Hashkafa / Outlook

Jewish World Review June 17, 1998 / 22 Sivan, 5758

Rabbi Yaakov Menken

Are you

ON TODAY'S SHORT LIST OF Jewish buzzwords, tolerance holds a high rank.

Given that our attitudes toward Jewish observance are far from universal, say the pundits, we'll only maintain a united Jewish community if we can live and let live. And thus, whether one is considered a positive contributor to Jewish life today, it seems, is judged largely by whether you are or aren't "tolerant."

Perhaps. But who defines "tolerance?"

The Merriam-Webster dictionary is not much help. It defines tolerance as "the act or practice of tolerating, especially sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from one's own." But what, exactly, are these "practices" which we must undertake?

To the rescue comes Judith Hauptman, Philip R. Alstat Professor of Talmud at Manhattan's Jewish Theological Seminary, who has sought to clarify the issue for the masses. Writing in the most recent issue of JTS Magazine, the good professor claims that in order to demonstrate tolerance towards another person, "you ingest food in his home that he says is ritually fit and you would say is not, but you accept his standards in his home. And, similarly, you would marry a woman whom he says is fit and you would say is not, and when you produce children you will consider them fit."

And, just in case you may think otherwise, the professor describes her opinion as having historical and Halachic precedent, citing the ancient academies of Hillel and Shammai, two famous schools of the Talmudic era known for their many ideological and legal disputes, as a case in point.

The Talmud tells us that Bais Shammai performed certain marriages which, according to Bais Hillel, rendered the children mamzerim --- a status which would prevent the children from marrying into the regular community. And yet, says the Mishnah, the two schools continued to marry each other!

This, according to Professor Hauptman, was only possible because the two schools were ready to set aside their own beliefs in order to marry those whom the other school deemed fit, even if one's own school did not.

The implication, of course, is that if someone will not eat in your home or accept you as fit for marriage, she is intolerant --- even if her reasons are entirely rooted in her own religious convictions. For someone to stick to his own opinions and refuse to surrender principles, asserts Professor Hauptman, represents a "kind of closed-mindedness foreign to Talmudic thinking."

One need only attempt to apply this standard to find its flaws.

Could we imagine inviting a vegetarian to our home, and then serving him meat? Of course not --- we would never for a moment consider this appropriate. In order to demonstrate respect and tolerance for vegetarianism, we cannot interfere with our guest's choices. And on the other hand, tolerance does not obligate the vegetarian to surrender his beliefs at our door. But apparently Professor Hauptman believes that Jewish principles must be far more flexible than those of vegetarianism.

"Tolerance" becomes a synonym for moral relativism: Professor Hauptman tells us that "there are multiple models of truth," but no one may claim to actually have arrived at truth, to believe that if one view is right another must be wrong, or to care much one way or the other.

Fortunately, the Talmud says exactly the opposite of Professor Hauptman's "careful reading." If indeed The Academy of Shammai produced children whom The Academy of Hillel regarded as unfit, how is it that they continued to marry each other? "D'modai lehu, uparshi," says the Talmud. Because they would tell each other, and members of The Academy of Hillel would not marry those whom they regarded as prohibited.

Throughout the discussion, the Talmud never even imagines that the Academies of Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel would abandon their principles. It was obvious that they would never "marry a woman whom [the other] says is fit and [they] would say is not."

In fact, just the opposite was true --- and so they provided full information to the other school, enabling each side to make its own choices, its own decisions. This is how they were able to live with and trust each other.

True tolerance is expressed when we do not insist that others accept or validate our opinions, but when, on the contrary, we provide others with full information and let them make their own decisions --- nothing more, nothing less. If we serve dinner to a vegetarian, we are obligated to mention that there is beef broth in the Minestrone. Whether it's eaten or not is his choice. And if he refrains in observance of his own convictions, we understand that no insult is intended.

Commitment to such a policy leads to communities filled with love and mutual respect. An intellectual debate is not merely acceptable, but positive --- Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai argued about Judaism all day long, and they certainly hoped to change the opinions of the others. But when the sun sets and we go home to eat, we may never presume to dictate the diet of others, neither for "tolerance" nor any other reason - even in our homes.

The concept of providing full disclosure is found on the very page of Talmud which Hauptman quotes (Yevamos 14a). It is also in the commentaries of both Rashi (the pre-eminent Talmudic commentator) and Rav Ovadia MiBartenura (a leading commentary on the Mishnah) when they discuss this Mishnah. It is even found in the modern-day commentary of R' Pinchas Kehati (the Israeli bank clerk who wrote a very popular, easy explanation of the Mishnah) - and yet it somehow escaped her attention.

In this case, poor scholarship was accompanied by a sweet-sounding but entirely irrational standard for tolerance --- otherwise phrased as tossing out one's own sincerely held beliefs, simply because someone else disagrees.

Professor Hauptman uses the Talmud to condemn those who would follow their own principles as intolerant and closed-minded. This is tolerance and open-mindedness in name only --- and a Talmudic reading that would embarrass any neophyte.

The Jewish community needs better versions of both.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is founder and director of Project Genesis, the Internet's premier Jewish adult-education site. His opinions are his own.

©1998, Rabbi Yaakov Menken