QUESTION: I need to teach tolerance as a Jewish value. What Jewish texts can I use?
Part One: A Synthesis of Jewish teachings of tolerance.
For the purposes of this answer, I will assume that the questioner is envisioning teaching in settings where the primary Hebrew sources need to be available in English translation and the secondary sources will be in English. If in fact there is need for other languages (Russian for recent immigrants, etc.), that can be handled in a follow-up question. I have confined my primary source citations to the most common and widely available texts, i.e. the Bible and the Talmud.
Tolerance is a key Jewish value—although, given the high degree of polarization of Jewish opinion in both Israel and the USA, tracking the liberal vs. conservative debate that is at the heart of western political life, this claim is perhaps more challenged today than in recent times. Nonetheless, Jews ought to resist having our own tradition’s clear teachings hijacked by the compartmentalization of topics that characterizes, each in its own way, both liberalism and conservatism. Judaism has insights claimed by each camp. Tolerance belongs in both.
The Jewish notion of tolerance is rooted in the basic Jewish understanding of the relationship each of us has with the Other. Ever since Adam and Eve, the process of human development, as portrayed in Judaism, involves learning to live with the Other. Our first book, Genesis, depicts one strained relationship after another, until Joseph, at the end of the book (Genesis chapter 50) expresses the heart of the matter: we do not stand in the place of God, and therefore, we must be forgiving.
Tolerance of the Other is actually about tolerance of differences. This is the essence of the matter, because precisely by virtue of being different, the “Other” poses challenges to the “Self”.
The Hebrew value concept encompassing this is “kevod ha-b’riyot”, meaning “The honor of the Other.” The word for the Other literally means “[God’s] creations”. This phrase underscores the Jewish understanding that all people are children of God. As Rabbi Akiva phrased it, “Beloved is the human, for the human is created in God’s image.” (Pirke Avot 3:14).
Clearly, the chain of Jewish sources, both Biblical and Rabbinic, expressing the religion’s exhortation to Jews to obey the “Golden Rule”, is also appropriate to this discussion. Leviticus 19: 18, “v’ahavta l’reakha kamokha—love your neighbor as yourself” is the base text for this value. One of the founding fathers of the Rabbinic movement, Hillel, couched it as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”. H e also expressed the fundamental obligation to balance self-respect with responsibility to others: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14).
Within the broadest category of the “Other”, there are those concerning whom our tradition especially preaches and commands tolerance:
One such group in need of—and receiving—the protection of the halakhah (the system of Jewish law) consists of people whose physical and mental abilities are different from most others’. In the Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 58b, the Rabbis formulated a benediction to be recited upon seeing a differently-abled person, “Barukh ata… meshaneh et ha-b’riyot: Blessed are You, LORD… who makes people different.”
This rabbinic celebration of physical and mental diversity, in turn, rests upon the Biblical insistence that everyone is created in God’s image, as mentioned above: See Genesis 1:26-27. The Bible itself translates that insight from the realm of narrative into the realm of law, by prohibiting various actions that would harm the disabled either physically or in reputation: Leviticus 19:14: “Do not curse a deaf person, and do not place a stumbling block before a blind person; Fear your God.”
It follows that the worth of an individual is not limited to that person’s economic or social utility. We are commanded to be tolerant, regardless of whether the Other can be useful to us, because that is an essential part of our understanding of what it means to be human.
Hence, the Jewish description of deeds of loving kindness performed on behalf of the dying or the dead as “hesed shel emet-- true deeds of loving kindness”; true, in the sense of being wholly altruistic and therefore undiminished by an expectation of reciprocity. This phrase is first attested in Genesis 47:29, when Jacob uses it to describe the request he makes of his son Joseph, to see to it that Jacob will be buried not in Egypt, but back home, in the Promised Land.
