Ask the rabbi: Are coerced acts religiously meaningful?

The question of railroad work on Shabbat is not a technical halachic question but a broader political question regarding the nature of the Jewish state and the role of religion in the public sphere.

By SHLOMO BRODY
December 7, 2017 18:33
4 minute read.
BOYS SEE their re ections in a pool with gold sh in AshdodA LABORER carries reinforcement bars at th

A LABORER carries reinforcement bars at the construction site of the high-speed railway line linking Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

 
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Debates over so-called “religious coercion” laws have re-emerged following the recent coalition crisis over railroad repairs on Shabbat. Many argue that forcing secular public employees to cease work on Shabbat is a form of meaningless religious coercion that causes weekday traffic problems and increases hostility toward religion. Others retort that a national day of rest from non-urgent public works provides social benefits to all workers and further enhances the Jewish character of the state. Yet does Jewish law recognize the meaningfulness of such political coercion?

With talmudic law, there is definitely a strand that accepts the legal validity of actions performed under coercion. For example, many people unwillingly sell their possessions, against their true desires, because they need the money. Similarly, there may be religious acts in which we recognize that people desire the benefits of performing the act, even if they do not want to do it. A person who has committed an inadvertent sin is required by the Torah to willingly offer a sacrifice. The Talmud asserts that we may coerce him until he chooses to perform the ritual, which seems like a contradiction. In the words of the Talmud, “We beat him until he says, ‘I consent.” The Sages explain that we assert that he desires the atonement and therefore accept his forced sacrifice as a deliberate act.

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