Tolerance or intolerance?

Since its very inception, Judaism has contained within itself multiple interpretations of the teachings of Moses.

By
June 28, 2006 10:36
4 minute read.

 
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Since its very inception, Judaism has contained within itself multiple interpretations of the teachings of Moses. Even in the Torah itself we have differences between the codes of the priests and the teachings of the Deuteronomist. Prophets and Priests also disagreed and during the days of the Second Temple, three major sects - the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes - and a plethora of other smaller groups competed for the loyalty of the people, each offering a different approach to following God's way. It is well known that there were internal struggles within the Pharisaic group as well, especially between the two major schools of thought, Hillel and Shammai. Yet the Talmud records that they honored one another. Although one group permitted what the other prohibited and one declared pure what the other declared impure, they did not refuse to prepare their food together or to intermarry with one another, fulfilling the verse "Love truth and peace" (Yebamot 14b). According to Louis Finkelstein, during that period of time, when the Jews were divided into so many fractious groups, "the only group among all of these which retained its poise and equanimity, which continued to be tolerant of opposition without and division within, was that of the Pharisees. Never has a religious sect been more open-minded. They continued to worship at the sanctuary though a High Priest of the opposing group stood at its head. They permitted differences of opinion among their members and encouraged the preservation of variant rituals" (The Pharisees, page 9). These wars of the Jews have accelerated ever since the Emancipation. The rise of Reform brought about the rise of Orthodoxy and the Conservative Movement followed soon thereafter, each with its own teachings. The relationships between them have been difficult, to say the least. And of course there were the famous battles between Hassidim and Mitnagdim, which resulted in Hassidim dancing on the grave of the Vilna Gaon. The question today is: Can we afford these demeaning wars when Judaism - especially religious Judaism - is fighting for its existence? Can the Jewish people afford these demeaning struggles, or can a way be found to live with one another even while disagreeing? Intolerance, the name of the old D.W. Griffith movie, seems to fit the Jewish world today in its attitude toward those who disagree with the official religious establishment. The most recent example, and a truly startling one, was the refusal of the president of the State of Israel to call a Reform rabbi by his title. The president is entitled to his personal opinion concerning Reform Judaism, but certainly his post demands that he respect the leadership of world Jewry and not offend a substantial portion of that Jewry by such a petty act. Of course in this he is following in the footsteps of many - though not all - of the occupants of the chair of Chief Rabbi, who have similarly refused to call non-Orthodox rabbis by that title or even to receive them in an official capacity. To greet and embrace the Pope or leaders of other religions is all right, but to meet with a Reform or Conservative rabbi is forbidden. In England, you have the situation of the refusal of the United Synagogue (Orthodox) to permit non-Orthodox rabbis to participate in funerals or weddings, regardless of the wishes of the families involved. I doubt if we can follow the tolerant pattern of the Pharisees today in relationships among the various religious groups, but we might try two things. The first is to judge actions done by other groups according to halachic standards rather than according to who did them. Thus conversions, for example, could be recognized after the fact if they were performed according to the requirements of the Halacha, even if done by a rabbi of another group, rather than dismissing them automatically. The same would be true of marriages or divorces. The second is to treat others with respect even when disagreeing, and therefore cooperating in whatever ways are possible for the good of the Jewish people and Judaism. The example for this was set many years ago by Solomon Schechter, the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in the first part of the 20th century. Schechter, an observant Jew, a great scholar and an advocate of halachic Judaism, was invited to speak at the ordination ceremony of the Hebrew Union College in the days when American Reform was truly radical and much further from tradition than it is today. Yet when Schechter spoke there he referred to Reform, using a Briticism, as "His Majesty's loyal opposition." What a wonderful phrase, combining as it does his own opposition to Reform with a respect for Reform's intentions. Cannot the leadership of the various arms of Judaism today - including, and perhaps most of all, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel - bring itself to such an acknowledgment? Of course we have differences of opinion and we should stand up for what we believe and speak the truth as we see it. We should compete with one another in the marketplace of free ideas with honor and respect but not with mud slinging, accusations, legal maneuvers and petty acts of intolerance. Perhaps when all is said and done, "Both these and those are the words of the living God" (Erubin 13b) is not such a bad slogan. A revival of Pharisaic tolerance would benefit us all. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.

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