It seems so natural, so logical, so straight-forward to assume that if it says in the Bible that someone must or must not, that people should be forced to comply. However, that’s not what our holy Tradition shows.
First of all, G^d gave us the freedom to listen to Jewish Law. The Torah puts “Choose life” as a challenge, a Command but not a law to be enforced. We’re not supposed to be G^d’s marionettes or robots. We should not force other people (breeding revolt) — not even ourselves.
To help us, G^d tries to endear us to Him so that we would love to do His bidding. We are taught that “obeying” like that is the highest form of service. But in fact, when we want to obey, it doesn’t feel an obligation.
In idol worship, the gods are needy and must be obeyed for their good. The G^d of the Hebrews lacks nothing. All obligations He laid out are for our good, not His. This should not be overlooked. We can’t sadden Him. That’s how G^d rather has us abandon Him that ignore His Torah.
But G^d knows. Our lives are not always simple and humans don’t always have an easy time listening to our Souls, Teachers or Maker. So, He tells us clearly what we should and shouldn’t, whether we like it or not.
By the way, Biblical Hebrew has one verb conjugation that means at the same time “you should,” “you will” and you “are -ing.” It’s up to us if we do it the easy way, happily or the hard way, grudgingly out of obligation.
And if you would say: Can I help it if I would like doing something or not, the answer is, learn deeply until you become ready to love doing so.
But for those times that it’s not easy to comply, G^d gives excellent incentives. Obedience is richly rewarded, disobedience is punished.
For the thinkers who could not understand how an all-loving G^d could inflict pain, punishment is just deterrence. No one can say that it won’t happen, though — or we would not be deterred.
Fear, however, wears off, so we should not obey from fear ever. Fear of Heaven, though, is something else altogether. It’s like a fitting safety belt. It shouldn’t restrict breathing but in an emergency prevent us from getting harmed, doing something stupid we’d regret soon afterward.
Best is to serve G^d not for reward, as if we are open to Heavenly bribe. But still, doing good from greed is better than doing evil from being incorruptible. (Doing evil means that you’re corrupted already.)
Therefore, I read the beginning of Portion of the Week “Bechukotai” not as “do well and G^d will bless you; do evil and G^d will punish you.” Rather, if you live a righteous life, and all goes well, you’ll understand it all comes from G^d. But if you’re not so righteous and suffering, know that that all also comes from Him! He may motivate us but not force us.
G^d’s only created the Universe to express His generosity. The greatest charity is experienced by intelligent creatures after having worked for it.
Evil and distress are part of Creation, not as some say to enable Free Will or punishment. Rather, a Free Choice can be between good and better — doesn’t need to be between good and evil. Distress is here because a Free Choice made while we’re in pain is rewarded a thousand times more.
NB: Free Will is not being free to do whatever we want. An ant could. Rather, it is the ability to elevate ourselves, free ourselves from the moral level we had up until now to act even more ethically from now on.
Let it be clear that suffering is not the main thing G^d wants from us. The Jewish Tradition points out in many ways that all G^d wants from us is to have a good meaningful pleasant life — though in certain ways and within certain limits. (Limitless pleasure is not so good quickly anyway.)
If moral demands are complicated or contradicting each other, it could help to ask a specialist what to do. It may also help if such an advisor is someone else than us, more objective than us. But only if they know the subject and think nuanced enough about all aspects in individual cases. (If you know best, you don’t need to ask advice from someone clueless.)
Now, if G^d doesn’t force us, and we should act like G^d, how can we force religious compliance upon anyone, including young people and students. Endless love, a good example and a friendly smile go a long way.
One of the reasons that circumcision is still popular in largely secular Israel is because it’s not mandatory. Without enforcement, it is easier to not rebel. Abortion and prostitution are kept low by good sex education. (A ban would make it worse, just forcing them underground.)
There is only one case in which someone is forced (giving one’s wife a bill of divorce when she wants) and the Sages explain that that is because when forced, the husband does exactly what his Soul wants.
We need police and army as emergency protection but not to force people. Enforcement and fear wear off. As soon as the enforcer looks the other way, the enforced will disobey again. The ultimate good behavior must come from connecting people to their Souls.
In a State run by Jewish Law, certain behavior must be outlawed. Yet, that is for the good of the public, not for the good of the individual. So, behavior that could harm others, like bad behavior enticing others, should be countered by educating the public that the bad behavior is so bad that no one would like to copy it.