The halakhah also specifies instances where people are at risk of harming each other because of their different histories:
Classically, Jewish texts teaching tolerance are often presented as mitzvoth (commandments) concerning social and economic interactions. For example, the Jewish insistence that tolerance of others overrides narrow economic self-interest finds abundant expression in rabbinic laws about the ethical conduct of commerce. Mishnah Bava Metsia’ chapter 4 is an elaborate discussion of the concept of “’ona’ah”, “oppression”. For example, it is oppressive for the shopkeeper to take advantage of the gullibility of children.
In that chapter, the Rabbis themselves extend their legal development of the prohibition against “oppression” to include verbal, as well as commercial, manifestations. One is not allowed to remind a penitent of his former, sinful ways, nor a convert of his immoral conduct prior to his embrace of Judaism. (To be sure, that last prohibition reflects its times. Today’s converts would surely not all be presumed to have lived immoral lives prior to their becoming Jewish.) Again, in their commentary to the conclusion of Psalm 104, “yitammu chata’im min ha-‘aretz” (“Let sin disappear from the land”), the Rabbis emphasize: “sin”, and not “the sinner”. The import of this is to welcome the person whose past behavior had violated the norms of our tradition, but who is now penitent. This, in turn, is connected to the theme of tolerance because it concretizes the value of suspending negative judgment on the Other.
In recent years, our society has focused increasingly on those whose sexual orientation is not fully expressed by traditional categories. The discussion has lamentably become a political wedge issue.
In adapting pre-modern Jewish sources for this contemporary discussion, it is important to remember first principles. One may read the classical halakhah and find various discussions in which the tumtum and the androginus (two categories of people whose sexual characteristics were either undeveloped or androgynous) were treated differently than males and females; but the overarching ethical reality is that all people are the Other whom we are bidden to love and respect.
In the Conservative/Masorti denomination, discussions of gender differences and sexual orientation have progressed from the 1970’s, when the Rabbinical Assembly passed resolutions calling for the protection of the unabridged civil rights of homosexuals, to more recent resolutions, halakhic responsa and liturgies embodiment a greater degree of respect for and even celebration of our human diversity.
The Torah devotes much attention to enjoining tolerance of those belonging to groups other than Judaism. The commandment to “love the ger” (resident alien, living in the midst of Jewish society) is a leitmotif of the Biblical law codes.
Moving from Biblical texts, reflecting a model of a majority-Jewish society, to Rabbinics, reflecting the historical reality of Jews living as a minority within larger societies, we see a development of the theme of tolerance in Jewish-Gentile relations. Broadly speaking, Rabbinic Judaism develops two arguments in favor of tolerance of the non-Jew: first, our common humanity, and second, the need for Jews to seek peace by means of deeds of kindness to all.
The first argument: The Jewish people is one branch of the human family, a family that, following Biblical narrative, is envisioned by the Rabbis as proceeding from Adam and Eve, our universal parents. In a Rabbinic discussion concerned that witnesses not wrongly testify against defendants in capital cases, the judges are instructed to remind the witnesses of the narrative of Adam and Eve. In that discourse, the focus is on the ethical implications of asserting that humans are all descended from common ancestors, and therefore, that no one can say, “my blood is redder than yours”. We are all one human family, and therefore, no one can claim to be a superior breed of human to other groups (Mishnah Sanhedrin, chapter 4).
The second argument: The Rabbis codified a number of deeds of loving-kindness that Jews are expected to perform on behalf of Gentiles, as part of our commitment to darkhei shalom, the “paths of peace.” For example, Jews are bidden to visit the sick of the other nations, help in burying their dead, and so on.
Finally, in the Jewish vision of y’mot ha-mashiach, the ideal future traditionally terms “the days of the Messiah”, tolerance replaces the fratricide of current-day inter-group relations. The prophet Isaiah expressed it in stirring terms: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isa. 2:4) Thus, the broad tradition of Jewish teachings about the high importance of achieving and maintaining peace is also a resource for the teacher, looking to show students our texts on tolerance.
A SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SECONDARY WORKS DEALING WITH THE JEWISH ARTICULATION OF THE VALUE OF TOLERANCE
1. General and Encyclopedic Treatments of Jewish Ethics, including topics dealing with tolerance:
Amsel, Nachum, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues. Jason Aronson,
Birnbaum, Philip. A Book of Jewish Concepts. Hebrew Publishing Co., 1975.
