Are there limits to our exercise of power?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 23, 2007
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.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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