Learning the Language of Profound Tolerance


I wish to first of all thank the Schechter Institute and the Award Committee who chose to award me, along with Eti Ankri, the honor of receiving the Liebhaber Prize, named for Rabbi Marc and Henia Liebhaber z”l, leaders in the North American Jewish community. There are two aspects to a prize – recognition for the past, and expectation of the future. Looking back over the many junctures of my past, I recall an abundance of tolerance as a way of life. Of these, I wish to mention three central influences.

First, my parents – my father z”l and my mother, may she be blessed with many years. In their home I learned the language of profound tolerance – that which acknowledges the other without trying to alter him, and knows that each individual is part of a whole, and no person is the whole itself.

After my marriage to Noa, we went to live where she was raised, in Kibbutz Sa’ad in the Negev. There I discovered a religious community of a kind I had not seen before. The Religious Kibbutz Movement awoke to the question of religious tolerance many years before Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. Thirty years ago, when I joined the Religious Kibbutz Movement, I participated in a conference titled “Walking Together.” This expressed the major concern of the Movement’s leadership and this was the spirit of the place. I am indebted to this great organization, which has been somewhat forgotten in the din of public life.

About twenty years ago, Prof. Benny Ish Shalom invited me to join the staff of Bet Morasha, headed by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes. There I found a spiritual home of ‘Torah U’mada’ – Torah and general wisdom – and a religious leadership that combined prayer with social action. For many years, this home served as a spiritual greenhouse for me and my colleagues.

So much for the past. Members of the Award Committee: you stand here today to charge us with strengthening those voices in Israel that have the potential to reinforce tolerance, especially religious tolerance. In November, when I was informed by Rabbi Prof. Golinkin about the prize, I was asked what I intended to do to make the vision of tolerance a reality. The Committee could not know then that I was about to launch my dream initiative of restoring the Bible to the Israeli public. Initiative 929 is the greatest realization I can offer to our polarized society. It is an open invitation to the full array of Israeli voices to read together our shared and holy treasure, and to walk side by side without regard to gender or sector. Each day I offer the prayer leader’s prayer that God help us in our endeavor, for the sake of all those who live in this land.

In accordance with Jewish custom, I wish to link my words to the Weekly Portion, Shelach, in which Moses pleads with God to cool his anger over the sin of the spies. Justice called for annihilation of the nation, but Moses falls in prayer and says (Numbers 14:17-20):

And now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, as You have spoken, saying: The Lord is slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation. Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of Your lovingkindness, and as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.’ And the Lord said: ‘I have pardoned according to your word.’

The first letter of the word ‘be great’ (yigdal in Hebrew) is enlarged. The Midrash, noting this unusual occurrence, imagines a dialogue between Moses and God:

When Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy One, blessed be He, tying crowns on the letters [of the Torah]. Said He to him, ‘Moses, is there no [greeting of] Peace in your town?’ ‘Shall a servant extend [a greeting of] Peace to his Master!’ replied he: ‘But you should have assisted Me’ [By wishing Me success in My labors], said He. Immediately he cried out to Him, ‘And now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, as You have spoken.'(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 89a).

A strange dialogue. Moses is standing on high, waiting for God to finish putting crowns on the letters. We know of another Midrash that describes what went on while Moses was waiting – the people were dancing around the golden calf. But up on high, as if completely detached from what was happening below, God chides Moses: “What, you don’t say hello?” Moses, somewhat startled, answers: “A servant should greet his master?” Then God teaches Moses a lesson in their mutual relationship: “You should assist Me.” Even God needs a supporting hand to remind Him of the measure of Peace upon which the world rests.

Opposed to the measure of Peace is the measure of Truth, which plays no favorites and insists on absolute justice without other considerations. The tension between Peace and Truth is the tension that exists between a life ruled by zealotry and one ruled by tolerance. The zealot burns with a holy fire; the tolerant one seeks to lower the temperature with clear water. The zealot cannot tolerate a wrong; the tolerant one feels the pain of the wrongdoing but seeks an even-tempered redress. Thus does the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush) expound the midrash on our parasha:

Might is exhibited in two ways – by the one who triumphs over his fellow, and by the one who triumphs over himself. The latter is the more exalted, [as it is written,] He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty (Proverbs 16:32).

In the world of the Torah, life is not dictated by the attribute of Justice. God and man are both required to find the strength to break through the Law into the realm of leniency. For this, they must join forces: “You should have assisted Me.” The basis for leniency in life is found in the book of Deuteronomy (6:18): “And you shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord; that it may be well with you, and that you may go in and possess the good land which the Lord swore unto your fathers.” The commentator Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, the Ramban (13thcentury Spain), explains that the Torah seeks to endow a life of goodness combined with integrity.

