What Tolerance Requires

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My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

My father had a lot of favorite adages. One was:

”Smart people learn from their mistakes. Smarter people learn from other people’s mistakes.”

Learning from other people’s mistakes is easier said than done. For one thing, it requires us actually to listen to other people and to think about what they say. Instead, we tend to rehearse our own thoughts and the reasons why we, and we alone, are totally in the right.

Tolerance of other people’s ideas should be easiest of all. Unfortunately, ideas often come wrapped in situations that provoke our emotions and make the ideas seem like a threat to our physical safety. It’s hard to be tolerant in the middle of a screaming contest.

And let’s be sensible. If it’s more than a screaming contest, if we really are in a life-or-death situation, tolerance has to wait. Nobody is required to tolerate violent aggression and physical harm. Fortunately, those situations are unusual even in areas plagued by crime and terrorism.

Most of the time, tolerance means just two things:

  • Letting other people live and believe as they wish, as long as they don’t harm us or innocent third parties.
  • Listening to other people’s viewpoints even if we think they’re wrong, and seriously considering the merits of their arguments.

What Tolerance Isn’t

Tolerance isn’t the same thing as approval. In fact, if we approve of something, tolerance doesn’t make any sense. We don’t “tolerate” it if our children get good grades in school, or if a stranger performs an act of kindness. We can only tolerate things we don’t like.

Moreover, tolerance is not the same thing as active support. Requiring people to say or do things that support what they disapprove is intolerant of their right to live and believe as they wish without harming others. Zealots are often confused about that point.

Tolerance Requires Common Ground

But we aren’t machines. Our ability has its limits. The more strongly we disapprove of something, the harder it is for us to tolerate it. That’s why tolerance requires at least some common ground in society.

To be tolerant, people must have at least some shared beliefs, shared loyalty, or shared commitment to the common good. Writing in 1993, the influential American philosopher John Rawls wondered:

“How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?”1

And he added:

“In fact, historical experience suggests that it rarely is.”2

Judaism and Tolerance

For Jews, that common ground has been found in our faith and our tradition. It hasn’t made us perfectly tolerant of each other, but it has helped.

The Talmud tells of a disagreement between the schools of Hillel and Shammai that was finally resolved by a voice from Heaven: “The teachings of both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the School of Hillel.”3

Why did God side with the School of Hillel?

“Because they were kindly and humble, and because they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai, and even mentioned the teachings of the School of Shammai before their own.”4

Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, expressed a similar view last week. He called for greater tolerance of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel:

“You win over Jews, and people in general, through love … Anyone who’s trying to bring Jews closer to Judaism is my partner, not my enemy.”5

What about people who aren’t our partners, with whom we have little or no common ground? That’s a tougher problem. In that case, disagreement too easily turns to hatred and violence.

Jacob Neusner observes that “Scripture’s Halakhah does not contemplate Israel’s coexisting, in the land, with gentiles and their idolatry.”6

For pragmatic reasons, we’ve often had to modify that view as we lived as minorities in other lands. In those cases, we were less concerned about how we could tolerate others than about persuading them to tolerate us. However, toleration between incompatible or hostile groups is perennial challenge for heterogeneous societies.

Principle or Pragmatism?

There are two ways of looking at tolerance: as a matter of principle or of pragmatism.

On principle, out of respect for individual autonomy, we might tolerate beliefs and practices we don’t like because they’re not physically harmful. We might refuse to tolerate beliefs and practices that do cause harm. In those cases, we must be very sure that we’re right and we must have the power to prevent people from doing what we won’t tolerate.

Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) told a relevant story about his experience as a young British officer in India. When he and his soldiers arrived at a village, the locals were preparing to burn a widow alive on her late husband’s funeral pyre. The village elders explained that it was part of their tradition. Napier listened respectfully, then explained that it was British tradition to hang anyone who did such a thing. The widow was set free. Today, we might make a similar argument about female genital mutilation and other barbaric practices of some migrants to Western countries.

Pragmatically, however, we often lack the power to prohibit some things without causing social unrest or worse problems. Whatever principles are at stake, tolerance becomes a practical necessity. In order to get anything done, we have to find a lowest common denominator on which all social groups can agree.

There are no perfect solutions to social problems. However, if we can manage to tolerate each other and live together in peace, it’s a good first step.

Works Cited

Neusner, J., editor (2008), Religious Tolerance in World Religions. West Conshohocken: Templeton Foundation Press.

Rawls, J. (1993), Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press. Kindle edition.

Telushkin, J. (2000), The Book of Jewish Values. New York: Random House.

Footnotes


  1. Rawls, J. (1993), loc. 716. 
  2. Ibid, loc. 723. 
  3. Telushkin, J. (2000), p. 186. 
  4. Ibid, p. 186. 
  5. Rabbi Riskin Urges Israelis: End the ‘War’ on Reform Jews,” Arutz Sheva, June 14, 2016. 
  6. Neusner, J. (2008), p. 195. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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