When Tolerance and Coexistence Are (Not) Enough

Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn, Temple Emanuel
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Yom Kippur Evening 5771

What is it about the rear side of a car that they are a primary location to display our affiliations: sports, political groups, rock bands, restaurants, ideologies, personal interests, vacation spots, synagogues (a very popular one here in Winston-Salem)… You see these signs everywhere.

Some of them are pretty funny and challenging:

  • God-Less is More
  • Have you ever actually read Leviticus?
  • Politicians should dress more like race-car drivers, at least we would know who their sponsors are!
  • You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts!
  • What part of coal is clean?
  • Will work for peace.

There are two bumper-stickers I would like to call your attention to tonight: COEXIST & TOLERANCE. These bumper stickers are all over the place – many of our membership have them on their cars. Tolerance. Coexistence. These stickers say to us: Be tolerant, accepting, live side-by-side. Not approving, not even liking…just tolerant, coexisting. There are religious symbols used to spell out the letters: T- from a Cross, the O is a peace sign, L made from a Native American looking flute, the E made from the sign for a man and a woman, the R has kokopeli, the A is a Jewish star, the N is a Bah’ai 9-pointed star, the C is the Crescent and star, and the E is from the equation…e=mc2 which means that we, Jews, who are less than 1/100th of the world population are on the sticker twice. The implication of this sticker (and its command: ‘Believe in it’ written beneath it) is that we should be tolerant of each other and our personal choices, our various backgrounds, and the heritages from which we spring. Of the many transgressions from which we suffer in our day, the lack of tolerance and the unwillingness to coexist has become suffocating. We see it…feel it everywhere. I fear these bumper stickers may simply be slogans and I also believe we need to turn these slogans into ways of living … and move beyond tolerance and coexisting to embracing the other when possible.

I think the mere fact these stickers exist speaks volumes of what is lacking in our society: a severe lack of civility, kindness, tolerance, respect.

I once saw a fish (designed like the Jesus fish you see on cars) but this fish had legs and said: “Darwin”. I thought it was funny. Intelligent. Humorous. Harmless. Legitimate.

Then I saw one of those fishes that said “Gefilte”, which I also thought was funny and harmless. About a month later, I saw another one of those fishes – a bit larger – and it said, “Truth” and it was eating the “Darwin” fish. That was scary. That car did not have a ‘coexist’ sticker. That ‘truth eating darwin’ fish showed no tolerance – no interest in coexistence. That “Truth” one could just as easily have been eating the Gefilte Fish, which with a little horseradish could have been funny, but in all seriousness, that mentality of intolerance to religious freedom and freedom from religion is dangerous in a society that supposedly promotes freedom of (and from) religion.

I think we are living in a day of terrible dichotomies, that often stem – or the bad part of them stem – from a lack of tolerance – and a complete unwillingness to coexist.

Consider the following:

There are more ethnic restaurants and international markets today than surely ever before. And yet there are pockets of these United States where there is deep hatred of ethnicities, immigrants, and outsiders. That hatred is not new – it’s just shocking in the year 2010.

There are a host of interfaith and inter-racial dialogue groups – even in places where once there was strict segregation. And yet, schools and school-systems are deeply divided along color lines. That separation is not new – it’s just shocking and feels like it should be out of place in the year 2010.

Issues related to gays and lesbians are discussed on a more open and accepting level today than ever. And yet, anti-gay legislation and bias is painfully prevalent in families, schools, and religious and communal institutions. Painting the gay and lesbian community as outsiders is not new – but the animosity against our brothers and sisters for their sexual orientation has no place in our world.

Healthy living is a topic on newsstands, television shows, and countless programs and yet creating a national health care system is seen as the devil by many. I will never understand how issues like health care, the environment or education are political issues. These issues, just like racism, sexual bigotry, and religious freedom are moral issues and must be treated as such. If we view them solely as political or economic ones, we might as well set our machzorim down and not bother praying, reading our scripture, or consulting Jewish texts on such matters.

