Shoftim: Fulfilling the Mitzvot with Love – through “Religious Coercion”

When the Jewish People stood at Mount Sinai, they proclaimed without hesitation, “We will do and we will listen” before even receiving the Torah.

But if the Jewish People were so willing to receive Torah by their own free choice, the question that begs asking is: Why was it given to them through coercion? After all, Tractate Shabbat (88 ) brings down the following: “To teach that the Holy One Blessed Be He overturned the mountain (Sinai) upon them like an (inverted) cask and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there (underneath the mountain) shall be your burial!”. But if they already accepted the Torah willingly, what was the need for all this?

The Maharal from Prague (in the book “Tiferet Yisrael”) answers upon this very basic question in the following way: Being that the Torah is the very essence of the Jewish People who without it have no reason for existence,
there is no way that the Torah can obligate us simply because we chose it to be that way. It must go deeper. It must be made clear that there is no connection between the personal decision of Am Yisrael to receive Torah (“We will do and we will listen”) and the fact that the Torah was given to us. It must be made clear that even if G-d forbid “we will not do”, the Torah was given to us against our wills! Therefore, G-d turned over the mountain upon us in order to convey to us that we must not think for a moment that we fulfill the Torah because we decide to, but rather we must realize that it is a Divine obligation – the yoke of heaven!

This concept is certainly pertinent today, since the basic western concept dominating society of “Live and Let Live” has become quite popular among a high percentage of religious Jews. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear
skullcap donning Jews throwing around the slogan “live and let live” as if it is one of the ten commandments. The fact is, many use this concept to dismiss themselves, so to speak, from taking responsibility for “Klal Yisrael”. By so doing, they on one hand give legitimacy to every Jew to choose the “faith” he wishes, while on the other hand they give themselves legitimization to dismiss themselves from the unpleasant obligation of “Tochacha” (chastising).

Indeed, one who has been exposed to a western culture for so many years will have great difficulty accepting the idea that the Torah was given under coercion, for it is an idea that stands in direct contrast to the basic democratic concept of “live and let live”. For the concept of “religious coercion” has become a dirty word today, even amongst an increasing number of religious Jews who really do not pay attention to the words they say. We will now cause them to pay attention.

Torah Without Coercion?

Did there ever exist a system of laws in this world that did NOT require coercion? Of course not. After all, such a system would lead to absolute chaos! Now – if we believe that the Torah is the exclusive system of laws for the Jewish People, how can we possibly say that there is no coercion necessary?! And if this is so, why all the guilt and inferiority complexes on the subject?! Is the system of laws brought down in our Torah somehow unworthy that less be demanded of them than from any other set of laws?!

Ours sages tell us: “If there are no police officers – there are no judges.” In other words, without a coercive body to enforce the law, there is no justice! And so the Torah is filled with punishments which the court system (and let us not even speak of the Heavenly Court) must impose to punish transgressors. If that isn’t “religious coercion”, than what is?

There is a popular self-righteous argument which says: “We must educate the people to love Torah, so that they may fulfill it with love and not under coercion”. Of course this is true! But it is true in the same way concerning
bankrobbers. It is important to educate muggers not to rob banks, but in the meantime, until everyone is educated, we have policemen and judges who punish the muggers, thank G-d. But isn’t that coercion? Nu, what can on do?
Sometimes one must take undemocratic measures such as preventing man’s basic right to rob banks….

The “Sefer HaChinuch” (Mitzvah 491, Shoftim) brings this down in a revolutionary manner. It explains that the way to educate man to fulfill mitzvot is through love, via coercion. Here are the words of the “Chinuch”: “..to appoint judges and police officers who will force the people to do the mitzvot of the Torah, and will return the strays from the true path against their wills.. and out of habit in going down the straight path out of fear, the people will learn in a natural way to be righteous out of love and through a recognition that it is the true way..”(see more).

Yes. Ironically enough, the way to fulfill mitzvot out of love is through: “religious coercion”!

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