This is a great thing in the Torah, that it lays down the laws for human behavior in all spheres, but after doing so, enjoins us to do right and good in all matters, to compromise and exercise leniency.

I believe that one can express the proportion between justice and leniency as follows:

Justice has no face, nor is a judge permitted to discriminate – “you may not favor the poor man.” Just as God says that the measure of justice does not distinguish between individuals. Thus, justice is integrity, facing the front. To sharpen the image, we can say that integrity, being straight (yosher) is related to the word for a line (shura). The root of this word, according to the Even Shoshan dictionary, is the Aramaic shurta, which means ‘wall.’ Thus Joseph’s blessing describes his good looks as a fruitful vine whose “branches run over the wall” (Genesis 49:22). The word for ‘branches’ can also be read as ‘young women;’ perhaps this refers to the maidens of Egypt walking on the palace walls so as to glimpse the handsomest of men. In other words, the straight line of the law is like walking on a narrow wall, loyal to absolute truth. Leniency, on the other hand, is described by the Hebrew term as being ‘inside the wall of the law.’ The wall is cracked and the immutable line takes on some curves, and inside the circle that is formed we see the face of the one being judged, and we cannot ignore it. The face-to-face encounter forces us away from the straight line and into the arena of compassion and forgiveness.

Jerusalem was destroyed because of iron adherence to the straight line of the law. This line broke the city’s wall. The Rabbis said, “Great is the love that wrecks the wall,” but this works in the reverse direction as well, to say ‘Great is the wall that ruins love.” A home cannot run on rules and regulations only. A family, a community, a nation, must all be founded on a love that can ruin the wall. This is why the Torah constantly reminds us that goodness and integrity are prerequisites for inhabiting the Land. A society cannot be built only on the straight line; goodness sweetens the straightness to make a world in which we all can exist.

The Book of Lamentations (1:6) depicts Jerusalem that has lost her might:

And gone is from the daughter of Zion all her splendour; her princes are become like harts that find no pasture, and they are gone without strength before the pursuer.

The Midrash in Eicha Raba speaks here of the strength that Moses prayed should be magnified. When we here on earth lack a leadership that has the power to accommodate and tolerate those different from us, Jerusalem loses its ability to endure, “like harts that find no pasture.” The desire to be right ignites within us the fire of zealotry and annuls the capacity for tolerance. I am aware that this is easy for me to say because my practice of tolerance is comfortable. As rabbi of an Orthodox kehilla I work towards the integration of women into religious life, in a spirit of tolerance – not with fire, not with zealotry, not as letting “the law cut through the mountain” (Tractate Sanhedrin 6b). But I take this stance as a man who is counted in a minyan, and whose right to participate in worship is not questioned. Do I have the right to judge zealous women when I have not been in their shoes?

I ask my colleagues in the Masorti and Reform Movements to be patient with the social processes taking place in Israel. The dominant position that wishes to ignore their existence is unacceptable. Would I be willing to take the stance of “don’t be right, be wise,” if I were shunted aside time after time? Nonetheless, in the name of tolerance I ask to take the long view, and to understand that restraint will strengthen the lengthy process that will bring relief and heal all our ills.

How many times, in the numerous Liebhaber Prize ceremonies, has Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “From the Place Where We Are Right,” been read? Allow me nonetheless to join those who can recite it in their sleep:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

It is an age-old custom to recite the Shema prayer before going to sleep. In prayers structured around this text, man turns to God to say:

Lord of the universe, I hereby forgive all who angered or antagonized me or sinned against me; against either my person or my wealth or my honor or all that I possess; whether willingly or coerced, intentionally or inadvertently; whether by speech or by deed; and let no one be punished because of me.

Moments before our eyes close, we review the events of the day. We see the spoiled moments, small and large, we recall arguments and squabbles. But before sleep, we view these things from a perspective different from the hectic pace of daytime; in quiet thoughts as we lay in bed and prepare for a sort of temporary separation from the body. Things are seen in proportion; we can consider those who have angered us in a different light. Conciliation and forgiveness are born of a willingness to see the other from his position. This is the essence of the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I wish to conclude with a Jewish prayer recited daily:

Bless us, our Father, all of us as one with the light of Your face; For by the light of Your face You have given us the Torah of life, and love of kindness, and righteousness and blessing and mercy and life and peace.


Rabbi Benny Lau received the Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance together with singer Etti Ankari in a ceremony in Jerusalem at the Schechter Institute Campus, June 9, 2015.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *