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Jewish Tolerance

“I’m willing to join you, to work with you — even though I think you’re wrong”


Of all American values, tolerance is probably the most celebrated, and the least understood.

What is tolerance? The world thinks it means “I let you do, or be, what you want.” That’s why people think Torah Judaism is intolerant — because it delineates clear boundaries for moral behavior. You have to be open-minded, people say. Anything goes.

But when these “open-minded” people are forced to work together with others, they suddenly have zero tolerance for other ways of doing things. I can tolerate anything at a distance. But if I have to work with you, you’d better do things my way.

No. Tolerance doesn’t mean “I’m willing to put up with your existence.” It doesn’t mean “I’ll let you be — at a distance.”

It means much more. It means: “I’m willing to join you, to work with you — even though I think you’re wrong.”

As we learned in the last column, Rav Yisrael Salanter writes that it’s very important for the leaders of group projects or institutions to steer them in the correct path, but it’s more important for them to take the path of unity. They will often run into significant disagreement. They must discuss it and try to make their case to their colleagues. But if they still don’t agree in principle, they must agree in practice. They have to unite and move forward together, even though some disagree with the direction they’re taking.

It’s not enough, says Rav Yisrael, for the dissenters to give up the fight. If the group project is more important to them than their own perspective, they have to join forces with their colleagues. They must adopt the approach of their colleagues as if it were their own, and lead the project forward together.

Last column I mentioned the rosh yeshivah I knew who worked day and night for the success of his yeshivah’s shiurim. No one knew that he was entirely opposed to the style of the shiurim. He believed the shiurim were intellectually satisfying, but actually obscured the depths of the “sea of Talmud.”

That great rosh yeshivah embodied Rav Yisrael’s teaching. It was his own yeshivah! He wasn’t outvoted. He wasn’t forced to give in. But he saw that the younger generation connected better to the new style of shiurim. He could have cast a veto. But he knew that the right thing to do was do it their way. And so, year after year, he was moser nefesh for the yeshivah and its shiurim, no one knowing his secret opposition.

That’s Jewish tolerance. I will join forces with you even if I think you’re wrong, because we have to do it together. I’m with you, because the greatness of our mission demands that we rise above our own views and ways of doing things. I know that in the end, we have the same goal. So even if I disagree with you, I’m willing to do it your way.

People today think being tolerant means you can’t be opinionated. Intellectually, they’re open-minded, but when they work with others, they’re ready to kill anyone who challenges their point of view. The Torah says the opposite. Be staunchly opinionated; you can and should try to determine the right way. But when you work with others, be willing to adopt a different approach.

Being tolerant doesn’t mean you think the other person is right. No. You still believe he’s wrong. But the cause is much bigger than your truth. You are bigger than your truth.

Of course, we can’t join hands with everyone. You join people who have the same agenda as you. The great rosh yeshivah I knew let others teach the shiurim in a way he disagreed with, but he wouldn’t have gone along with people who wanted to make the yeshivah into a university. If both sides have the same ultimate goal, just different ways of getting there, that’s where Jewish tolerance is the key.

Every group enterprise needs tolerance. Take marriage, for example. A couple have to face life together. Once in a while, they may have disparate approaches to an issue that requires their united effort. They may have different attitudes about managing finances, or disciplining children. But they have to act together. They can’t raise a child with contradictory approaches, or butt heads every time the monthly credit card statement arrives. Together, they must decide on a course of action. Even if they don’t agree, they must unite.

This is no simple task, particularly when the stakes are high. Their decision could affect the well-being of a child, or the family as a whole. One can’t agree to a potentially harmful approach. If, after serious discussion, the couple still disagree fundamentally, they should seek guidance. Being tolerant doesn’t mean being reckless.

What tolerance in marriage means is that both spouses understand they’re on the same team. What’s important to them is finding the right approach to the issue, not my opinion versus yours. So many people passionately defend their own opinion, without even considering the merits of their spouse’s. Eventually they must choose the approach they will follow together. It shouldn’t be personal, because it’s not me versus you; it’s us together. Each one should be willing to take the approach of their spouse, and work together for their common goal.

Unfortunately, this type of tolerance isn’t very popular. How much marital strife could be avoided if people put their marriage before their own opinion? It’s not just marriages that suffer because of rigid intolerance. Kehillos and yeshivos splinter; machlokes abounds. Even minor disagreements are grounds for separation. Groups divide and subdivide till they reach uniformity of thought.

It seems we’re unwilling to work with anyone who doesn’t agree with us. At home, or in the community, how often do we act as if we’re leading a holy war, refusing to budge one inch? Or, at best, do we avoid the discomfort of working with people who view things differently? In politics, we label such people fanatics. But in private life, we’re ultra-fanatics! Only my way exists, and if you don’t join me, you’re my enemy.

Shlomo Hamelech judged a case between two women who both claimed to be the mother of an infant. In his wisdom, he quickly identified the true mother — the one who was willing to give up her child so that he should live. The one who agreed to slice him in two was the impostor, because she’d rather the child die than let the other woman have him.

In all team efforts where we run into disagreement, we have to test ourselves. Am I the real mother, or the impostor? Is my marriage, my shul, my community more important to me than my personal approach? Am I willing to let the other person or group have the “baby” and do it their way, or do we prefer to slice it in two?

It’s a personal avodah. As in other areas of avodah, it’s important to understand and internalize the concept, before trying to apply it. That way, we’ll eventually act on it in a mature and balanced way. For now, let’s work on building an inner resolve to work with others, even if we think they’re wrong. That’s the first step toward becoming a tolerant person, and living a tolerant life.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 882)

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