How far can Jewish tolerance stretch?

'I think you're wrong, but I'll put up with it. I'll accept our differences - but don't be fooled. I still think you're wrong."

Tolerance is required only for what we don't agree with, for what is by definition intolerable. As a minority in Britain, understanding our position - whether we are "tolerated", or something beyond that, is existentially important.

As diaspora Jews, we live in mutual tolerance with the state and have created powerful mechanisms to internalise and rationalise the state "tolerance" of us as Jews. At the heart of these mechanisms lies a pact of allegiance that we reaffirm every time we say the prayer for the state, monarch or president, depending on which country we live in.

The excellent commentary in the Hertz Siddur (1987) claims that "loyalty to the state is ingrained in the Jewish character… the Jew has often shown himself to be the intensive form of any nationality whose language and customs he adopts". The halachic legitimacy of this declaration of allegiance has its biblical root in the instruction of the prophet Jeremiah, who said: "Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away as captives and pray to the Eternal for it, for in its welfare shall be your peace".

Loose boundaries will erode Judaism, yet excessively restrictive boundaries will strangle the community

Hertz asserted that this approach and this public declaration "made it possible for Jewry to exist in the dispersion". Our response to living under foreign rule was not, however, one of complete submission - when the Emperor Caligula, who ruled between 37 and 41 CE, ordered his image to be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews refused to pay divine honours to him. They were saved from massacre only by his sudden death. Of course, the refusal of Mordechai to bow to Haman, as told in the Purim story, is the best-known example of the limit to how far we will stoop (literally in this case) to earn "toleration".

The development of the Prayer for the Sovereign reflects changes in the level of confidence we feel as diaspora Jews standing before state authority. In 1895, the prayer was modified with the addition of a plea to God to "put compassion (rachmanut) into the Queen's heart and into the hearts of her counsellors and nobles, that they may deal kindly with us and with all Israel". The request for rachmanut was removed 40 years later, in 1935.

When I read the prayer for compassion it makes my Zionist heart go into hyper-pump mode. I am completely convinced that, without Israel, we would return to the powerlessness that leads to such passive and almost begging language. I do not want us to be "tolerated", I want us to be fully appreciated within a pluralist state.

The 1935 version of the Prayer for the Sovereign reflects a change in Jewish attitude to include a more universalist tone, as it concludes: "In his days and in ours, may our Heavenly Father spread the protection of peace over all the dwellers on earth."

Hebrew helps us to appreciate that tolerance is inherently tricky. It involves pain, annoyance, irritation. The Hebrew for "tolerance" - sovlanut - captures this beautifully. Its root is "sevel" - pain. You may be more familiar with another word from this root - savlanut - patience - which is frequently uttered, although not always with much tolerance.

Tolerance also defines our internal Jewish relations, and we have developed a well-tuned system of boundaries for formal tolerance and intolerance of other Jews. These boundaries serve as tools of social control, in that they dictate to those who follow them whom they can and cannot intermingle with.

The Modern Orthodox Israeli rabbi, Donniel Hartman, lays out a typology of the boundaries of Jewish-Jewish tolerance and intolerance in his superb 2007 book, Boundaries of Judaism. The boundaries are tested by "deviance" from norms. The reaction to deviation is binary: some deviation is tolerated, but other deviation is rejected; it is, in his words, "intolerable deviance".

Hartman gives adultery as an example of generally tolerated deviance whereas a mamzer (the product of a prohibited union) is the classic example of "intolerable deviance".

"Heresy" is the main sin that pushes you into the boundary of intolerable deviance, a broad category encompassing a multitude of different designations. To name just a few - it starts with the meshumad - someone who rejects all of Torah and separates him- or herself completely from the community; the min - the Jewish Christian heretic; the mumar l'chachis - the one who transgresses the law to anger others; the epikorus - which is both heresy and also generally very distasteful behaviour. May I politely warn all the readers of this essay that, according to the Sanhedrin, an "epikorus" is someone who commits an unacceptable insult by asking "what use are the rabbis to us?".

For Maimonides, belief is the one litmus test of boundaries. We can tolerate all other sins but stepping outside the boundary of faith is intolerable. He wrote: "We are obligated to love and to take pity on a member of our community. Even if he were to commit every possible transgression, he still remains Israel. But if a person doubts a foundation of faith, he is called a sectarian (min), epikorus (heretic), and one is required to hate him and destroy him."

To show the absolute extent of the condemnation, the Rambam ruled that if a min wrote a Torah scroll, it should be burnt with all the names of God within it, so as to leave no record of the minim or their works.

Jewish attitudes to boundaries and the politics of tolerance are crucial, especially now that modernity has given us the individual freedom to choose whether to belong to the Jewish people or not.

This calls for a more nuanced approach than the previous binary drawing of boundaries - in or out. I believe that the crucial principle for setting Jewish boundaries in free and fluid society is that of Kedushah; our definition of what is holy.

