Judaism: Shlach: On the Fringes of Tolerance
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
The prayer shawl is a fascinating garment. It is large enough to encompass the body, but is meaningless until it sports four fringes on each of its four corners. You might think the fringes are more important than the shawl, but think again. The fringes too are meaningless unless they are affixed to the shawl. Together, they create a sacred garment. Separately, they are without meaning.
This is even more surprising when you consider that mysticism ascribes a lofty meaning to the shawl. According to Jewish mystics, the shawl represents an all encompassing radiance that wraps itself around G-d. How can a shawl of such significance carry no sanctity without fringes?
The Big Tent
There are two approaches to life, the big tent and didactic expectation. You build a big tent for the multitudes, but you are exacting with your loved ones.
Tolerance is the prevailing value of our day. Based on the post modern theory that all viewpoints are valid, we pretend that truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We ascribe to the belief that everyone has a right to an opinion even if we think it wrong. This is the big tent we have built for all the people we don’t know.
But we run afoul of tolerance, when people we care deeply about develop values we cannot abide. Here we find it difficult to tolerate. Here we argue, assert and debate. We yearn with all our hearts for the people we hold dear to ascribe to the values we hold dear and we mourn their change of heart.
I know, I know that many a reader will testify that their own children disagree with them and they live with it, but read carefully because I am about to make an assertion that I challenge you to consider. True tolerance does not exist. There is no such animal. The values we disagree with and tolerate are values we secretly endorse or are held by people we don’t care for.
True tolerance does not exist. There is no such animal. The values we disagree with and tolerate are values we secretly endorse or are held by people we don’t care for.
It is easy to claim tolerance for flaming conservatives and invite them in to our big tent of bleeding heart liberalism, but can we just as easily invite them into our homes? We have room for their values in our tents, but do we have room for them in our hearts? Can we befriend those with whom we utterly disagree and be comfortable with their espousal of objectionable values in our homes? How will you feel when your daughter brings home a lovely man, whose unabashed political views you cannot abide?
It is easy to tolerate all faiths in our big tent, but what if your child became an Altar Boy, a radical Muslim or a Buddhist Monk? Would you be just as happy as you might have been if they had embraced your heritage? Suppose you believed strongly in a woman’s right to choose, would you support your wife’s right to abort your son? How about your daughter in law’s right to abort the only grandchild you might live to see? You might have no choice and learn to live with it, but would you tolerate it?
If these particular values don’t get a rise out of you, supplant these values with those that do. I am certain that once you find the values that lie at your core you will not be sanguine when the people at your core reject them. If you cannot live with these values in your home, you cannot be tolerant when your loved ones adopt them. The only times we can be tolerant is if we are not truly invested in the values or in those who hold them.
You can tolerate anyone who disagrees with you… so long as they stay far enough away from you. Inside your home, you yearn for your loved one to embrace the values you truly cherish. If you can tolerate in your loved ones values you disagree with, it is clear that you don’t truly cherish those values.
Before you disagree consider that for the purpose of this argument I define tolerance as acceptance with complete equanimity. There is a big difference between learning to live with something and tolerating it as if it were our own. We can live with a loved one who rejects all we cherish, but we can’t be sanguine about it. That is what I mean when I speak of tolerance.
Fringes of Tolerance
This is the difference between the shawl and the fringes. The shawl represents the big tent, where there is room and tolerance for everyone. The fringes represent narrow constraints where there is space only for those who are like minded. Your loved ones and good friends are in the narrow channels of your personal fringes, the rest of the big world is in your big tent.
When G-d chose us He informed us that if we are to be His loved ones, He will expect us to abide by His values. Tolerance is for others, not for those G-d deemed His children.
For a thousand years after creation G-d was tolerant and generous toward all who had rejected Him. He gave good health and longevity to all of humanity and tolerated sin and paganism. After sixteen centuries of tolerance, G-d sent the flood and destroyed the human race, but for nine survivors. As the centuries rolled on, people began to turn from G-d again. G-d found one man, Abraham, who believed in Him and embraced him. In turn, G-d embraced Abraham and adopted his children as His own.
He fashioned for them a special garment called Tzitzit that consists of a shawl and fringes. His message was that a shawl without fringes is not holy. Tolerance for every possible opinion can only mean that you cherish no opinion as sacred truth. You are invested in nothing and nothing is dear to you. Fringes without a shawl are equally meaningless. To be rigid and unyielding to those who think differently from you will only isolate you and turn them from you.
A healthy mix of shawl and fringes, of tolerance and exactitude, is what we can expect from G-d. There is tolerance for sin, but there is also punishment and reward. G-d cares deeply about us and because He does, we have all of Him. The values that I cherish for me, proclaims G-d, are the values I want for you. I reward you because I love you and punish you because I care for you.
Those are my fringes, but that is not all that I offer to you. In addition to my fringes you also have my shawl. The all encompassing tolerance that allows me to make space for others is there for you in even greater measure. But for you it is not all encompassing tolerance, it is all encompassing love.
The very tolerance that allows me to countenance the sins of others, allows me to embrace you despite your sins. I might punish your sins and reward your good deeds, but know this, I shall never destroy you because beyond my values lies my never ending and all encompassing love. You are my fringes, but you are also my shawl. If you want my garment to be complete, give it both. Only then can it be holy.
The shawl is powerful, but by itself is insufficient for a loved one. The fringe is meaningful, but by itself is also insufficient. The key is to pour the love of the shawl into the demands of the fringe and then we have a balanced and complete garment. Then we have sanctity… and a relationship.
 This essay is based on Sefer Mamarim 5730 p.251.