Should we use the government, the law, and the police, to make people be religious?

It certainly seems so from a cursory reading of this verse: "Place judges and police in all of your towns that God gives you, and they should judge the people justly."[1] Rashi there comments: "Judges to judge and police to enforce the mitzvot, to hit and punish corporeally until they accept the judgement of the judge."

This is, for many, a basis for insisting that we enforce religion at any cost, even if it means browbeating the masses into submission.
I think they're missing the point.

Police and judges are important parts of a well-functioning society. They don't, however, govern by fiat. The justice system is an extension of the values and norms that the society has chosen for itself. Once the people have chosen or agreed upon[2]. a set of values to underpin their broader social interactions, then a justice system can be set up to maintain and enforce those norms.

All societies have deviants, people who are not interested in or don't agree with the norms of the society at large. These people are those whom the justice system targets and hopes to police - those outside of the system, who buck societal norms. However, when the very undergirding of the society disappears, when the common goals and values cease to carry weight, a justice system becomes ineffective, even criminal. At that point, the government rules without the consent of the governed, and society starts to break down.

This is what the Sanhedrin understood when they left their chambers on the Temple Mount.[3] They saw that the common values of society that they were enforcing - namely, not to murder - were no longer part of the societal fabric, and that they were enforcing laws to no effect. The Sanhedrin left their chambers, relinquishing the power to punish murders, understanding that the law was powerless in the face of the people's will.

There is a lesson here for our daily lives and interactions with others. When we want to enforce a set of values and norms - in our family or the workplace, for example - it does no good to enforce those values top-down, by decree. Instead, we must try and create a culture, a place where the natural norms are the values that we want to see. At that point, enforcement will take care of itself.

Many people miss this point, and suffer for it immensely. Bosses try and dictate a workplace culture through draconian rules, and instead foster a lack of trust and a toxic workplace. Parents try and force their children to "be religious," not understanding that the practice has no meaning without the heart, and that more enforcement will just push them away.

Societies, cultures, are built through mutual respect, connection, and discussion. When the founders of the United States put their ideas for freedom and equality down on paper, they were drawing on a wellspring of common values and ideas. Over time, those values have faded into the background, and begun to erode. Now we are seeing the fruits of that erosion - a society which cries to "defund the police," which no longer consents to be governed.

Those values faded because we took them for granted. To revitalise our culture, both in the public and private spheres, we can talk to one another about what is important to us, about those things that give life meaning, about those values that we see as being critical. We must open the conversation, listening well to the other, rather than cowering in our bunkers, firing potshots at the other side. The same holds true for families - conversations around values and meaning need to be at the front and centre of the family dynamic.

We can build consensus and we can build strong, vibrant societies and families. But it must be done through respect, openness, and communication, instead of violence and fear.


  1. 16:18 ↩︎

  2. This is an emergent process - there is no meeting where the society gathers and agrees to a system of values. ↩︎

  3. See Rosh Hashana 31b, Sanhedrin 41a and Rashi in both places ↩︎