W hen the sacred core of our religious civilisation is defined by maintaining boundaries, how do we react to those near or outside of those boundaries? Do they immediately lose their spark of kedushah? Or are we tolerant enough to attribute kedushah to those who challenge our agreed boundaries?

As a Reform Jew, I believe that we have a special attitude to those on the boundaries of Judaism - not just to "tolerate" difference, but to actively value, encourage and welcome it.

However, this very openness risks us withering away if we lose our distinctiveness - our own kedushah. We may find ourselves in an uncomfortable place: it's not just a fence that we are placing or defending around Torah. It is potentially barbed wire.

I use the term "barbed wire" as not only is our situation of changing boundaries spiky, it is also potentially painful. Our families involve rapidly changing senses of identities and boundaries and, as such, potential pain. We are forced to bring our decisions of boundary-making into our lounges, around our kitchen tables. Michael Waltzer in his classic 1997 work, On Toleration, summed up this predicament. He stated: "Now tolerance begins at home, where we often have to make ethnic, religious, and cultural peace with our spouses, in-laws, and children - and with our own hyphenated or divided selves."

Any "divided self" is likely to incur pain. This is delicate territory for the Reform Movement as we affirm the value of Jews marrying Jews, while at the same time being committed to ensuring that mixed-heritage families are welcomed and not merely "tolerated".

Our challenge is to live in a way that ensures Jewish continuity - which by definition is exclusive - but to retain our core value of inclusivity. Put another way, loose boundaries will erode Judaism yet excessively restrictive boundaries will strangle us. We need to maintain this balance in our boundary-setting and acknowledge that, when we reject binary boundaries, we do not leave sevel behind but rather take upon ourselves a new set of challenges that go to the heart of our Jewish belief.

In response to the redefinition and reassertion of boundaries by different Jewish denominations, Hartman proposes a new theory of Jewish inclusivity. He states that "an individual is classified within the Jewish people's shared cultural space, [as long as she or he] has some engagement and commitment to some part of Torah, identifies as a member of the Jewish people and is not engaged in actively attacking and undermining the Jewish life and commitments of some member of the Jewish community".

H artman's boundary is set at the point where a person undermines the Judaism of fellow Jews from within. Such a person will have crossed the line - Hartman's example of this category are "Jews for Jesus", as they merely use Jewish language to attack Judaism from within and so undermine Jewish identity and commitment. Reform Judaism is clearly within these boundaries.

I want to place the actions of one more group outside the boundary of tolerance - religious zealotry. Zealots are those who abuse religious language and religious practice to attack from within, verbally and physically. These include those who misuse halachah to justify and incite racism and exploit the halachic framework of gender difference to enforce gender separation.

Disapproval of violent fanaticism, rather than of righteous passion, has roots deep within our tradition. The zealotry of the biblical prophet Elijah was legendary - he slaughtered the prophets of Baal. Yet the prophet Malachi radically transformed this zealous, jealous Elijah into a figure of peace whom we call upon to bring in the universal era of harmony.

Elijah no longer enforces zealotry - he is the catalyst for a complete change of heart, as he "shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents."

Both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmud warn against fanatic zealots, kanayim. The Babylonian Talmud states: "Anyone who declares another [Jew's status as] unfit is himself unfit, and never speaks any praise. And Shmuel said: He declares others unfit out of his own unfitness."

I believe that the fanatical extreme end of the Charedi world and the Messianic-nationalistic strands of Judaism fall into the category of kanayim, zealots. They are kanayim because they attain their goals by violence and coercion. They are kanayim by rejecting the idea that the law of the land has precedence - dina d'malchuta dina. I believe that, by their actions, they place themselves outside of the rabbinic system and they are being tolerated due to political pressure; fear of physical reprisals or romanticising them as "proper" Jews.

Behaviour that is violent, misogynist, homophobic, coercive or racist is intolerable. This is undermining Jewish life. This behaviour is beyond the boundaries of Judaism.

How do we find the kedushah, the sacredness within our boundary setting? How do we set and re-calibrate our levels of tolerance? Many of us struggle with the challenges and even the sevel, the pain, of negotiating different worlds, different identities, and different boundaries. Honest acknowledgement of this boundary negotiation is a vital characteristic of Reform Judaism. It is our ability to acknowledge the boundaries that defines our integrity.

We guard tradition, bring innovation and mend rifts. It is our role to take intolerance and turn it to tolerance; now is our historic turn and duty not to falter in the mission to "turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents".

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is the Movement Rabbi for the Movement of Reform Judaism. This is a version of her keynote lecture at the Biennial Conference of the European Union of Progressive Judaism in Amsterdam this month

Laura Janner Klausner

    Last updated: 5:50pm, March 29 2012