Tolerance without Herem



 Benedict Spinoza

About a dozen Thursdays ago, I met with a national delegation of academics who were trying to evaluate Yeshiva University’s accreditation standings in light of the sour economy. This team of professors drilled me and my peers on how the school’s recent cutting of faculty and other financially driven changes were affecting student life. “Despite all of the academic changes, our university can still take pride in the way it promotes diversity,” one of my classmates interjected at some point. After hearing this remark, I caught one of the professors silently scoffing, mocking the student’s use the word diversity in relation to a school where nearly the entire student body identifies with the same faith.

Over the years, I have noticed how it often seems as though my Modern Orthodox peers and I have rarely been exposed to religious and philosophical variety. The American Orthodox community can often appear as a homogeneous pool, with most people sharing similar social backgrounds and religious beliefs.Part of this phenomenon comes from the fact that our community’s traditions keep us tightly knit, as we continue to carry our ancient customs into the modern world. And because of that, we usually share many more cultural and ideological traits with fellow religious Jews than we do with gentiles and those outside the faith. But regardless of our apparent internal similarities, we must recognize and respect the philosophical diversity that inevitably exists within our community and abroad.
Throughout Jewish history, we see that many great luminaries were initially shunned for espousing non-traditional beliefs. Maimonides found his books burned in the streets as a result of publishing controversial material. And even less traditional thinkers like Baruch Spinoza were excommunicated for their heretical beliefs. But with the broader Orthodox community no longer able to readily issue a decree of banishment into the dreaded Herem, the community is beginning to learn how to tolerate a diversity of opinion.
Last April, one of my friends published an article in which he confessed his desire to convert to Christianity and stated the complex, circumstantial reasons for why he ultimately did so. This friend grew up comfortably within the fold of traditional Orthodoxy and even served on his regional NCSY leadership for several years. What I found strange about this piece, though, was not the writing but the responses from our audience.
To my surprise, our Modern Orthodox readership was overwhelmingly supportive (in the form of positive posts and emails), though not approving, of my friend’s decision. In fact, my friend’s former NCSY director even contacted my friend to offer him emotional support. What this experience showed me was my community’s ability to be respectful and tolerant of a diversity of opinions, regardless of their Halakhic implications.
Without a unified Jewish court system, the days of meaningful Orthodox excommunications are gone. And with this change in societal structure, my community can no longer maintain its insularity by shunning fellow Jews for their controversial philosophical beliefs. But instead of passing harsh moral judgments on the isolationist methods employed in the past, let’s use this opportunity to help understand our current social reality. The community that we live in today is indeed diverse, and it is important for us to recognize that if a person has an iconoclastic personal belief - such as the one indicated by my friend’s conversion - it is critical to show respect.
Upon this realization, I saw why the academic delegation didn’t fully understand my classmate. “What I like about this university,” I added, “is that although we may not always seem diverse ourselves, we believe in promoting the ideals of diversity by being tolerant of the opinions of everyone.” And with my friend’s conversion fresh in mind, I immediately saw a calmer look appear on the scoffing professor’s face. She now approved of the response, I hope.