“Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah” [Good character comes before Torah] – Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin
“I am here to contend for religious freedom.” – Elder Dallin H. Oaks
“It is therefore our job at this moment to reach out ... to show that respect and equality between people of all faiths and none, is a purpose shared. This change can be managed over time and with care, but come it must.” – Former British PM Tony Blair
Tolerance for diverse religious and political views was the theme of presentations made this month by several rabbis, an LDS apostle, and a former prime minister. This is clearly a topic that preoccupies serious thinkers in many faith communities, many of whom are using their prophetic voice to encourage more civility and decency in the public square. While the presentations did not address identical topics, it was heartening to see Jewish, Mormon and Catholic leaders speak out on an issue that transcends theological and political boundaries.
This week the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles hosted a timely interdenominational panel discussion on how to hold civil conversations on Israel-related topics. Three prominent rabbis shared their views on respect, civility and decency, and moderator Frank Luntz encouraged audience participation throughout the event. When asked whether there was ever an excuse for rude and intolerant behavior towards speakers with whom one may disagree, Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin was quick to quote the sages’ statement on civility and good manners (“Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah”). He added that the Hebrew word for “obey” means “to observe,” and said that the most important thing a Jew can do is to listen (“shma”). Reform Rabbi Laura Geller read from Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The Place Where We Are Right,” and Conservative Rabbi Ed Feinstein noted his refusal to bring politics to the pulpit, explaining that legitimate debate should involve dialogues, not monologues from the bimah.
The Chapman University School of Law’s auditorium was the decorous setting for LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks’ latest speech on religious liberty, a topic that has interested the former Utah Supreme Court justice and University of Chicago law professor for over two decades. Elder Oaks quoted leaders from diverse faith traditions to make his case that “religious teachings and religious organizations are valuable and important to our free society and therefore deserving of special legal protection.” After acknowledging the inherent tension in a free society between legitimate government regulatory responsibilities and the free exercise of religion, Elder Oaks made the case for granting special guarantees – a “preferred status”—to religion. He also made a distinction between the freedom to worship and the free exercise of religion: while no one is currently barred from entering a house of worship in the United States, it is equally important that no one be denied the right to express his religious views in the public square (or in some cases from his own pulpit).
In a keynote speech at the Tecnológico de Monterrey University in Mexico earlier this week, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for religious awareness and tolerance in Europe and the Middle East. In 2008 the Catholic statesman founded The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, whose mission statement could easily be supported by the rabbis and Elder Oaks: “to promote respect, friendship and understanding between the major religious faiths, and to make the case for faith itself as relevant, and a force for good in the world.” Declaring “Everywhere you look today religion matters,” Mr. Blair emphasized the need for governments and societies to engage in dialogue and meaningful social and cultural exchange with people of other faiths and cultures, especially with Muslims in Europe and the Middle East. The foundation is partnering with the university’s Faith and Globalization Initiative, which seeks to understand how faith motivates people and analyze the impact of religion on the modern world.
I attended both the panel discussion and Elder Oaks’ speech, and noted the presence of prominent thinkers and donors at both events. Clearly the current state of civil discourse in our society leaves much to be desired, and it is heartening to see this topic addressed by an increasing number of faith leaders. When we show intolerance of others’ political or religious beliefs, we show a lack of good character and civility. On this we should all agree.
I will be speaking at the San Antonio (TX) West Stake’s Education Weekend on April 15 and 16.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Dr. Armand Mauss, and Brett Holbrooke will conduct an LDS-Jewish dialogue at University Synagogue in Irvine, CA on Friday, March 11 @ 8:00 p.m.