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Peace without Conciliation: The Irrelevance of "Toleration" in Judaism
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Common Knowledge 11.1 (2005) 41-47

The Irrelevance of "Toleration" in Judaism

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

The interactions that are possible between Jews and non-Jews in modern times are fundamentally different from those of any previous era in Jewish history. Particularly in the Western world, Jews and non-Jews meet each other in civil society on an equal footing. In the secular context of the modern state, a consensus has been reached about religious freedom. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists may live side by side—and each by his own faith shall live.

Despite this infrastructure of toleration, our times are plagued by religious fanaticism and hatred. It seems that the political consensus to "live and let live" has done little to alleviate the intolerance that is inherent to religious belief. The difficulties involved in recognizing the faiths of others are particularly acute when the religions involved are monotheisms. Every religion makes claims to truth that cast doubt on the claims made by other religions, but in monotheist religions those claims tend to be absolute and exclusive. Belief in a unique and omnipotent God who lives beyond the limitations of time, who created the universe and has revealed truths through his prophets, makes it difficult to account for alternatives. A significant proportion of all warfare, ancient and modern, has resulted from the uncompromising beliefs of the monotheist faithful.

My point is that "toleration" is a concept very hard to apply in the context of monotheism. An analogy between science and religion may be useful: monotheist religions are, in one respect at least, like the natural sciences. A polytheism or henotheism can tolerate more than one claim to truth, even when those claims in some degree conflict. Polytheist and henotheist religions are in this way like the humanities: they make room for, even if they do not thrive on, diverging points of view. The opinions and interpretations of others are taken to be valid if they are seen to be cogent. But in the natural sciences, there is a distinction between truth and falsehood (or at least, between falsified and unfalsified results). The idea of falsehood is at the core of any science—and of each monotheism. There is a true God and there are false gods. The truth of the one God is absolute and exclusive. However desirable religious toleration may be, the basic nature of monotheism is an obstacle to tolerance.

I do not believe that there is a definitive solution to this problem. Religious beliefs cannot, and really should not, figure as options on a list of legitimate alternatives. However, there are partial solutions about which not enough has been said. Judaism, despite the absolute and exclusionary quality of its monotheism, has a side that tends toward openness and toleration. This side of Judaism has also an expression in the Jewish abstention from proselytizing. Even ultimately, Judaism does not view itself as the religion of all people. It is the religion of the Jews alone and is, for almost all its practitioners, inherited. The assumption that Judaism is the religion of one people (and a few unsought converts) is emphatically a normative principle and is important to our discussion because it suggests that, within Jewish doctrine, there is room for the religious beliefs of others. This principle applies not only to the world as it is today but also to the messianic projections that Judaism makes for the future. Although the messianic era represents an ultimate vindication of truth as Judaism understands it—a time when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will assert his dominion over all the world—at that time the peoples of the world will not embrace Judaism and will not come to observe Jewish law. In the closing chapters of his monumental Code of Jewish Law, Maimonides gives an account of the end of days. In his portrayal, the messianic realm is one of peace, but not uniformity of faith. According to Maimonides, when Isaiah saw the wolf and the lamb lying down together, what he envisioned was not a change in the nature of creation. Wolves will still be wolves, and lambs lambs; what will change is the...

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