How should the Shabbat be observed in a Jewish and democratic state? In this 1992 essay, the political theorist Daniel Elazar considers the question, balancing majority will, individual conscience, consent of the governed, and subsidiarity. In considering the ways Israel’s many factions relate to the Shabbat, Elazar suggests local referenda can help move the state to a Jewish and democratic equilibrium.
This brings us back to the problems of how to reconcile private rights with a public good. Let us sum the argument:
1) There is a real difference in the tone of a society when there is a common Sabbath day which is reflected in the public realm and when there is not.
2) In our time there is clear conflict between that segment of the population, not all Orthodox by any means, who want the peace of the Sabbath to be the predominant atmosphere in their community and those, not all secular by any means, who believe that these are so thoroughly matters of private choice that even if the general Sabbath peace is broken, the public authorities should not intervene.
Civil society is able to exist only when its members agree, to a minimum “social contract” that ensures civil peace by achieving a sufficient moral consensus, at least with regard to the public sphere. Such a social contract is effective because it is accepted by common consent, not because it may be embodied in law. For many years, the famed “status quo” agreement formulated by Ben Gurion and Rabbi Maimon at the time of the establishment of the state was Israel’s social contract in religious matters. Recent events have demonstrated that it no longer has sufficient common consent to hold. Hence a revised social contract must be negotiated in this sphere. It will have to allow for some local option in matters of Sabbath entertainment.