Is Tolerance in the Orthodox Lexicon?
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”.