Freedom to Sin: A Jewish Jurisprudence of Religious Free Exercise

67 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2022

See all articles by Shlomo Pill

Shlomo Pill

Texas Southern University - Thurgood Marshall School of Law; Emory University School of Law

Date Written: November 30, 2021


In recent years, tensions between religious conviction and religious liberty principles has become increasingly pronounced. Clashes between the desires of some religious Americans to see their traditional values affirmed in the law—whether in the form of positive legislation or religious exemptions from generally applicable laws—have become routine. These experiences highlight the question: Can deep commitments to the normativity of religious laws and values coexist with proscriptions against government establishments of religion and protections for religious free exercise, including the freedom to sin? Exploring the issue from the doctrinal and historical perspective of Jewish law, this article suggests that the answer is “yes.” While Judaism has long viewed law as a primary medium for religious experience, rabbis over the past two thousand years have rarely argued for the strict, coercive application of Jewish law in their religious communities. Instead, in those times and places where Jewish communities possessed a degree of political autonomy and police power over their members, rabbis have consistently shown a concern for maintaining social order and cohesion while allowing individuals the “freedom to sin” as long as that sin does not hurt others or the community at large. These arguments still have relevance to Western societies today. Too often, commentators assume that religious commitments entail support for religious establishments and the curtailment of the freedom to sin. This article dispels that notion and show that it is possible to maintain a high degree of personal and communal religious commitment while also not practicing religious coercion. In allowing for broad freedom for individuals to practice different religions or no religion at all as long as they do not harm the wider community, this approach offers one model for thinking about tensions between citizens’ religious convictions, protections for religious free-exercise, and limitations of religious establishments.

Keywords: Religious Liberty, Jewish Law, Constitutional Law, Free Exercise of Religion, Law and Religion, Religion and State

Suggested Citation

Pill, Shlomo, Freedom to Sin: A Jewish Jurisprudence of Religious Free Exercise (November 30, 2021). Regent University Law Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2021-2022, Available at SSRN:

Shlomo Pill (Contact Author)

Texas Southern University - Thurgood Marshall School of Law ( email )

3100 Cleburne Street
Houston, TX 77004
United States

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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