I guess most of this is very subjective. After all, who’s to say what’s right? One man’s right is another man’s wrong, isn’t it? Or is it? Are there absolute moral standards?

Isn’t it wrong to build levees that are unsafe? Isn’t it wrong to allow children and adults to go without adequate housing and health care? Isn’t it wrong to fund schools disproportionately based on what part of town the students come from? Isn’t it right to focus on clean and green building? Isn’t it right to protect children who are caught in a war zone? Isn’t it wrong to teach hatred? Isn’t it wrong to neglect history? Isn’t it wrong to … Isn’t it right to …??

What are your absolutes? What are the things for which you have tolerance? What are the things for which you are intolerant? With what will you coexist…of with what will you not?

I’m a tolerant person and I’m an intolerant person. There are things for which I am not willing to put the tolerance sticker on my car…and things with which I do not want to coexist. There are things for which tolerance is insufficient. And there are things for which we need to move past tolerance and all the way into ‘love’. And there are things that coexistence won’t suffice but rather we need to move in together and get along.

That being said, I believe it is okay for us to be intolerant of some things. I’m intolerant on a myriad of issues. I find it very difficult to be tolerant of people who think they know it all. I am intolerant of closed-mindedness. I don’t tolerate my computer when it crashes. I’m intolerant of intentional ignorance. I’m intolerant of those who would rather convince me than listen to me. I’m intolerant of harsh language that is used without mindfulness. I’m intolerant of poor choices and complaining about the results of the poor choices. I’m intolerant of lying, double-crossing, and the failure to speak honestly and openly.

I think it is interesting that the word “tolerate” comes from the Latin “to bear”.

In Hebrew the word “tolerate” comes from the same root as “suffer” and forms the word: “patience”. Tolerance and patience, I understand how they are related. But how do they figure in with suffer? How is tolerance related to suffering? Because to tolerate something means to suffer dealing with a situation you don’t like, you would not have chosen, and you might not approve of. But you tolerate it. I might not like wearing a white robe on the HHD but somehow it is the custom and so I tolerate it. (Please, if people think it is okay to remove the robes, let me know.) You might not like the idea of prayer before the County commissioners meeting (forget that it is unconstitutional) but if you don’t care and think it is harmless, then you tolerate it. You might not like your wife’s perfume (Not saying this is the case in my household) but you tolerate it when you know she loves it. You might not have voted for the President, Senator, Congressman, Representative, Mayor…but you tolerate the person because you recognize him or her as the elected official. And yes, you might have to suffer through that person’s term of office but you tolerate the person because it is respectful of the office and know that that person is in the position because the majority of the populace (at election time) wanted him or her.

But today, there is an intolerance that has led to people wearing their suffering on their sleeves in the form of anger and dismay, completely negating the past and reshaping the reality of today. Who is to say that my intolerance is any better than the next person’s but I think that we, as Jews, have an obligation to tolerate, to be patient, and yes, to suffer, through some things, because it is the right thing to do – not because we necessarily feel great about it and there are some things which are morally repugnant and we should not tolerate but there are some values which are so important that our tolerance has to override our dislike of something.

