Tevye poured his milk into the various cans as he listened to the villagers debating whether the object of a certain business transaction was a horse or a mule. When pressed by one villager to corroborate his side of the story, Tevye declared: You’re right!” At which point another villager emphatically expressed his opposing viewpoint to the milkman. Tevye thought for a moment and said with a shrug, “You’re right!” An onlooker confronted him: “But Tevye, they cannot both be right!” Tevye thought for another moment and conceded, “You are also right!”
This humorous scene from Fiddler on the Roof was recognized as ironic three decades ago. Tevye’s response to the conflict over the horse/mule makes us smile because we recognize it as a ploy, a refusal to be drawn into a quarrel. And even though the whole scene takes place in a Jewish context, it alludes subtly to the survival technique that our people have developed, which is namely, do not offend those who are passionate in their beliefs, especially when they outnumber you!
But when people insist that such a ploy is not a ploy, but a reflection on the nature of truth, that ploy is no longer an aid but a threat to our survival. Today, Tevye’s response illustrates the way many people seem, in all seriousness, to deal with life. The unwritten social contract is something to the effect that, “We all have our own truths, and there is room for us all to be right.” A variation of that agreement is, “We cannot know what is true and therefore, expressing a belief as anything more than your own opinion is narrow-minded and intolerant.”
We lose sight of the meaning and purpose of being Jewish, even of life in general, when we deny truth or declare it unknowable. Without truth as an underpinning, meaning is reduced to a possibility or perhaps a whim. The irony in this case is not so humorous, but it is irony nevertheless: perhaps the greatest danger to Jewish survival today is a thing called “tolerance.”
Tolerance in the best sense of the word is “freedom from bigotry or prejudice.”1 That kind of tolerance does our society good by refusing to condemn others for being different.
Unfortunately it seems that the definition of tolerance has deteriorated, and many sectors of the Jewish community have adopted what passes for tolerance in the larger society. Whereas it is common sense to say a horse is a horse and a mule is a mule, it is considered intolerant to say the truth is the truth. Common sense has been pushed aside by what is considered common courtesy—as we dutifully avoid at all costs inferring that others are wrong. Part of the cost is that no one can actually say that a given belief is right, since that would imply that others are wrong.
Allan Bloom used his wry wit to comment on this trend more than a decade ago:
The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.2
Of course there is the exception, stated (once again ironically) in the popular slogan: “I have no tolerance for intolerant people.” Once that intolerance label is affixed to an individual (or group) it becomes politically correct and maybe even fashionable to be indignantly intolerant of that person or group. People feel justified in pointing a finger at those deemed intolerant. The travesty of tolerance in today’s society is that it actually reveals people’s intolerant nature. As a result, people who cannot tolerate the possibility of being wrong—or of being rejected for offending others who will not tolerate the possibility of being wrong—tend to relate to one another superficially. They carefully affirm everyone in their beliefs and receive affirmation in return, but they cannot discuss important truths with any kind of strong conviction. That is not tolerance; it is mutual avoidance.
Real tolerance gives people the opportunity to show respect and lovingly struggle with others over important issues, uncomfortable as that process might be. Distorted notions of tolerance actually underscore our tendencies toward intolerance, particularly our intolerance for whatever causes us discomfort or pain. The corollary is a distorted definition of respect. Why is adamant disagreement perceived as disrespect? Is it to accommodate our intolerance for anyone who suggests we are wrong? How often do we dismiss people who earnestly believe we are mistaken, by alleging they have no respect for us? That says, in effect, that respect requires a person to avoid telling us we are wrong. But the notion that a person’s value and worth is contingent upon whether they are right or wrong undercuts the real meaning of respect. True respect affirms people’s intrinsic value and worth, whether they are right or wrong.
Obviously when it comes to certain issues, reality dictates that people of differing convictions cannot both be right. Horse or mule, the truth is one or the other. While it is natural and even good to want to be right, it is a problem when we settle for feeling we are right. Feeling is not the same as being, and being right is impossible apart from the concept of truth. Being right, by definition, is aligning ourselves with truth, or if you prefer, reality. Words like “pluralism” and “inclusive” are sometimes misused to insist that everyone is right in their own way. This lulls us and “protects” us from the uncomfortable, even painful reality that sometimes, in order to be right about things that really matter, we first have to be willing to admit that we could be wrong. That is why a distorted view of tolerance is such a threat to Judaism or any other system that is meant to have spiritual significance. It elevates feeling right over being right, and robs us of the realities that give life meaning and purpose.
