JCRC, J Street, divisiveness and tolerance


I attended the recent Jewish Community Relations Council Zoom meeting, but as I had not attended for years I chose not to speak. The issue that drove increased attendance was whether or not to admit J Street St. Louis (see the previous story). The few who did speak either supported J Street in the name of tolerance and diversity or opposed them because their words and positions were viewed as divisive and harmful.

Divisiveness is a tricky issue. Sincerely held positions often result in conflict among free-thinking people. Our Mishnah and Midrash is replete with differing views. The rabbis distinguished between a machloket l’shem shamayim and a machloket she-lo l’shem shamayim — conflict for the sake of Heaven and conflict which is not. The former is lauded, the latter discouraged. So I am not overly concerned about J Street injecting views that are divisive; indeed, some of their concerns and the best of their motives align with Torah and our Sages.

The underlying issue, from my point of view, is language and its effects — how we express ourselves. We are a people with long and deep traditions that speak about the words we use — l-shon ha-ra, harmful language even when true. Words matter.

The word tolerance — as far as I know — does not appear in the Torah or in rabbinic teaching (Mishnah, Midrash, and Gemara), but the concept is evident in Torah law and narrative. The TaNaCH (full Bible) records numerous narratives of non-Israelites living amidst the Israelite population. In law, the Torah repeats the obligation to treat the ger (stranger, alien, non-Israelite) living within Israelite-society with love. The rabbis counted 36 (some say 46) admonitions. (BT Baba Metzi’a 59b) God loves the ger (Psalm146). The meaning of love in these contexts is respect, dignity, and kindness.

We are further commanded not to oppress the ger financially and to treat the ger equally in our courts. (The rabbis often interpreted ger to mean “convert,” but as they often teach — Torah’s words do not surrender their contextual meaning.)

The word “diversity” similarly does not appear in sacred Jewish writings. However, Torah teaching regards all people as God’s creation, created in His image. God extends love to all creatures. (Psalm 145) A midrash (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) channels human diversity to illustrate God’s greatness — whereas coins are minted and each is the same, from a single stamp, i.e., from Adam and Eve, God creates a unique human each time.

Perhaps (I am speculating) the absence of the words tolerance and diversity is because they are too abstract, too prone to misapplication without limitation. In any case, the Torah and rabbis expressed the idea more specifically in law and with more color in narrative. Whatever the reason, we see concerns that abstractions do not always serve us well. In this case, are there limits to tolerance? If tolerance means suspending our thinking as if no views (or behaviors) are beyond the pale, it is unwise and dangerous.

Some Jews and Jewish groups have espoused expelling all Arabs from Israel, or advocating their death, or calling for the end of Israel as a Jewish state — should we defend them and include them under the banner of tolerance and diversity? What about Jewish organizations promoting the innate biological superiority or inferiority of a race? Tolerance has limits.

Words like racist and apartheid (or Nazi) applied to Israel are absurdly false, radical distortions, that aim to delegitimize Israel. Moreover, false analogies cheapen their meaning. In addition, they are inflammatory and feed ignorance and hatred and are used by enemies of Israel and Jews — not for love, but for hate, as weapons. They do not further peace; they polarize conflict.

Jewish groups that employ these words — either because they believe them, or because they find them provocative and attention-getting, or to forge alliances — do great harm to Israel and the Jewish people and genuine peace. One does not have to be anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab to be pro-Israel, but inflamed distorted vocabulary polarizes by making it appear so. I am pro-dignity, love, tolerance, and respect for Palestinians — Torah teaching does not permit us to dismiss Palestinian suffering while also opposing the radical ideas and policies of groups and leadership that seek to delegitimize and destroy Israel, the Jewish people, and historical truth.

Advocate for the ger, but be careful with your words. Do not distort or inflame, do not exacerbate Jew against Jew, and do not polarize supporters of Israel. Do not make it harder for us to care about our fellow Jews and the ger. One path is a machloket she-lo l’shem shamayim — people will continue to suffer and die; the other a machloket l’shem shamayim that can eventually lead to genuine peace.

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation.