one big difference is that judge's moral standard must be higher, as they are inherently held to a higher standard by the populace and the law itself. Also, if you want to speak about secular laws imposing views that are not generally accepted by the public one can easily look at the issue of the secular government forcing the public in general to accept homosexuality as a legitimate alternative to the traditional family unit. This is an unpopular imposition without a doubt, yet the secular government imposes it on all secular and religious alike. A national poll or referendum would quickly prove that point.

  10. One of the main things valued in a democratic society is personal liberty. The lack of which is something the founding fathers of the US were fighting against.

    The only real limit on personal liberty is when that freedom impinges on someone else or the society as a whole. Hence the reason you can limit liberty with safety laws.

    Imposing Religious laws on people flies directly in the face of that idea and of course another cornerstone of democracy, freedom of religion.

    Frankly, as an orthodox Jew, the last thing I would want at this point in time is for Israel to become a theocracy. As it is, we're finding the imposition of one way of religious thinking to be onerous and divisive. I shudder to think what would happen if any one religious ideology (except my own of course :) would run the country.

  11. In halacha there are Chukim and Mishpatim laws. Chukim are laws that we follow because God said so and Mishpatim are laws that in general society can figure out on it's own.

    When the State creates laws they are operating in the area of Mishpatim. They are tyring to pass laws that benefit society with the consensus of society. Even in times were Israel was governed to some degree by halacha, there were Kings to make the laws.

    The idea of a theocracy makes me nervous for a number of reason. It takes away freedoms that lead to societies that grow and prosper. Secondly the problem is who will decide what the halacha is. I don't want the nut cases in Bet to decide the rule of law for the entire country.

  12. In the US some complain about seat belt laws, as an imposition on personal liberty - they want to decide for themselves if it's really safer (or worth the discomfort?) to wear them.

    But in theory all safety-related laws could be based statistics. In theory.

    And what about welfare-related laws? The government forcibly collects taxes from my salary and distributes it to many causes that I don't agree with. Is that an infringement of my liberty? It certainly is someone else imposing their moral judgment on me.

  13. Shifra, A strict libertarian might agree with you. But most reasonable people in a democracy understand that one of the roles of government is to protect its citizens, create and maintain infrastructure, and other social items.

    You disagree with a particular military goal or infrastructure project. People can and do argue over how far this should go, but the basic idea that people allow themselves to be taxed for the greater good is pretty much universally accepted.


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