God and Tolerance
God revealed himself in the Hebrew Scriptures as the unique measure and personification of absolute truth. He holds the singular role of being Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and the earth, and of us (see Genesis 1). If that were not enough, he knows everything and is perfectly righteous. When we look at the issue of tolerance in the Torah, we see God as intolerant as well as tolerant. There is no inconsistency there, but a holy tension and balance.
When we insist on our own rightness apart from God’s standards, when we tolerate what he does not tolerate, or fail to tolerate what he does tolerate, that is what the Bible calls sin, or iniquity, something that God does not tolerate. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2)
Once words like “sin” get thrown into the mix, it is common to hear statements like, “I don’t believe in a God who is so intolerant.” What does that mean? That there is no evidence to support that God would be intolerant? Or, that if God is intolerant, we will simply take our beliefs elsewhere?
Throughout the Bible, we see evidence that God is intolerant of sin, and that the majority of people have consistently taken their beliefs elsewhere, which in itself is a sin. This is the story of the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s indictment of Jews as well as gentiles.
Although God does not tolerate sin, and the consequences of falling short of his standards are severe, the Scriptures also show God as more than tolerant; he is compassionate and merciful. Perhaps the most obvious illustration in the Tanach of the tension between God’s righteous intolerance and his merciful tolerance is the famous account of Abraham “negotiating” with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 18). Eventually God agreed to save the cities if only ten righteous people were found. Nevertheless there were not ten righteous—and God’s judgment stood.
The prophets are replete with examples of God’s intolerance as well as his tolerance. They carefully spell out the consequences of sin: captivity, dispersion, hardship and suffering. They also spell out the positive side: redemption and renewal for those who would turn away from those things God does not tolerate.
When it comes to redemption, God not only has the unique right to be intolerant of our sin, but he provides the unique means to make us righteous. Again, we see this illustrated in the Torah and in the prophets, and there is a divine sense of consistency. God always provided a way for us to be reconciled to him. Leviticus 17:11 spells out God’s means of doing that through the sacrificial system. He chose a method that showed the seriousness of sin and how it had to result in death. God has complete intolerance for sin. Yet we see his love as he allows an animal to pay that death penalty in place of a human being. This may offend animal rights advocates, but only if they do not realize God’s rights as Creator, and his tremendous mercy and love for his creation.
The Hebrew prophets provide terrifying examples of God’s intolerance of sin. Yet they also show the most amazing demonstrations of how our gracious God wants to be reconciled to the sinner. “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.'” (Isaiah 1:18)
That same prophet wrote of God’s ultimate act of intolerance toward sin, combined with the most amazing act of love for his wayward people: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)
Could that “him” refer to Jesus? Obviously, Jewish believers in Jesus are convinced that it does. But traditional Judaism does not “tolerate” that particular interpretation. Why?
Tolerance and Modern Judaism
Many Jews today do not practice the Jewish religion and are quite removed from specific ideas of what God does or does not tolerate. Without a set of absolutes to live by, many Jewish people pick and choose what seems right at the time. The Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism that came out in May of 1999 shows the tremendous desire to be as inclusive of people’s choices as possible:
We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to people of all ages; to various kinds of families; to all regardless of their sexual orientation; to gerim, those who have converted to Judaism; and to all individuals and families, including the intermarried who strive to create a Jewish home.3
The Jewish religion is rooted in absolutes (God created us, he alone is the one true God, he communicates specific expectations of us, desires us to live holy lives, etc.). Today the majority have departed from those roots. The foundations of faith are deemed quaint and outmoded by a growing number of laymen and rabbis alike. The one exception to this rule of tolerance and inclusiveness is the Jew who believes that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah. If there is one unifying belief in the various branches of Judaism, it is the “absolute” certainty that one can not be Jewish and believe in Jesus. Most leaders of even the most tolerant branches of Judaism agree, including noted Reform rabbi and author Eugene Borowitz, who wrote:
For many Jews, God not only has a vote but a veto and monotheistic pluralism never included both God and idols. Committed pluralist that I am, I will defend my sense of proper limits and deny Hebrew Christians an equal voice in the Jewish conversation.4
Borowitz tries to dismiss Jewish followers of Yeshua on a theological basis. But, is this logical? Those of us who believe in Yeshua are committed to monotheism, whereas Jewish Buddhists believe in an impersonal force, and Jewish atheists…well, you get the idea.
