Jesus, Shabbat Violators, and an Ethic of Tolerance

Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, who became rector of the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin in 1899, straddled traditional Orthodox beliefs with modern thought. He was the leading halakhic scholar in Germany during the early 20th century, but he also used scientific method to analyze religious texts, and he wrote in German, not Hebrew. Rabbi Hoffman dealt very seriously with the question of how Shabbat desecrators are to be viewed in modernity: In Melamed L'ho'il, he wrote one of the most significant and formative halachic rulings of the 20th century:

There is another basis to be lenient, for in our times [a non-observant Jew] is not called a public desecrator of Shabbat, since most act that way. For it was one thing at a time when most Jews acted correctly, and only a minority were brazen enough to do this transgression, then such an act was a rejecting of the Torah and acting despicably in a brazen way, and separating oneself from the Jewish People. But since now, in our many sins, most people are non-observant, this works to their benefit. An individual thinks that it is not such a big sin and he does not feel compelled to do it in private, and his public sinning is equivalent to a private act. And the opposite now is true, that those who are observant are considered to be separatists, and those who are non-observant are doing the norm... (Orah Hayim 29)

Rabbi Hoffman essentially ruled that we can no longer place those who are not observant outside of the boundaries of tolerance. Rather, in a modern era so rife with skepticism, when the norms have evolved, we must only reach out to bring others closer and not push them away.
Many centuries ago, the rabbis in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107b) said that it was pushing a Jew (Jesus) away that led to a mass exodus from Judaism and the creation of another religion.

Our rabbis teach us: Always let the left hand repel and the right hand invite... unlike Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perayah who repulsed Jeshu [Jesus] with both hands. ... When King Janai killed our sages, Rabbi Yeshoshua ben Perayah [and Jeshu] fled to Alexandria in Egypt. When peace resumed, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach sent a message to him: "From me [in Jerusalem], the city of holiness, to you Alexandria, my sister: 'My husband stays in your midst, and I sit forsaken." He [Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perayahl arose [to return to Jerusalem] and went and found himself in a certain inn, where great honor was given to him. He said: "How beautiful is this achsania (inn)." Thereupon Jeshu said to him, "Rabbi, her eyes are narrow." [The word "achsania" means "inn" or "innkeeper." Jeshu seems to have thought that Rabbi Yehoshua was speaking about the female innkeeper.] So, Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: "Villain, do you behave yourself like that [looking at women]? "He sent out four hundred trumpets and excommunicated him. He [Jeshu] came before him and said to him: Receive me [let me repent and accept me]. But he would not acknowledge him. One day he [Rabbi Yehoshual was reciting the Shema and he [Jeshu] came before him. He intended to receive him [to forgive him], and he made a sign to hint He [Jeshu] thought that he repelled him [thinking that the sign was dismissive]. He went and hung up a tile and worshiped it. He [Rabbi Yehoshual said to him: "Return;' but he replied: "So I have understood from you that every one who sins and causes the multitude to sin has no chance to repent."

According to this Talmudic historical account, pushing another away led to a major historical division. We have seen many instances of internecine religious conflict. Two thousand years ago, Jews were split among Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The Sadducees rejected oral law, which put them at odds with the Pharisees; the Essenes regarded both of the other sects as corrupting, so they moved from Jerusalem to the desert, living a life of strict ritual observance, nonviolence, and celibacy.

Then yet another sect emerged, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jerusalem they battled the Pharisees on theology, and in an era of popular messianic agitation and mystery cults, they proclaimed their leader as the messiah. These Jewish members of the Jesus cult tended to be secretive, living a life of nonviolence, strict morality, and communitarianism that was similar to that of the Essenes. However, they were all Jews at first. Ironically, it was a man who identified himself as a Pharisee and who claimed he persecuted these early followers of Jesus, Saul of Tarsus, who was the catalyst in creating a new religion. When Saul converted and took the name Paul, he dropped much of Jewish theology and directed his attention more toward converting pagans than Jews to the new faith. In a relatively short time, aided by a simple conversion ritual, the new sect was composed of more Gentiles than Jews. Indeed, the emerging group's name, Christianity, was due to their Bible being written first in Greek ("Christian" was derived from the Greek word "Christos," meaning "the anointed one" or "messiah"). Eventually, what started as an intrafamilial rift became a complete break.

There were to be other Jewish sects that rose and fell, such as the Karaites, who, like the Sadducees, rejected the oral law. However, religious intolerance and disputes are certainly not confined to Judaism. Christian rulers proved to be as intolerant as previous rulers, probably contributing to the dominance of Islam in the Middle East starting in the 7th century CE. Indeed, for centuries Islamic rulers presided over the more religiously tolerant and intellectually fertile regions of the Western world, although even the Muslim community would split into Sunni and Shiite factions. Then in the 16th century CE the Christian Church split into many factions during the Reformation, a period of intense theological and military conflict, between Catholics and Protestants and among different groups of Protestants, and few people were safe from persecution.

In this tense atmosphere, the Dutch humanist theologian Desiderius Erasmus managed to walk a thin line between expressing his own views and avoiding execution. (His close friend Sir Thomas More was not as fortunate, and was executed by King Henry VIII of England.) Erasmus would argue the accepted viewpoint in principle, but then argue against applications in specific instances. For example, he endorsed the concept of the just war, as he had to, but he then denounced war in many of his works, and never endorsed a specific war, including the Crusades of centuries earlier and wars against non-Chrisian nations in his own day. When it came to religious toleration, he similarly defended the Catholic Church's beliefs (while openly denouncing its corruption), but he also argued for toleration, as this excerpt shows:

The sum of our religion is peace and harmony.... When faith is in the mouth rather than in the heart, by terrorisation we drive men to believe what they do not believe, to love what they do not love, to know what they do not know. That which is forced cannot be sincere, and that which is not voluntary cannot please Christ.

Erasmus even had a fiery correspondence with the formidable (and excommunicated) Protestant leader Martin Luther. Even though their differences were profound, Erasmus opposed suppressing Luther's writings: "By burning Luther's books you may rid your bookshelves of him, but you will not rid men's minds of him."

It is good to learn that even within religions that have oppressed us (and inside our own religion), there have been those who professed toleration. We must move beyond the simple boxes of denominations: Jewish identity has become much more complicated in the 21st century. Rabbi Donniel Hartman has written that "diversity is not merely a by-product of the multiplicity of denominations that characterize modern Judaism" but is a "[symptom] of a deeper revolution, a revolution of the nature of the Jewish identity" (The Boundaries of Judaism, 168). We can only bring each other closer with love, wisdom, and compassion. There is no room to alienate others based upon their theological understandings, communal commitments, or ritual practices. In the new paradigm, we evolve beyond mere tolerance into deeper respect, learning, and collaboration.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."