Tolerance (Part 1)

  • Rav Hillel Rachmani


In light of the recent tragic events in Israel, this lecture will not continue with the topic of past lectures, "Kodesh and Chol", but will deal instead with the subject of tolerance. [This lecture was originally delivered a week after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin z"l.] Nevertheless, we will discover that this topic fits very well into the patterns we have discussed in previous weeks. Tolerance is a common theme in Rav Kook's writings, but is also one that is difficult to fully understand. Our first source will be Orot Ha-Techiya, section 18, which appears in Rav Kook's book "Orot".

In this essay, Rav Kook describes three fundamental forces which can be found in any culture and in any individual, regardless of historical period or geographical location. These three forces are the foundation of Man's spirit, and they are, in turn, nourished from that spirit.

The Three Forces

The first force is the holy, religious force. This force is concerned with the relationship between Man and God - in other words, the spiritual aspect of Man's life.

The second is the nationalist force, which drives people to pursue the promotion of their own community and country above other groups.

The third is the humanist, universal, ethical force. This force knows no boundaries of state, and stresses the importance and equality of mankind.

Ideally, these forces should coexist in a harmonious balance of power. Each can contribute something to the other two, and can improve the other. These forces also perform an important role in limiting one another, and keeping each one under control. Unfortunately, these forces often tend not to unite, but instead to oppose one another. When we see this happening, it is our duty to speak out and to attempt to rectify the situation. However, we must first understand the source of this conflict.

The Conflict

Each force is by its nature incomplete, as it is just one aspect of the three-dimensional fabric of man's spirit. If a particular group in society emphasizes a specific force above the other two, for instance, nationalism, then another group in society, the humanists, will come forth and find fault with the nationalists. Any force can easily find the flaw in its neighbor because one can no more build a balanced individual or society with just one force than one can paint a full picture with just one color. What is required, then, is balance and equilibrium. In this matter, there is no difference between the "holy" force of spirituality and the "secular" forces of nationalism and humanism. There is no room for what is often termed "frumkeit," which ignores the other two forces.

At the end of the essay, Rav Kook explains how these three forces can be united in the supernal holiness (kodesh elyon), also known as the holy of holies (kodesh kodashim), which is also the source of these forces. Here too, Rav Kook uses the hierarchical structure we have seen in previous shiurim to show how seemingly opposed tendencies can be united:

Supernal Holiness

(Holy of Holies)

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secular holy

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nationalism humanism religiosity


The Problem

When a particular force stands on its own, it exists apart from its natural environment, i.e. with the other two forces. These three forces fundamentally, and by their very nature, need to co-exist with each other, and when removed from this environment, they shrivel up, contract, and weaken, becoming creatively bankrupt. Yet, we know from experience that these forces are not feeble or passive, but rather aggressive and vitriolic, even when they exist in their distilled, isolated forms! This energy is different, however. It is not creative, constructive energy, but rather energy that is derived from the negation of the other forces. Then, the source of strength of the force, isolated, extracted from the community of forces and emptied of spirit - develops destructive feelings towards the others. Truth, love of truth, and aspiration towards truth vanish as people form groups centred around a particular force and engage in bringing down their rivals.

In summary: Three forces - religiosity, humanism and nationalism - exist in the human spirit, and compete for man's attention, commitment and energy. Any group or individual will, if allowed, tend towards one particular force, resulting in conflict and not in harmony. To succeed and to prosper we must recognize the importance of all three forces. While one may be justified in looking after his particular force, he ignores the others at his own peril. We must learn and grow from them all.

As we have mentioned, this proper approach views life from the inner perspective described as "kodesh elyon", the highest holiness, which finds Godliness not only in the beit-midrash, but also in all the great movements created by the spirit of humanity.

So much for the theory - how does the Religious-Zionist camp (which claims to draw inspiration from Rav Kook) fit into this scheme? It certainly aspires to being an ideal mix of all three forces, resulting in supernal holiness, but has it really achieved this goal? If we picture each of the forces as a primary color - red, green, and blue - is the Religious-Zionist community the "perfect" mixture represented by white, symbolizing the upper, unified level? Perhaps instead it is simply another hue in the rainbow of colors found in the lower realms of holy and secular?