So why exactly is Jesus not tolerated as an option for Jewish people? Why do people insist that if we believe in him, we can no longer be Jews?
Political correctness is not a new concept, and Yeshua was no more politically correct 2000 years ago than he is now. There was much he did not tolerate—and much that he did tolerate—to the chagrin of the leaders of the day. He found fault with people who were considered holy, and spent time with people who were known sinners. He personified God’s peculiar balance of holy intolerance and divine grace. He made it known that everyone needed to repent, those who knew they were sinners and those who did not. He had the audacity to suggest that some of the most well-respected people were mistaken about their relationship with God. That was, and is, intolerable to most Jews and gentiles alike.
Perhaps most intolerable of all, Yeshua not only believed in absolute truth, he claimed to be the truth. He is quoted as saying:
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Implicit in this statement is the fact that all other ways to God are wrong. And this is what people find intolerable. Yeshua not only made unique claims about being the way to God, he specifically claimed to be the fulfillment of Jewish hope and expectation—the one of whom Moses and our Jewish prophets wrote. Some have tried to sidestep this aspect of his message. Alan Dershowitz, in his book, Chutzpah, wrote:
…the suffering experienced by Jews at the hands of Christians over the past two millennia grows primarily out of the conflict over whether Jesus was the true Messiah. Jewish rejection of that religious declaration of faith means, to Christians, that Jews are not true believers. And Christian acceptance of Jesus, to Jews, means that Christians have accepted a false messiah. Would it not have been (and still be) better if Jesus were seen as the Christian Messiah, but not as the Jewish Messiah? Why must we both have one true Messiah, or one God?5
While Dershowitz’s suggestion admirably seeks to make peace, it does not deal with certain facts. The entire New Testament message is based upon the claim that Yeshua fulfilled the words of the Hebrew Scriptures. He is nothing if not the Jewish Messiah.
This is what I told you when I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. (Luke 24:44)
Jesus’ claims cannot be true for one group of people and false for another; still, people have a right to believe either way. True tolerance dictates that we not try to coerce one another into believing or not believing Jesus is Messiah. But real conviction and real concern dictate that we do our best to make a case for the truth, particularly when it is a life-giving matter of reconciliation to God.
Imagine yourself face-to-face with the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe. Can you envision yourself informing God that there is no such thing as absolute truth? Or explaining to the One who created you that though you are certain universal truths exist, it is not possible for human beings to be certain of anything in the spiritual realm? Or that you found the Master of the Universe intolerant in matters of morality and preferred to be more flexible in your own standards?
Many people who either believe or admit the possibility that they will face God beyond the grave do not seem concerned about that encounter or its possible consequences. Even stranger, many people who either believe or admit the possibility that they will face God beyond the grave do not seem concerned about whether it is possible to have an encounter with him before then. In truth, none of us waits until we die to make our statements to God. We tell him what we think each day of our lives by the choices we make. And our silence to God can be the loudest statement of all.
Many people shun those whom they deem intolerant because it threatens their idea of their own rightness. How much more might a person shun God, not wanting to know of his intolerance, not wanting to give up the illusion of their own rightness? But if the Bible is true, and if Jesus is who he claimed to be, there is a marvelous paradox: only by acknowledging and agreeing with God’s intolerance of our own sin can we discover that he is also incredibly merciful and loving in providing a way, his way, to have a relationship with us. In the person of Jesus we can see how far God was willing to go in order for us to be made “right.” “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
Are you willing to test your tolerance? Are you willing to ask God to show you if you are wrong about him, and would you be willing to follow Jesus if that’s what it takes to be right?
Endnotes 1New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition, Simon and Schuster, c. 1980, p. 1495.
2Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 26.
3Reform Judaism, Fall 1999, Volume 28, Number 1, p.11.
4Shma, Volume 29, Number 561, April 1999, p. 4.
5Allan Dershowitz, Chutzpah (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991) p. 183.