In our days, the word, tolerance, has become a highly popular word together with such terms as pluralism and democracy. These words are by now so often used that one would hope that most people have a proper understanding of their meanings. This is, however, far from true. In fact, it seems that the more these words appear in our papers, books or in conversations, the less they seem to be comprehended. Often they are used in ways which oppose the very values they stand for.
When we focus, for example, on the earlier mentioned word, “tolerance,” we are able to identify the problem. People seem to be proud when they are able to claim how tolerant they are. This means that they see themselves as very broad-minded people who really have little objection to any thoughts or views of others and that all attitudes and outlooks on life should be permitted in a free society. Such views are then linked with values such as pluralism and democracy.
The shallowness of such attitudes is, however, most clear. Would society indeed be prepared to be tolerant on all fronts it would turn into hell and become self-destructive. It needs little effort to explain that we will not be able to be tolerant towards Antisemitism, racism, public nudity, crime or sexual harassment of women and children.
Suddenly we realize that there are moral principles which can not be violated and that we should stand by these principles whatever will be.
Most people get confused when speaking about tolerance. They often use this word when in fact they speak out of apathy.
Alexander Chase once wrote:
“The peak of tolerance is most readily achieved by those who are not burned by convictions” (Perspectives, 1966)
Ogden Nash put it in the following way:
“Sometimes with secret pride, I sigh How tolerant am I, Then wonder what is really mine, Tolerance or a rubber spine”
Indeed most of the time it is indifference which makes people believe that they are tolerant. It is most easy to be tolerant when one does not care about values and principles or about the moral needs of society and one’s fellow man.
As the saying goes: If one does not stand for anything, one will fall for everything. Tolerance has become the hiding place for many people to turn their egocentricity into a virtue.
When focusing on the Jewish scene of today we see a similar phenomenon. This time it is “unity” which has become a popular word used by the various sections of the Jewish world. All of them speak of unity, and each one accuses the others of a lack of commitment towards that unity.
Nobody would doubt that the unity of the Jewish people is of crucial importance. If the Jewish people would break up into several sections in such a way that unity could no longer be maintained we would have indeed a most serious problem which could quite well be detrimental to the future of the “People of Israel.” Still, we have to ask ourselves if unity is really an ultimate goal to strive for as the highest value.
To many people the refusal by a major part of the Orthodox leadership to recognize the Conservative and Reform movements as legitimate representatives of Judaism is a sign of weakness, and a lack of both courage and tolerance. While it is fully understandable why many are most disturbed by this attitude, it would be entirely wrong to attribute this to weakness and lack of courage on the side of the Orthodox.
Let us consider: There is obviously a lot to say for cooperation and mutual recognition between all these movements. Indeed, to be able to agree to a kind of compromise shows strength and flexibility. In addition, the refusal by the Orthodox to bend causes a great amount of irreparable damage. There are no overtures to reconciliation, there is no attempt at mutual understanding; instead accusations fly on an emotional level, and all earlier attempts to find a solution are completely undermined. One could even argue that through some kind of compromise Orthodox Judaism would be well served. It would benefit by no longer being identified as an extreme religious movement and consequently be better received by the non- and even anti-Orthodox. Some earlier opponents would perhaps joint its ranks.
There is, however, one “but.” All the above would be true if religion would belong to that category which also includes matters such as politics, economics and science. But it does not. However important unity may be when we are speaking about religious matters, unity as such is not the priority. What is a priority, is personal conscience.
Let us just for a moment understand the history of Judaism. Should Avraham have made a compromise with the world in which he lived because of unity? Wouldn’t this strong-minded man have been more influential if he would not have taken the stand he took? Clearly Avraham created a lot of emotional upheaval. He and so many prophets after him, like Samuel, Yeshaya and Yeremiahu were violent protestors and refused to go along with the values of their days. No doubt many saw them as extremists and inflexible people who shattered the tranquility of their societies. More than that: we can be sure that many “modern minded” men in those days condemned them for their outdated ideologies and refusal to go along with “modern” values.
It may be worthwhile to take notice of a major controversy which plagued the Christian world for a long time. One of the most famous Anglican theologians in the 19th century was John Henry Newman. After holding a most prominent position in the Anglican Church he decided to join the Catholic Church and became later one of its most prominent cardinals. At the time this move became a topic of intensive debate throughout the Christian world. Many admirers of Newman believed that he should have stayed in the Anglican Church. They correctly believed that from the point of view of reconciliation he would have been able to make a major contribution to bring both Churches closer. He would have been seen as a most authoritative Anglican with a strong tendency to Rome. The Anglican Church would not have been able to ignore him in such a position, and he would have been able to bring both positions closer. But the moment he became a Catholic the Anglican Church wrote him off.
When asked why indeed he had not taken that route and stayed in the Anglican Church, Newman made a most important observation. After admitting that he would indeed have been much more influential if he would have stayed in the Anglican Church and as such contribute to a much needed reconciliation, he added that this option was however not open to him: His words are most telling: One cannot put reconciliation over one’s conscience. In matters of truth one makes a choice between what one considers to be true and what one considers to be false. Newman had come to the conclusion that the theology of the Anglican Church was erroneous and had to be rejected. To make a compromise and stay in the Anglican Church would have been a compromise and as such a sign of weakness and lack of courage.
This historic event should be of major importance for Jews when debating the question of the authenticity of the Reform and Conservative movements. Jewish identity or the nature of Judaism cannot be simply decided on the basis of what will do less harm to Jewish unity. This is an instance where personal conscience, i.e., one’s perception of the truth, decides.
For Orthodox Judaism the Torah and the Oral Tradition are rooted in the Sinai experience. The Torah is seen as a verbal revelation of God’s will and no human being is able to reject anything stated there. Likewise, the Oral Tradition is understood to be the authentic interpretation of the text and while open to some debate, not to be even partially rejected or ignored. Obviously, anybody has the right to challenge this belief and reject it. But nobody could impugn the Orthodox for holding its ground and not compromising on these fundamental beliefs. To Orthodox Jews this is a matter of truth or falsehood. The Conservative and Reform movements have rejected each in its own way and in varying degrees these two fundamental beliefs as understood by Orthodox Judaism. That the last therefore does not want to recognize the Reform and Conservative views as authentic Judaism is not the outcome of weakness but of principle. It is a matter of personal conscious where no compromise is possible. Cardinal Newman would have understood.