Some myths about tolerance
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 30, 1997
In the furious debates over the conversion bill, the terms tolerance and pluralism have been repeated over and over again with talismanic urgency.
The mere pronunciation of these words is enough to place one on the side of the angels. Those who oppose the state of Israel putting its imprimatur on the idea that Judaism is whatever you will it to be are portrayed as hatred-filled, Khomeinis-in-waiting who lack any concern with the unity of the Jewish people.
However, the failure to accept any belief or action as legitimate, in Jewish terms, reflects neither an indifference to Jewish unity nor a lack of love for one's fellow Jews.
Religious Jews, in fact, are perceived as 'intolerant" precisely because they take Jewish unity so seriously. They know - and the experience of the last 200 years makes clear - that if Judaism is reduced to each individual Jew's projection of his philosophy on the cosmos, we will eventually stop viewing ourselves as one people. Search the Torah, and you will not find one word of support for the proposition: Believe whatever you want; do whatever you please; all is equally precious in God's eyes as long as you are sincere.
Religious Jews recognize that our fates are inextricably linked. The Midrash compares the Jewish people to passengers on a boat. And as the Hafetz Haim used to point out, no one would stand by apathetically while his fellow passenger blasted a hole in the hull of the boat, even if he did so in his own cabin.
Traditionally Jews have seen themselves as possessing a collective task in the world, whose optimal achievement depends on each Jew fulfilling his individual role. In other words, we are each a limb on the body of the Jewish people. As such, no Jew can remain indifferent to the atrophy of any other limb.
'Intolerance' is often an expression of love, and its opposite a sign of a lack of concern. The most loving parent, for instance, will show zero tolerance for his young child running into the street or playing with matches or for the older ones experimenting with drugs or driving 150 km. per hour.
In the Phaedrus, Plato defines true love as seeking the perfection of the beloved. Criticism, not tolerance, is the lover's tool in bringing about that perfection.
And long before Plato, our Torah made the same point: The mitzvah to reprove one's fellow Jew is immediately followed by the command to love him as your brother. If non-religious Jews today do not feel the love of their religious brethren, it is largely due to a lack of personal contact. Ask any Jew who has ever sought a Shabbat invitation to a religious family.
Anyone who does not reject the idea of truth out of hand will, of necessity, be intolerant of something. And that includes the Reform and Conservative movements. The Conservative movement does not recognize the offspring of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews even though the Reform movement does. The Conservative movement requires converts to undergo circumcision and immersion in a mikveh; the Reform movement does not. The Conservative movement requires a woman to receive a bill of divorce before remarrying; for the Reform a civil divorce is sufficient.
Rabbi David Feldman, one of the Conservative movement's leading scholars, recently wrote in the Forward that 'the Conservative movement should have the intellectual integrity to sever ties with the Reform, whose conversions and bills of divorce we do not recognize.' Many others have asked the same question: 'How can we demand that the Israeli government recognize Reform conversions if we ourselves do not?'
Even among the Reform, not quite anything goes. A Cincinnati congregation was expelled from the movement a few years ago for declaring that a relationship to a Godhead is not necessary for humanistic Judaism. And a few months ago, there were protests within the local Reform movement when a Reform rabbi 'married" two homosexuals. (Here one may wonder whether the objections were theological or out of a fear of discrediting the movement in Israeli eyes. A number of Reform rabbis already solemnize homosexual relationships, and the Reform convention currently underway in Dallas seems likely to adopt a resolution calling on them to do so.)
At the other extreme are Reform rabbis who view Orthodox practice as beyond the pale. One local Reform rabbi, breathlessly featured in this paper last week, has decided that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of prayer in a non-egalitarian minyan. According to this tyro, Rashi, Maimonides, and the Vilna Gaon never prayed.
Reform rejection of traditional practice is often tinged with a healthy dollop of contempt for Orthodox Jews themselves. Simeon Maslin, president of the Reform rabbis' union, writes that 'bearded men in black caftans and women wearing sheitels... [who] pray rapidly in sing-song Hebrew, pore over the Talmud in segregated yeshivot, buy their meat and fowl from glatt kosher butchers' have by 'their obsession with the punctilios of ritual, their manner of dress, their romanticization of the past and, yes, their fanaticism' rendered themselves unfit to be considered authentic Jews.
The only thing distinguishing the Orthodox, it would seem, is that their dividing lines between legitimate and illegitimate are based on objective criterion and age-old practice, and not the product of ad hoc intuitions.
Their standards are determined by recourse to the Written and Oral Torah, whose meaning is determined by those of proven halachic expertise. They are not dictated by the prevailing zeitgeist, as determined by polling the laity.
Related Topics: Pluralism
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list