The Downside of Unholy Tolerance

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax., Florida

While in search of a new community in which to relocate, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev had arrived with his followers at a particular village. Upon looking around, it seemed that the place was right for the Rabbi and his growing Chassidic sect to set up shop, at least from their viewpoint. As for the townsfolk, they appeared to have a slightly different perspective.

In a not-so-subtle display of emotions, the locals greeted their prospective new neighbors with a generous pelting of raw eggs. Upon witnessing this, the Tzaddik turned to his entourage and said: "Ah! We chose well, this is the sign I was waiting for."

In response to their dumbfound reaction, he added, "At least the people here cannot be accused of being apathetic… they possess true enthusiasm for what they believe. I find this rather refreshing."


Anger and intolerance seem to have lost all place in modern civilization. Such emotions are considered taboo; entirely unacceptable in any shape or form. In fact many a brilliant career has gone down the tubes – instantly shattered – in a moment of unmitigated and heartfelt emotion.

People who suffer from the need to express such raw and primitive emotions are regarded as flawed and relegated to a rehabilitation program. There are anger management classes for the anger challenged and sensitivity training for people who are tolerance impaired.

Our societal "Correctness" is best expressed in a Yiddish axiom: “It’s okay that blood should spill, as long as one speaks diplomatically.” An adage closer to home declares: "Don't get angry; get even!"  

But what does tolerance really mean? Is it intended to be absolute; at all times and all costs, or does it have its limitations? Perhaps we should take a closer look at the idea of tolerance versus intolerance. Where best to start than Wikipedia? Here then is what Wikipedia has to say about the meaning of tolerance or toleration: “A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.”

Freedom from bigotry we could all agree is a good thing; all the time. But a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion… etc., differ from one's own? That’s clearly a subjective statement. What is the meaning of fair and permissive? How fair and permissive? Who’s definition of fair…? One must obviously take this with a dose of subjectivity.

It is hence perfectly within bounds to suggest that while intolerance and indignation are generally not positive emotions, especially in the form of uncontrollable outbursts, there are times when these types of expression are not only appropriate but even necessary – the only just response to a given set of circumstances and conditions. In situations when such expressions are required, the lack thereof is arguably equally as bad, or perhaps worse, than exhibiting such emotions unjustifiably.

Over-tolerance runs the risk of becoming dishonest and apathetic. There are ways to be respectful of another person while remaining honest to one’s own beliefs and values. We can disagree with a person by respectfully voicing our views and even indignation.

Yet, today that honesty is often perceived to be politically incorrect. We live in a society that says it stands for free speech, but does not always like when it is expressed. Even the most carefully chosen words can be labeled as harsh and intolerant.

It is fine to be tolerant when the differences are inconsequential, it is a whole other thing when the differences are large or involve individual beliefs. Yet the fear of being insensitive and judgmental, or being perceived as insensitive and judgmental, makes it easier sometimes to tolerate the negative behavior than to stand up for our morals and ideals; especially for our religious principles, since the involved party may not share our religious values or may even scoff at them. Still, there are times when we need to make a judgment call; to judge a person or at least a situation. None of us should have to compromise our beliefs to be "politically correct." For example, we should never become tolerant of religious or other wrongful, intolerance.

This, of course, should never become confused with hate. G‑d does not call upon us to hate people. We do not have to like what they do, we can even speak out against it with passion, but hate is an entirely different emotion; one that is unholy and dangerous.

That said, our cultural intolerance of any expression of intolerance is not only a denial of our true human dimension, which inherently and rightfully rejects and opposes certain adverse ideas and behaviors, but it also plays into the ever-growing war against personal responsibility and action.

For if any expression of intolerance is politically unacceptable than intolerance itself is unacceptable. If intolerance and discernment is unacceptable in any form then, by definition, everything is tolerable. Accordingly, there is no ideology or conduct that is categorically bad or wrong.

