Guest column: Tolerance meets its test — and it’s the intolerant
September 4, 2017
As the week of the events in Charlottesville concluded, I could not decide what exactly was agitating me.
We can name the events in Charlottesville or the words shared about nuanced approaches and descriptions of those events pointing to them as the source of our discomfort, our anger, fear … our agitation. Yet, while I do not diminish those realities as part of why I was so unnerved, I am not sure that is it.
Maybe it was the lack of moral rectitude, the equivocation from the highest moral pulpit in the land, the president. Perhaps it was the symbols, the images forever ingrained in my mind disseminated throughout the world from the Unite the Right protesters in Charlottesville.
Maybe it was even the discomfort I feel by knowing that some counter protesters stepped outside of the moral framework I expect and fomented violence themselves. Or, it could have been the moral equivalency drawn between the two, even if there were only two, sides in Charlottesville, attempting to equate their violent acts, their behaviors.
But I am not sure I was agitated for exactly those reasons. While they certainly contribute to the lack of comfort I am feeling as an American Jew, there was a root cause of my discomfort. I believe there is a question I am struggling with.
For as long as I can recall, tolerance has been preached from the synagogue, in secular school, on sports teams — really in every group of which I have been a part. It is an American value we hold dear and treasure almost as a moral precept. It is a value that demands of us both awareness of the other and a modicum of respect for those different, in whatever ways, than ourselves.
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This great nation we call home, the United States of America, has been a bastion of tolerance which has been tested in every generation. Through the generations this evolving society stretches its arms wider in an effort to uphold this idea.
But the question plaguing me, perhaps all of us, at this moment is whether or not tolerance has run its course. In other words, is tolerance always possible?
I learned last month, in attempting to devour every article, blog post and interview I could, that tolerance, however, does not mean being tolerant of those who preach intolerance. There are limits to this value. Tolerance cannot spread its arms wide enough to include and embrace the intolerant.
This agitating question leads me to another one: Are the events of last month, including the equivocation and moral failure of our society and leaders a failure of our ever-evolving tolerant society, or rather, is it a very difficult and painful growing pain?
I am agitated because this reality forces me to question the moral ground on which I stand. They demand that I dig deep within myself, within my Jewish tradition to learn ways to express, to articulate a vision, a view of a better tomorrow.
In synagogues around the world last month, we read words from the book of Deuteronomy that began with a puzzling line: "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse." (Deut. 11:26).
It is puzzling because the verb "see" expressed as a command doesn't fit perfectly with the object: blessing and curse. Jewish tradition urges us to notice that this command is grammatically directed to each of us as individuals.
That is, we each hold the responsibility to see what lies before us. Each and every human being, every citizen of this land bears the responsibility to recognize, to pay attention, to see the blessings and curse before us. I choose blessing.
That means, I choose to see this as a growing pain and one we must not only manage but ensure the growth is toward greater tolerance, love and strength — building a nation of more enduring values. I choose to say tolerance has not run its course, but rather it has to better understand its limitations, and also its promise.
This requires of us conversations with every neighbor and friend, to ensure our values are expressed and articulated. It demands of us our voice is heard by those who hold positions of leadership so that should they lead, they do so knowing that we see that blessing and work toward it.
Evon Yakar has served as a rabbi at Temple Bat Yam: The South Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley Jewish Community since 2011.
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