There are three pressing issues, that I believe deserve our tolerance. The first is the one that countless colleagues of mine are addressing during these HHDs – the Cordoba Islamic Center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. I sent out a link earlier this week by my colleague Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, who serves as the Vice President of World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi at Congregation Da’at Elohim – The Temple of Universal Judaism, New York City. He is the past director of the ADL and a remarkably knowledgeable person on analyzing such matters. There is no way I can say any better than he did why the Islamic center should be allowed at the proposed location. First of all, I certainly don’t have near the experience he has. But secondly, I know I approve of the construction based on who has shown tolerance and who has not. While some people whom I respect deeply have sided with the “Don’t build the Islamic Center” there are some very frightening people who are on that side as well. Sadly, some of the same people who would vote not to build an Islamic Center would vote not to build a JCC and would be just as happy to burn the Quran as they would the Talmud. Maybe not today…but someday, I fear they would. I realize there are people on the side of building the Cordoba Center who are supportive of the Muslim community and are potentially terribly anti-Israel but the value of religious freedom and tolerance is more important than our potential fear & hatred. There are those who say that it is a desecration of the memory of those who died. The desecration is that we have failed to rebuild the WTC and are fighting a 9 year old war that seems to have gone nowhere and has lost more American lives than died on 9/11, cost trillions of dollars, emotionally displaced countless American families and killed tens of 1,000s of innocent Iraqis and Afghanis. That is what we should not be tolerant of. We should not tolerate waste: of life and money. Our focus on the Islamic Center is completely misplaced and misguided. Read Rabbi Brettan-Granatoor’s sermon. Education from knowledgeable sources is important before making judgment.

I believe our call for religious pluralism, spoken of by none other than Isaiah, who called the Great Temple in Jerusalem “a house of prayer for all peoples” (which is emblazoned on our original building across the parking lot), would agree that Jews are in no position to say what can be built where and when. As Jews, we – even to a fault – are often better served by serving the tolerant side than the intolerant. It is not necessarily what we want – or wanted – but it is the reality. We didn’t want the terrorists to attack the WTC. There are those who wanted the towers rebuilt and a memorial built for those who died at the hands of terror on 9.11. But this is where we are today. Sometimes tolerance is borne out of having no better options. To reject the Islamic center is to reject religious freedom which means making the US closer to the very values of those whom we are fighting.

Voting/Speaking out against the Islamic Center near Ground Zero looks particularly grim in light of something else I believe we should not only tolerate but embrace fully: the move toward direct negotiations between Israel and the PA. I believe that following the lead of the PM of Israel is a good thing usually and his willingness to enter into meaningful negotiations is in the best interest of the State of Israel. The demographic clock is ticking far too fast for Israel not to expedite a Palestinian State. I realize the wrongs that have been done – on both sides – but a Palestinian state is deserved and necessary. If there is not a Palestinian state created in the coming years, there will be nearly the same number of Arabs as Jews between the Jordan and the Mediterranean and I am quite certain we do not want a state where the Jews are controlling a non-Jewish near (or actual) majority. You can say goodbye to HaTikvah and the Magen David on the Flag. Israel must decide: today, between a state with a clear Jewish majority OR a democracy. It’s not what we necessarily want – or wanted – but it is the reality. To reject a two-state solution is to reject the very plan that was proposed 63 years ago – and accepted – by the UN and has been promoted by Israel for the majority of the last 63 years.

Lastly, to draw the tolerance lesson straight home, I believe we must be tolerant of each other. We in our community have a host of interests and desires – likes and dislikes. This year celebrates the 200th year of Reform Judaism. We are based on the premise of tolerance. Non-Reform Jews have far too often shown no tolerance for our radical ideologies: women and men sitting together, women reading from Torah, people driving on Shabbat, adapting our liturgy to reflect modern theologies, permitting non-orthodox certified kosher food in our synagogues. Our tent is pretty big as Reform Jews. We survive because we are tolerant and because we suffer through the likes of some groups over others. We stress personal autonomy to the detriment of communal and individual commitment to our own people. Tolerance has led us down some pretty tough roads before but in our best moments, we have typically done so out of compassion: patrilineal descent, calling for the end of Apartheid in S. Africa, advocating for the freedom of Soviet Jews, advancing the cause of civil rights.

And with all that said about tolerance, there are some things in life, for which intolerance is the proper response…sadly the list could be surprisingly long, but I have chosen two.  I believe the orthodox stranglehold on religious expression in Israel (and abroad) has reached a point at which it potentially harms the very nature of our people and the future of the Jewish state. One small example that came during a week of terrible examples.

