Over a 48-hour period last week, through a series of Jewish events, I discovered the limitations of tolerance.
On Thursday night, Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau, representing Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, came for a “conversational dinner” at my house. Lau was in Los Angeles as part of a citywide celebration of religious Zionism, and he spoke to a group of us about his and his organization’s efforts to build bridges in Israel between the Torah-observant and secular communities.
It was a mixed crowd: several Hollywood writers, a playwright and journalist, a Sephardic leader, an Internet entrepreneur, an Israel activist, an Orthodox outreach leader, a music producer, a philanthropist, etc. My co-hosts, Gary Wexler and Dan Adler, and I wanted the guest list to reflect some of the same cultural and ethnic differences Lau faces in his work.
Lau, who is the nephew of the former chief rabbi of Israel, was not there just to speak. He also came to listen. We talked about a lot of things, mainly around Jewish identity, but as the evening progressed an overall theme bubbled up: tolerance.
Some guests craved more tolerance — they seemed almost befuddled by the level of intolerance in Israel between the Orthodox and secular communities.
For others, there was more ambivalence: Is there a limit to tolerance when it comes to God-given truth? Should belief in one truth be something that should also be tolerated?
But it was a third perspective that, in my mind, really cut through — a view that says the Jewish nation must aim higher than just tolerance if it is to maintain its sense of common purpose and shared destiny.
It must aim for connection.
That was Lau’s message, and also his life’s purpose. As he sees it, being Jewish means being responsible for one another. It’s not enough to tolerate each other, if that means turning our backs on the other. We have a timeless Torah, the rabbi said, that belongs to all of us and can help connect us. Lau’s ongoing challenge is to make this Torah more welcoming and sensitive to the secular Israeli Jew.
The morning after our dinner, I was at a conference at UCLA Hillel titled “Building Jewish Los Angeles: A Leadership Conversation,” where about 40 community leaders gathered to talk about how to strengthen the local Jewish community and help “chart its future.”
Just like at the dinner, there was plenty of diversity among the attendees. Over the course of three hours, enough good ideas were expressed that even if we could do only 10 percent of them, our community would get an immediate boost.
But here’s what got me about our talkfest: I can’t recall anyone bringing up the word tolerance. I heard a lot of words like cooperation, connection, coordination, cohesion, innovation and education. But tolerance? Not so much.
It was as if we all realized that tolerance is only a beginning, not an end, and that settling for just tolerance means settling for a community of discrete and disconnected bubbles — hardly an ideal roadmap for building a thriving and engaged community.
Of course, once we got down to practical stuff — like what to do next and who should do what — things got more complicated. It’s easy to agree in principle, but turning principles into action means compromise and sacrifice.
It means struggling to find common ground.
Later that Friday night, at a private home in Pico-Robertson, I met an epic struggler, Rabbi Seth Farber, from Jerusalem. He’s an Orthodox talmudic scholar whose organization, Itim, helps disenfranchised Israelis navigate through the maze of the Rabbinate. If, for example, the Rabbinate rejects your marriage application because you can’t prove you’re a Jew, if it rejects your conversion, won’t give you a get or simply makes your life miserable, you call Farber.
He’s a halachic commando. He’ll send a private eye to a remote village of Chechnya to find a copy of an old get. He’ll videotape witnesses to prove a halachic point. He’ll find obscure loopholes in the law. His consuming passion is to assist Israelis who identify as Jews and want to be Jews (like 300,000 Russian immigrants) but who have run up against the brick wall of the Rabbinate.
On Shabbat afternoon, during a panel discussion at Young Israel of Century City with four distinguished religious Zionist rabbis from Israel — Shlomo Riskin, Ari Berman, Farber and Lau — there was so much talk of bringing back compassion and inclusiveness to Jewish law, it was easy to forget that they were Orthodox rabbis. But theirs was a primal scream against the status quo — against a politicized and dogmatic Rabbinate that has refused to allow innovative and inclusive halachic solutions to Israel’s most vexing civil problems.
Like Lau on Thursday night and our community leaders on Friday morning, Farber and his colleagues are engaged in a noble struggle: breaking down the walls that separate Jews and helping us connect with one another.
Going beyond tolerance is not easy, but in the great Jewish story, what is?
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