In either case, how does this relate to the topic of this lecture - tolerance? If this community is on the same level as other groups in society, it is easy to understand why it should be tolerant. If, however, it is truly "white" in comparison to everyone else's reds, greens, and blues, then perhaps it should be entitled to reject other groups as inferior or incomplete, accepting only its own community as legitimate!

To fully understand this issue, we must examine a second essay by Rav Kook. This essay is entitled "The War of Opinions and Beliefs", and it speaks of Rav Kook's struggle with the assimilation of apparently foreign attitudes into Judaism. The essay can be found in section 6 in Zer'onim and also in "Orot".

Monotheism vs. Polytheism


Let us begin by using an analogy to help us understand the source of intolerance.

One of the basic requirements of a scientific theory is that it explain a number of phenomena. As a theory develops and is improved, it can be used to explain more phenomena, with the ultimate theory being one that explains all phenomena. Such an all-encompassing, generalized theory would convince its observers both that the theory is true and that other theories are false. So it is with any generalized idea: the more inclusive it is in terms of application, the more people believe in its truth, and that it alone represents the truth.

This principle can be extended to the "God idea", as it were. Believers in a single, all-powerful, all-knowing God believe not only that they are in possession of truth, but they are its sole guardians; all other beliefs are incorrect. This in turn leads to "zeal" (kana'ut), which often characterizes monotheism. This zeal is seen in its most extreme in the religious war, which is the use of force to compel other groups to accept your truth.



Polytheistic societies, on the other hand, are not typified by this type of zeal and intolerance. Although groups may go to war, they do not attempt to increase the strength, influence and rule of their individual gods. Within a single polytheistic society, worship of a whole range of gods can be tolerated, and there is no stigma attached to changing gods. If a polytheist were to walk into a synagogue, he would haveno qualms about praying to God, too.

Rav Kook calls the type of tolerance found in pluralist societies a "weak tolerance". This tolerance has as its central dogma "You do what you do, I'll what I do" - in other words, anything goes. So why is this tolerance weak? Because it is a tolerance of limitation, a tolerance resulting from a narrowed perspective. To return to the color analogy, you are, for example, red. The person next to you is blue. This weak tolerance means that you will not fight, you recognize that although you are different, you are equals. The weakness, however, lies in the fact that there is no unity, no shared goal; by ignoring others, you fail to appreciate a higher truth. You only ever see one perspective, your own.

As much as such a society can generate tolerance, it can also produce intolerance - what Rav Kook terms "pernicious zeal". This is the worst possible relationship which can exist between groups in society: I'm red, and I'm right. All the blues and greens are wrong, and must all be red like me. It is pernicious in that it is so destructive; as we have already seen, a healthy society requires a mixture of reds, greens and blues (the various forces) and cannot survive otherwise. The pernicious zealot has no moral basis for demanding others adopt his position - ultimately, objectively, he is no more valuable than them, just different.

The Ideal

The ideal relationship between groups, therefore, is not a weak tolerance, but a strong one, a "zealous tolerance" or "tolerant zeal". You recognize that whereas you are red and your neighbor is blue, you are both equally important, yet different, aspects of white. Once you recognize that everything is bathed in this upper white light of unity which descends from a single God and is the origin of your red and your neighbor's blue, then it is possible for different groups within society to live side by side, without conflict, and in unity - unity of origin, unity of goal, unity of essence.

These different models of tolerance can be illustrated by likening the multiplicity of ideas to an orchestra. Each person has a particular instrument at which he excels. A violinist who displays "pernicious zeal" would demand that everyone play the violin and use his music score. There would be no instrumental variety or harmony if he succeeded; instead, there would be a great deal of conflict as the other musicians resisted, demanding in turn that their instrument be supreme. This is hardly a desirable scenario. A flutist who is "weakly" tolerant would play what he wants, while simultaneously wearing earplugs so everyone else can play what they want. The members of the orchestra are not attacking each other (they are all wearing earplugs), but nothing has been achieved from a musical point of view. But, if all the players recognize that in front of them there is a conductor, and that under his direction they can work together towards a single, common goal, then even though they may be playing different instruments and different parts of a harmony, each can utilize his individual talent and ability while overall a beautiful symphony is produced.

The essence of this strong tolerance is unity. We will continue with this theme next week.

(This lecture summary was prepared by Benjamin Ellis.)