Religious Coercion or Gentle Persuasion
Commentators have struggled with and argued about the incident of the “Me-Meriba”, the waters of strife for a long time. After the children of Israel complained about the absence of water in the desert, Moshe was ordered by God to speak to the rock, but he hit it instead. (Bamidbar chapter 20.)
Indeed, why was Moshe punished so harshly for his failure to live up to this commandment? His ultimate and ongoing dream to enter and live in the land of Israel was shattered because of it and all his pleas to God to forgive him for this sin, were not accepted. The divine severity in this narrative is indeed unprecedented. Four times (1) the Torah keeps referring to this story and the divine expression of “anger” are extraordinary. Five times God condemns him for this sin: “Because you did not believe in Me”; “You rebelled against Me”; “You rebelled against My commandment”; “You trespassed against Me”; “You did not sanctify Me in the midst of the Children of Israel”.
The sin is even more perplexing since it is no less miraculous that water was produced by the act of the rock being struck rather than being spoken to. Only one slight blow emitted water for hundreds of thousands of people. No scientific explanation could ever account for this! So why should this have been a sign of disbelief and rebellion?
What was lost by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it? And why did God insist on speech and nothing else? Why did He not suggest to Moshe that he could speak or hit it as he preferred? Did God not leave many things in the hands of Moshe to decide for himself? (Torah Lo Ba-Shamayim Hi!)
Paraphrasing Sophocles in his Philoctetes we could say “I see that everywhere among the race of men, it is the tongue that wins and not the coercive act.” Hitting somebody reflects coercion and does not leave the other person any other option but to follow suit whatever they are told to do. To refuse is nearly impossible and hence it does not show any real willingness on the side of the person who is hit as to whether he or she is in agreement with the act they are now about to do. It does not reveal whether the deed is authentic. In fact in many cases it is not.
Speech on the other side is an act of persuasion. It enables the listener to decide whether he will act on the speech or not. The response is therefore authentic and genuine. (2)
Throughout the days in the desert God used a great amount of coercion to get the people to agree to live by the commandments. In many ways the revelation at Sinai showed a great amount of overkill. This is very well expressed in the famous remark by the Talmud that God threatened to place the mountain on top of the Israelites and have them die if they would not obey. It was Rabbi Aha ben Yacov who exclaimed that this was a violation of the mutual covenant as God had promised and consequently a “moda’a raba l’oirata” a strong protest, against the obligatory nature of the commandments. (3) How are they binding when it was coercion which made the Jews to agree to observe them? In fact it has been suggested by some Chassidic masters (4) that this caused the severe sin of the golden calf! The overkill was too much to bear and at a certain level it became counter productive.
Still, the law is a necessity and sometimes for the benefit of man coercion is a essential ingredient for his education. ” Homines enim civiles non nascuntur, sed fiunt, said Spinoza (5) reflecting an old Jewish truth. But the Law needs to lead to moral freedom. This means that liberty is above all a problem of education. To be recognized as freedom and not as a constraint, lawful coercion must transform itself into an awareness in man in which he realizes that the law really represents a value which he would have accepted by gentle persuasion. King David expressed this well when he said: “I will walk in freedom for I have sought out Your law.” (Tehilim 119:45) By a beautiful exegetical pun, the Sages read the description of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written not as “the writing of God engraved (charut) on the tablets, but as freedom (cherut) on the tablets.” (6) Only when education has engraved the law into the hearts of men we experience absolute freedom. This is not what the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin calls “negative liberty” (7) a freedom from slavery, but a constitutional freedom in which one’s freedom automatically respects the freedom of the other and for which one is prepared to make sacrifices. Otherwise: “Freedom for the pike means death to the minnows.”
When standing at the border of the land of Israel, the Israelites had to undergo a radical change of weltanschaaung. While being brought up in the desert and Sinai on the notion of religious coercion as a necessary device to make them ready to live the lives as Jews, they now had to understand that the survival and future of Judaism had to come about by gentle persuasion. While bound by the Law, they had to understand that in building a deeply religious society, from the perspective of Jewish Education, it was speech and not the strike which would create the kind of conditions by which Jews would be willing and feel privileged to live by the Law.
A human being may be as hard as a rock, but to make him to see the laws as his delight one cannot strike him with that law but only speak to him through gentle argumentation and inspiration.
If this had not become clear at the very beginning of the first Jewish Commonwealth, its leadership would have turned into an absolute dictatorship with very fundamentalist tendencies. It would have been a sign of a lack of belief in the persuasive powers of the Torah as the word of God and it would have led to a trespass and the profanation of God’s name. It is this which was at the core of the sin of Moshe. For the sake of later generations God denied him the merit of living in the land so as to teach all leaders that those who believe that law of assault can turn the people of Israel into a holy nation once they enter the land are after all badly mistaken and may bring disaster on their people.
(1) Bamidbar 20: 12-13, 20: 23-24; Devarim 27: 12-14; 32: 48-51.
(2) This is alluded to by Meshech Chochma, ad loc. See also Maharal.
(3) Shabbath 88a
(4) See for example: Chidushe HaRim, Parashath Yitro.
(5) “For civil men are not born but made” Benedictus Spinoza, See T.H
Green, Principles of Political Obligation, p 53, Longman, Green &Co,
(6) Pirke Avoth 6:2.
(7) Two concepts of Liberty, in Four Essays on Liberty, pp. 118-173 where Berlin explains this in great length.