This warped mindset, in addition to being as diametrical to Judaism as can be, has led to new lows in our society’s standards of personal accountability. Our legal system, for example, has become replete with the most absurd rationalizations in defense of inexplicable criminal behavior. Psychoanalysis is often used as a means to rationalize all types of harmful, immoral and inhuman conduct and trends; avoiding thereby personal accountability.

Notwithstanding the fact that on the surface such tolerance may seem like an expression of kindness on the part of civilization, in reality it is the result of misguidedness and delusion. The notion that no one is ever wrong and nothing is ever wrong is tantamount to chaos and anarchy; an idea which contradicts everything G‑dly, holy and Jewish.

Often what lies behind this so-called compassion might very well be the extreme opposite. It is entirely possible that beneath the altruistic facade of "Live and let live," lurks a selfish desire for social promiscuity and permissiveness; an environment in which the advocator himself is free to live recklessly, without accountability or shame.

It is only a person who himself does not wish to tow the line of morality and order, that would rationalize and defend injustice and immorality.

The denial of one’s aptitude for full responsibility of his actions is in reality the greatest affront to man’s essential being. It is hence noteworthy that in reference to the laws of torts and damages the Talmud maintains that the human is always liable, even for damages caused while asleep.

Human conscience is what distinguishes man from beast, it endows man with an ability to discern and choose right from wrong. To disavow man’s intrinsic capacity for behavioral discrimination and responsibility is to degrade him. It is to effectively strip him from his unique human dimension. This mistaken form of “Tolerance” is a prime factor in the current breakdown of civilization and the ensuing madness.

In this week’s Parsha, Va’eira, when G‑d promised to take the Jewish people out of Egypt, He declares: “And I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt” (Exodus 6:6). The commentators point out that the Hebrew word for “Burdens,” Sivlos, can alternatively be translated as “Forbearance.” The verse would then read, “And I will take you out from the 'tolerance' of Egypt.”

After years of slavery and drudgery the Israelites found themselves in the deepest troughs of ungodliness. Even worse, they had sunk into a terrible state of “Tolerance,” perceiving their situation as acceptable. They had learned to grin and bear the exile and darkness. They had come to terms with a life devoid of spiritual fulfillment and human dignity – unable even to think about the transcendent qualities of higher existence.

Before the Children of Israel could be freed from Egyptian bondage, G‑d had to first free them of their own inner bondage and slave mentality, which is the more serious and cruel form of enslavement. G‑d's first and foremost promise was thus that He would take them out of their soporific state and revive their spirit with freedom so that they would no longer be able to tolerate the darkness and evil.

This had to be the first stage of their redemption, for otherwise they would forever remain slaves, albeit without masters. The second stage could then follow. The Almighty would pursuantly break the chains of Egyptian civilization and raise the Jewish people up to unimagined heights.

In our present exile we are, thank Heaven, no longer physically enslaved, but our spiritual senses have been dulled – we have become immune to the pain of exile. We lack, to a large extent, the desire to break free. We are content not to “rock the boat.” As long as we enjoy the comforts offered by contemporary civilization, we do not feel deprived of our true spiritual potential. It is a deprivation to which we have been immunized by the long and dark exile.

We need to realize that, no matter how comfortable we are, the world we live in is far from G‑d's ultimate dream house and purpose for creation. Strife and hatred, ignorance and bigotry still run ramped. We must look beyond our own comfortable little niches and see what is really missing.

Yes, patience and tolerance are great virtues, but we cannot allow ourselves to become overly tolerant of intolerable situations. Before G‑d can take us out of our modern "Egypt," we need to banish the slave mentality from our own headspace. In order to become truly free we must first remove the shackles of our modern servitude from our own mentality. We must stop being so patient and accepting of all the evil and madness in the world.

The cultural notion that it's not acceptable to be incensed by evil and G‑dlessness, or to even define it as such, has got to be shattered. We can become masters of our own destiny if we want to. But we first must realize that, yes, there are some things worth getting mad about – that getting mad over depravity and evil is as G‑dly and virtuous as the love and admiration of goodness and righteousness.

In the merit of our intolerance of this dark exile, we will merit the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.