Dorff, Elliot N. The Way into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World). Jewish Lights, 2005. See especially the concluding section, “Forward”, articulating a vision of how tolerance helps actualize a repaired world.
Freeman, Susan. Teaching Jewish Virtues: Sacred Sources and Arts Activities. A.R.E.
Publishing, 1999. See especially chapter 3, “Dan L’Chaf Zechut: Give the Benefit
Of the Doubt”, chapter 13, “Ohev Zeh et Zeh/ Mechabayd Zeh et Zeh: Loving and
Honoring Others” and chapter 21, “Somekh Noflim v’rofay Cholim: Supporting
Isaacs, Ronald H. Exploring Jewish Ethics and Values. Ktav, 1999.
Klagsbrun, Francine. Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and ethics for Everyday Living.
Jonathan David Publishers, 1980.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spiritual, and Historical Lessons from the
Great Works and Thinkers. William Morrow and Co., 1994.
______________. A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.
Bell Tower, 2009/
2. Toleration in Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism:
Barukh Levine, “Tolerance in Ancient Israelite Monotheism”,
Jacob Neusner, “Theological Foundations of Tolerance in Classical Judaism” and
Alan J. Avery-Peck, “Tolerance of Idols and Idol Worshipers in Early Rabbinic Law…”,
Neusner, Jacob and Bruce Chilton, editors, Religious Tolerance in World Religions.
Templeton Foundation Press, 2008.
3. Philosophical Discussions of Tolerance within the Discourse of Jewish Ethics:
Fox, Marvin, editor, Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice. Ohio State University
Press, 1975. See especially the role of tolerance in the ethical systems articulated
by Ernst Simon, “The Neighbor Whom We Shall Love” and Emmanuel Levinas,
“Ideology and Idealism”.
4. Jewish Sources and Perspectives on the Differently-Abled:
Astor, Carl, Who Makes People Different: Jewish Perspectives on the Disabled. United
Synagogue of America, 1985.
Siegel, Danny and Michael Katz. Jewish Perspectives on Beauty and Ugliness. Leader’s
Training Fellowship publication of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 1978.
The Jewish value of tolerance comes out of the teaching that all human beings have inherent worth. This idea is found in the very first chapter of the Torah:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created humanity in God’s image, in the image of God, did God created him; male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:26-28)
The concept of “Tzelem Elohim – the Image of God” is central to the Jewish view of humanity. It says that every person is imbued with a piece of the divine, and therefore is worth of respect. The Rabbis further develop this idea in the Mishnah, exploring the notion that all of humanity is descended from a single ancestor:
It was for this reason that man was first created as one person [Adam], to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world." And also, to promote peace among the creations, that no man would say to his friend, "My ancestors are greater than yours. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Not only do all human beings have inherent value, but we are all part of a single human family. No one person’s ancestors are greater than anyone else’s, since we all have the same common ancestor – Adam.
And yet, there are divisions between people. We divide ourselves into ethnic, national, and religious groups, and we have a tendency toward conflict. The ancient Rabbis understood this human tendency, and they wrote about the importance of interfaith tolerance via a concept called “Mipnei Darchei Shalom – Ways of Peace.” This is from the Talmud:
One should not stop poor gentiles from gathering gleanings in the fields, on account of the ways of peace. One sustains poor gentiles along with poor Jews, and one visits sick gentiles along with sick Jews, and one buries the gentile dead along with the Jewish dead. All this is done on account of the ways of peace. (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 61a)
It is, in a sense, a how-to manual for fostering friendly interfaith relations: feed and sustain the poor of other communities, visit their sick, bury their dead. On the one hand, this is pragmatic – it has always been in the best interests of the Jewish community to have good relations with its non-Jewish neighbors. But at the same time, it reflects the deeply held Jewish belief that all human beings deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and that communities can get along even when they differ in their beliefs and practices.
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