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No Tolerance For Intolerance

‘Tolerance” is a Jewish value, right? Yet it is also a word that is often used to designate an attitude of moral relativism, wholly alien to Judaism as traditionally understood. What then does it mean for a Jew to be tolerant?

The question is a timely one. Each day’s news is filled with hints and rumors of radical Muslim plots to slaughter masses of civilians in our cities. With even many “moderate” Muslims expressing only faint opposition to the terrorists among their co-religionists, are we seriously supposed to believe that today’s Islam has a claim on our profoundest respect? Jews and Christians alike need a way of understanding what it means to be tolerant of other religions and cultures in a way that does no violence to the integrity of our own faiths, or to common sense.

Happily, Jewish history provides a solution to the problem. Let me introduce the fascinating medieval figure of Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri, who lived in Provence, in southern France, and died around 1315. Among Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers he went further than any ever had done before in articulating a rationale for religious tolerance. Best known for his Talmud commentary, Beit ha’Becheirah, Ha-Meiri set forth criteria for determining the characteristics of those cultures that deserve admiration and acceptance. He distinguished between “nations restricted by the ways of religion” (ummot ha’gedurot b’darchey ha-datot) and “nations not restricted by the ways of religion.”

The former merit our warm regards however they might diverge theologically from a true conception of God and His ways (that is, from Judaism). Ha-Meiri’s dividing line was based not on religious dogma, in which area Christianity with its Trinity and incarnation falls short, compared to Islam with its rigorous monotheism.

Rather, as Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University has written in an essay on Ha-Meiri in The Edah Journal, the difference is “between nations possessed of law and lawless nations, i.e. between barbarism and civilization.” There is even a certain sense in which such nations — again despite their errors in dogma — are to be considered under the designation of “Israel.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can intermarry with them or breach other walls that God, wishing to set us apart for special responsibilities in the world, established to keep Jews separate from other peoples. Even with such limitations in mind, Ha-Meiri’s way of thinking still sounds radical from a medieval rabbinic sage.

Yet traditional scholars today accept him as a standard interpreter of Judaism, because he constructed his ideology of tolerance on a sound Torah basis. The talmudic rabbis had formulated a distinction between, on the one hand, religious laws and other truths that can be known only through revelation and, on the other hand, those that can be discovered through our own powers of reason. The latter could form the basis of non-Jewish religions that promote the values of civilization, lifting gentiles to the heights of human potential — and “this would be entirely sufficient for them, according to the nature of their religions.”

Looking around himself at the Christians of Provence, he saw a nation “restricted by the ways of religion,” a worldview “entirely sufficient for them.” Utterly to be condemned, however, were those peoples not possessing a religion, or possessing a religion that promoted barbarism. If he were alive today, we can guess what he might think of America, with a majority of Christian believers, a country that spends her own money and blood around the world promoting civilized values. And we can guess what we would think of what’s become of his own native land, France, where secularism is the state orthodoxy and laws are formulated to outlaw the display, in public schools, of religious garments such as Islamic headscarves and Jewish skullcaps.

What would he say about those nations that today embrace Islam? Recently, when President Bush stated his opinion that Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the same God, the comment set off a silly little controversy. It was silly because the question, as formulated, is meaningless. What does it matter if Muslims claim that they adore the God of Abraham, the patriarch whose chief distinguishing virtue was kindness, if Muslim values are not outraged by the terrorizing of innocents?

When we take to heart his conception of tolerance, we are compelled to consign much of the contemporary Muslim world to the outer darkness of the “nations not restricted by the ways of religion.” For to the extent Muslims look aside when their fellow believers threaten murder and celebrate bloodshed, they adhere to a belief system unworthy of being called “religion” at all. Ha-Meiri’s tolerance is a far cry from the relativism insisted upon by liberal academics and by many Jews in the name of “tolerance.” But his view, however uncomfortable it makes us, would seem to be the authentic Jewish one.

David Klinghoffer’s latest book is “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday, 2003).

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