During one week in July – the director of the Israel Religious Action Center was arrested for carrying a Torah near the Western Wall. The director (Anat Hoffman), by the way, is a Jewish woman. God forbid a woman would hold a Torah. Nearly one or two hours later, a bill was advancing in the Knesset that would hand nearly all religious control over conversion to the Orthodox Rabbinate and set up a devastatingly inordinate amount of power in a role that is already far too political and far too powerful. Two days later, Rabbi Josh & I received an email from a colleague in Ramat HaSharon that her reform synagogue, which has taken 10 years to secure land and build a building, will potentially lose the building to the municipality since it is not yet finished and be handed over to an orthodox synagogue. Since July, an incredible amount of intolerance was shown by Progressive (non-Orthodox) Jews and the knesset bill was put on hold. Monies have been raised for the Reform synagogue in Ramat HaSharon, and Anat Hoffman completed her 30 day punishment of having to stay away from the Kotel. But the work is nowhere near done. Money is desperately needed for the synagogue to be completed in Ramat HaSharon. The Rotem bill will come up for discussion again in about 4 months. And every Rosh Hodesh, the women of the wall go to pray and are yelled out simply for opening their mouths in prayer. We have work to do.

What is it with religious fundamentalists? Whether it is Jews who advocate religious fundamentalism or Christians who advocate burning books, or Muslims who won’t allow synagogues to be built in their countries…it is no wonder people link a belief in God with evil. Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is not great” is subtitled “How Religion Poisons Everything” and is a very narrow look at religion and its ill-effects but some of what he says is right on. And we, as Jews, have the most to lose from intolerance…and so we must be intolerant of intolerance – as oxymoronic as that may sound. The visual image – even just the incitement to burn books sends a powerful message. Just the mention of the words: ‘book burning’ should cause us Jews not just to pause but to take action defending those whose books are about to be defiled and destroyed. We hold the written word sacred and even if that word is potentially damaging to us: we have nothing to fear from it except our own fears. Another bumper sticker: Any book someone wants to burn is worth reading. Maybe, maybe not. But I’ll turn the phrase: any book someone wants to burn could be yours next. And if you are not careful, they’ll come not just for your books.

In the machzor, one of the hardest lines of the al chet for me is: ‘For the sin of tolerating sins in myself that I do not permit in others”. It is time to be honest with ourselves and with each other. What do we tolerate? What do we have patience for? What are we willing to suffer through? And what are we willing to push through the tolerance, patience and suffering and go all the way to loving, embracing, and growing with? And what are the things for which we are intolerant? Where are we willing to stand up, shout out, cry out, repair, hope and build in order to make this world a better place? This is our challenge each year. It is a challenge issued by the rabbis of old, the prophets in the Bible, great men like Martin Luther King, Jr., and women like Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah. In fact, it was Henrietta Szold who gave us a quote that would need a pretty big bumper to fit on but is worth reciting here:

“The future is full of the gravest possibilities. We are promised a place in the sun – not to ravage and dominate, but to serve our people, ourselves, the world. Standing in the sun we shall be seen clearly as never before. Our abilities will be on trial before a world full of nations, who will judge us in the light of a glorious past of ideal service to humankind. For Israel, election has never meant anything but obligation. Clearly, rehabilitating a nation is not a pastime. It is a task, a heavy task, a holy task.”

Maybe that is what should go on our bumpers: “Our task is holy.” Whether it is interpersonal or international relations, whether it is considering the environment or economics, and whether it is education or civil rights, religious centers or religious discussions…our task is holy.

May we hear the call of the bumper stickers. May we be wary of the delicate balance between tolerance and intolerance, coexistence and nonexistence. And may we work to build a just society where we can do more than coexist and tolerate but appreciate and care for one another. May we remember that our task is holy. Our task is holy.


Brought to you by the Christian Unity Committee.

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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Chris Liu-Beers, Former Program Associate Chris Liu-Beers, Former Program Associate

Chris worked on immigrant rights, farmworker justice, sustainability, worship resources, and the Council's website. He left the Council in 2014 to run Tomatillo Design, a company that builds affordable websites for nonprofits.

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