Toleration, Inclusiveness, and Judaism

By Roshwald, Mordecai | Midstream, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Toleration, Inclusiveness, and Judaism


Roshwald, Mordecai, Midstream


Why pose this problem? Why must the Jews have to relate nearly every issue to their way-of-life? Indeed, this tendency has been ridiculed by the Jews themselves, when they invented such imaginary topics as "the elephant and the Jewish question." Why must the Jews, or Judaism, have to be inserted into every problem that makes its appearance in the consciousness of an individual or in the forum of society?

The answer to this question is: Judaism is a way-of-life, a culture, and whatever is a part of life, or affects life, touches that culture and affects the people who embrace it. To be sure, not everything impinges upon Judaic sensibility -- with the possible exception of strict Orthodox Judaism, which looks for the halachic rule on each occasion and applies it to every new technological innovation. Still, even with respect to a more lax notion of Judaism, which still retains its basic attitudes, the ethos extends beyond the synagogue and the ritual, encompassing attitudes and behavior outside the sphere of religious conduct (in the strict sense of the word). Thus, Judaism is not limited to the practice of individual Jews, and even to Jewish institutions. It pervades the notions and attitudes of its adherents in a more extensive and profound sense.

By and large, Jews in America (and in varying degrees in other countries) tend to be liberal -- a term not clearly defined, but intended to represent an attitude of tolerance and understanding for other individuals and other perceptions and ways-of-life, avoiding judgment of deviant conduct, not only when it is eccentric but even when it entails harmful consequences. It represents openness to different ways of life and even evinces a readiness to assimilate them.

These attitudes can be subsumed under two general principles -- toleration and inclusiveness. These two concepts -- the first, claiming venerable ancestry reaching back at least to John Milton and John Locke, and elaborated upon by John Smart Mill, the second of more recent vintage -- are not identical, as some people may believe. Their nature, and the attitude of Judaism to them -- Judaism as a culture and a coherent way-of-life and not as a statistical sample of prevalent opinions of Jews -- is the subject of this essay.

Toleration means the allowance of opinion or behavior, even if it differs from one's own. One may be a teetotaler but tolerate alcohol consumption by others. One may be an avid book-reader yet tolerate the addiction to television-watching in other people. One may be a believer but tolerate agnosticism. One may be a Christian yet tolerate the practice of Islam.

Of course, toleration does not mean that the tolerant person has no convictions of his own, or that he attributes the same validity to the beliefs and conduct of others as he does to his own. The teetotaler may be convinced that abstention from alcohol is the universal desirable practice, the book-reader may have a strong preference for his pastime over television-watching, a Christian believes that his creed is the true one, as does the Muslim. Yet, despite such firm, or even ardent, beliefs in the rightness of one's way, the tolerant person does not object to the beliefs and conduct of other people, even if they contravene his own convictions.

Toleration is justified by a few, well-established reasons. One is the realization that beliefs are not amenable to enforcement, only to proof and persuasion. Thus, beliefs thought to be false have to be tolerated for practical reasons. Then, in many instances, one cannot be absolutely sure of the rightness of one's opinion and conduct, so how can one assume the right to enforce that conduct and opinion on others? Moreover, there is the sense of respect for the dignity and autonomy of each individual, which entails respect for his or her choice of conduct.

Despite these solid grounds for toleration, it has its limits. Even the most tolerant person or society will not tolerate crime and wanton violence.

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