Is Tolerance in the Orthodox Lexicon? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

There is no classical Hebrew word for “tolerance”. The modern Hebrew term is “sovlanut”, but this word never appears with this meaning in rabbinic literature. This isn’t surprising of course, as the contemporary notion of tolerating differing views is born of modern humanist perspectives, and democratic political systems. Our classical literature blossomed long before those concepts were current.

But does this mean that there is no equivalent to tolerance within Orthodox thought and discourse? This question takes on increasing urgency as the practice of publically excoriating and debasing one’s ideological opponents has become de rigueur in Orthodox circles, particularly in the blogosphere. This trend has developed even among those of us who proudly regard ourselves as possessing modern sensibilities. Is there nothing in our tradition that constrains us from mimicking the broader culture’s increasingly intolerant and debasing discourse, in which the invalidation and delegitimization of others is routine?

I’d argue that there is, in fact, a classical Halachic articulation of the imperative to exercise tolerance, one which is listed by Rambam and by Sefer HaChinuch as a Biblical commandment, and which is codified as such in Jewish law. It is recorded immediately following the Biblical Mitzvah to rebuke one’s fellow for misdeeds that the latter has committed (Vayikra 19:17). That same verse concludes with the admonition to “not bear sin on his account”. There are two primary interpretations of this phrase:

(1) Yes, rebuke your fellow, but do not do so in a manner that will result in the sin of humiliating your fellow publically. In the Talmud’s words, “I might think that you should rebuke even in a manner which causes his countenance to redden. Therefore Scripture adds, ‘you shall not bear sin on his account.”

(2) Yes, rebuke you fellow, but do so as an antidote and alternative to hating him. (“Thou shall not hate your brother in your heart” are the Biblical words that immediately precede the Mitzvah to rebuke.) The underlying idea is that if we remain silent about the misdeeds that we perceive in the other, we will slowly, but surely, grow to hate him. Whereas, if we privately address these issues with him, we are far more likely to step off the road toward enmity and hatred. The prevention of hatred is the intended outcome of – and the implicit justification for – the directive to rebuke.

Jews are going to disagree. Orthodox Jews are going to disagree. It is only when we are able to ultimately tolerate one another, i.e. when we are able to disagree and offer rebuke that neither humiliates nor fosters hatred, that we are permitted to speak. If we cannot exercise tolerance, the Biblical permission to rebuke is withdrawn. This is the Halacha.

No one captured the danger and folly of intra-Orthodox vilification and intolerance better than Netziv did, in his introduction to Breishit. Netziv’s understanding of the sin of the generation of the Second Destruction – a generation filled with Torah scholars – is that “they presumed that anyone who differed from their particular way of fearing God, was a heretic or a Sadducee. And as a result [of this intolerance] they came to bloodshed (in a figurative sense) and to all of the evils in the world, until finally the Temple was destroyed.”

The good news, is that together, we can stem this tide. Together, as we read what’s being written out there, and listen to what’s being said out there, we must discriminate between legitimate, crucially important debate, and degrading, debasing, intolerant attacks (not to mention the terribly destructive practice of painting entire groups with broad brushes). And, privately and discreetly, we can rebuke our teachers and friends, who are unquestionably well-meaning and sincere, but who have fallen into the same bad habit as did their predecessors of two millennia ago, and are routinely violating the Torah’s constraints on the Mitzvah of rebuke. We can still save and sanctify our intra-Orthodox discourse, if together we simply draw the line where God drew the line.

The last Mishna in Shas teaches that God identified exactly one vessel that can hold Israel’s blessings, preventing these blessings from all coming to naught. And that vessel is peace. Had the word existed in Mishnaic times, that blessing would have been “savlonut”.

9 Responses to Is Tolerance in the Orthodox Lexicon? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

  1. Dov Fischer says:

    Excellent piece. Whether individual Jews are Observant, non-Observant, self-denominated as “Orthodox” or “Reform” or “Conservative,” we are in this together. There is no room for personal animus among people who view things differently. The blogosphere brings out some very bad, as witness the reported cyber-bullying on Facebook and the character assassination that appears below anonymous blog names, who remain impervious to lawsuit because of technicalities of federal law protecting internet blog-hosting. We do live in challenging times — probably all times have been “challenging times” — and the battles being fought today in the marketplace of Jewish ideas may well lay the framework for a future generation or two, even as those battles may impact many Jews’ lives today. Battles of ideas should never be personalized into personal animus. Beyond “tolerance” it is important actually to enjoy the experience of engaging one another.

  2. Eric Kotkin says:

    I hear the point but something is being lost on me. The way I understand tolerance is the way it is used with alcohol. It’s being able to deal with something foreign and unfamiliar to the system. It’s not the same thing as acceptance. Acceptance is everyone’s idea is okay no matter what it is; tolerance means that we can still sit down and talk even if I dislike the idea. I really feel like conversation on these issues has been made difficult because of the blurring of the two concepts.

  3. Mr. Cohen says:

    Maybe “Dan LeCaf Zechut” is the Jewish version of tolerance?

  4. Eli Willner says:

    I think you are advocating for civility and I fully agree. However “tolerance” usually implies accepting the possibility that the other fellow is right. In a religious discussion that is often too much to ask. But one certainly can and should, by and large, express disagreement b’nachas.

    (Enforcing use of verified real names on discussion forums discourages incivility and we should lobby for that whenever possible.)

    • I don’t see why this is too much to ask. What I am advocating for is not civility but open debate. Too many of the statements put out are people talking past each other and not to each other and when people do discuss they want nice and civil. Nice and civil doesn’t always accomplish anything if it compromises the threshing out of the issues. It’s not enough to acknowledge the other fellow might be right but to acknowledge that if they are right you are wrong and there are potentially serious ramifications to being on the wrong side of the argument.

      • eliwillner says:

        It is too much to ask because when I say ani maamin in the morning I mean it. So I am unable to honestly concede the possibility that someone who – for example – doesn’t fully believe in Torah mi’Sinai is right.I cannot debate that person on the basis that I have an open mind on the issue and might be persuaded to adopt his position.

        A discussion with such a person would be, for me, like a discussion with a flat-earther. If he wanted to debate the issue I would try my best to civilly demonstrate to him the error of his ways but with a zero probability that he might be able to do the same.

  5. […] to an acrid exchange of words. On the topic of dissent, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky had this to say at “The good news, is that together, we can stem this tide. Together, as we read what’s being […]

  6. There is a difference between tolerance and acceptance that is often blurred. I can tolerate the non-religious guy going to McDonald’s for a BLT with cheese on Yom Kippur. I can’t accept his behaviour as Jewishly acceptable.
    However in today’s secular liberal society there is little difference between the two concepts. Not only must I tolerate gay marriage occuring I must also be an enthusiastic supporter of the concept lest I be tarred as a homophobic troglodyte. Not only must I tolerate that abortion as a method of birth control is performed in society, I must accept that it is legitimate and moral lest I be called misogynistic.
    And that is the danger of tolerance. It starts with “Well if you don’t keep Shabbos that’s your issue” and ends with “How dare you call me non-observant for not accepting my type of Judaism which doesn’t include observing Shabbos!” That’s why tolerance is in such short supply nowadays.

  7. Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein says:

    Can we work for much more than tolerance? How about acceptance, caring, compassion, embracing, agreeing to disagree and so much else that is found in Jewish teaching. Maybe the word “tolerance” is not found in the Hebrew lexicon because it is too low grade and we are supposed, yes even commanded, to strive for something much higher and more powerful!

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