Tolerance: A Coat of Many Colors

The number of Jewish fundamentalists trying to dominate sections of public life is on the rise. But as Rabbi Dr. Walter Homolka points out, freedom of religion is an essential Jewish virtue. Progressive Jews must defend the conviction that there is more than one truth within Judaism – and outside of Judaism.

We would all like to think that we are rather tolerant, wouldn’t we? But when the moment comes and we bump into the ‘other’, the ‘foreign’ or the ‘strange’ it often proves difficult to come to an intuitive feeling of live and let live. In today’s world, we encounter a diversity of orientations and life styles in all spheres of our social lives.

Cultural, ideological and religious diversity is no longer primarily found outside the confines of our own European societies. Rather, it flourishes inside its boundaries in the concrete situations of our day-to-day lives. The stranger has become a neighbor and a consensus on fundamental values can no longer be presumed. On the contrary, all questions of orientation have to be renegotiated in all areas of life.

The history of tolerance

The history of tolerance is the history of religious freedom and of freedom of opinion. The most radical challenge to a person’s identity is the confrontation with convictions of alien faiths or alternative interpretations within one’s own faith which question the very foundation on which that identity is built.

It was Rabbi Samuel Wolk in his Universal Jewish Encyclopedia of 1941 who considered tolerance as an essential identity marker for Judaism. “The dictum that history is the history of liberty when shorn of its Hegelian vagaries, finds a concrete verification in the story of the Jew and his religion.

For Judaism is so broadly tolerant that it has permitted the widest divergences of opinion within its fold.” Wolk also explained why, he found the basis for this argument in the essentially democratic foundations and structure of Jewish life. Furthermore, he concludes that one of the most characteristic qualities of Jewish thought throughout the ages was its open-mindedness towards new ideas.

The bust of Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786)

Jewish rights as human rights

Nowadays the number of Jewish fundamentalists is on the rise. Haredi attempts to highjack Israeli society as a whole and to dominate large sections of public life, encroachments into family and marital law in Israel and the galut, questioning the rights of women to inner-Jewish religious expression guided by their conscience – all of this and more is a clear violation of religious freedom.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement in North America, recently called on Diaspora Jews to protest against Israeli discrimination against women and the non-Orthodox. At the same General Assembly in Baltimore where Rabbi Jacobs spoke, journalism and political science Professor Peter Beinart concurred arguing that liberal Jewry in North America supports human rights. “The State of Israel cannot close its ears to what Rabbi Jacobs and Peter Beinart are saying,” agrees Gusti Yehoshua Braverman, co-chair of the Department of Diaspora Activities in the World Zionist Organization in Jerusalem.

Evolution of secular Europe

European society as we currently know it is the result of a long history of pluralization that began with the Reformation. During the Reformation, the single all-encompassing Christian church was replaced by two churches, or two religions, as people described them in the 16th Century. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by Louis XIV resulted in the exodus of some 500,000 Huguenots from France and triggered heated discussion throughout Europe on matters pertaining to religious tolerance and religious freedom.

A number of philosophers were inspired to write treatises on these themes. John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” argued in 1689 that no state or church should have the right of compulsion over human souls and insists on tolerance for all religions.

Photo Credit: Centrum Judaicum Berlin/Anja Fischer; Leo Baeck Institute New York

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