אמת and Respect

During an adult education at my temple to discuss the book Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God, and the Future of the Covenant a congregant and my rabbi got into a discussion about whether one can respect someone else’s beliefs while holding firmly to their own. It hinged on the notion of whether you accept your religion and your faith as truth, with my rabbi holding that if you believe that, for example, Judaism is what accounts for truth, then it is not possible to actually respect someone else’s beliefs. He made it very clear that respecting their right to have those beliefs is different than respecting the beliefs themselves. He used the example of a Roman Catholic who is ardently pro-life cannot truly respect his beliefs as someone who is pro-choice—it is completely against their own belief system. The congregant who was challenging my rabbi on this insisted that she respected other people’s beliefs, but I don’t think she was hearing what my rabbi was saying. As religious people who are committed to our faiths and our ways we need to have the underlying belief that we are right, that our truth is the absolute truth for us.

So, what brings this up? The Mixed Multitudes blog pointed me towards an article on ynetnews.com titled “Why is haredi-mocking an acceptable pastime for liberals?” by Rabbi Levi Brackman. In it he details a performance by an ex-haredi professor who mocked (according the author) Orthodox practices and beliefs; he complains that if a ba’al teshuva had mocked non-observant Jews* in this setting (or a similar setting) there would have been outrage at them being so judgemental. He’s probably right. However, if this had not been “mocking” and had been an open discussion about issues this woman had with Orthodox practice and beliefs, I wonder if he would still have a problem with it. I’m not defending or attacking the performer; I wasn’t there, I don’t really know what happened and I believe the author of the article is not an objective source. That said I believe there is merit in using a forum and a method such as this if it brings up discussion. Perhaps a question and answer period could have followed and someone who had a problem with what she was saying could ask her about it.

And so we come back to truth. For this performer Orthodox Judaism probably didn’t hold the truth for her, which is all well and good. Where do we go to approach our differences without offending everyone who doesn’t agree? My rabbi pointed out that for some people it is best not to even engage them on certain subjects. If you both feel that what you believe is the truth, how are you going to not argue to the point of frustration and possibly hatred of each other over which truth has more merit? And so we step back and realize that while we may not respect our neighbor’s beliefs, and they may not respect ours, in the end we can (hopefully) respect the idea that they are as entitled to their truths as I am mine. However, we all must acknowledge our commitment to our own truths and not sacrifice that integrity. It can be a tight rope walk sometimes, but it is necessary if we want to live as faithfully to who we are as we can.

*I don’t agree with Rabbi Brackman’s premise that it is an acceptable pastime for liberals; I believe that it happens, but to lump all liberals together as thinking this is okay isn’t acceptable either. For some liberals, yes, they feel there is nothing wrong with mocking people they don’t agree with; but, for that matter, so do some conservatives. We can swing this club back and forth a million times and always there will be someone saying “well, if I can’t make fun of them they shouldn’t make fun of me” on BOTH sides. It is inevitable that in both liberal and conservative circles that someone somewhere will do something to offend the other side, which seems to give the other side free reign to label the offenders as hypocrites or whatnot. It’s a lovely cycle.

**On a other note, I’m going to presume that by non-observant the author refers to truly non-observant Jews, and not just liberal or Reform Jews who approach observance in a different way; I’m not a fan of labeling non-Orthodox Jews as non-observant and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt

[I apologize for my radio silence recently; I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and process things I’ve been thinking about; hopefully this weekend will give me some more free time to do so.]

About the Author


Jenny (aka d’varim) is a dedicated and serious Reform Jew. Having converted over 4 years ago, she is active in many aspects of her local temple, from Hebrew school teacher, to Board member, to occasional Torah reader. Jenny is committed to the idea of personal autonomy and informed choice, with a lot of stress put on the “informed” part of that choice.

5 Responses to “ אמת and Respect ”

  1. Hello d’varim
    I disagree with your Rabbi. I as a Jew by Choice most definitely hold firmly to Judaism and do see it as absolute truth, but at the same time I do respect Christian ideals, and, Islamic ideals, etc.  I do respect the fact that they try to do well by what they believe and they try to lead moral lives based on their beliefs. Now, whether I agree with those ideals and beliefs is a completely different story, but I do respect them. I feel that if the different faiths of the world could learn to respect each others beliefs the world would be a much different place, but obviously we are very far  from that. I think we should start by learning to respect ourselves, cross denominationally as Jews, mainly Orthodoxy to everyone else, but even amongst the Orthodox, and open our eyes so that we could see that we all have the same goal in mind. Tikkun Olam.
    I hope I  made sense. Thanks for the post.

  2. Interesting post, Jenny.  I remember frequent discussions of “respect” coming up in grad. school (education) and one of my professors making everyone define what they meant by “respect” whenever they used the term.  It seemed a niggling point, but I came to realize that the word “respect” gets so bandied about these days, it seems at times to have lost any clear meaning.

    In reference to your rabbi’s words, you write, “He made it very clear that respecting their right to have those beliefs is different than respecting the beliefs themselves.”  This is an important distinction, and one with which I agree.  If respecting other’s contradictory beliefs means we have to agree with them, how can we hold any beliefs of our own?  Some differing beliefs we may find more understandable than others.  For example, I can understand why some people would be atheists, but I really can’t understand anyone belonging to the Flat Earth Society.  But a free society, which we hold very dear, depends on each individual allowing for difference of opinion, and not mocking, belittling, or humiliating others for their beliefs.  I have seen some comedians poke gentle fun at their own and others’ beliefs in a way that inspired thought without giving offense.  Fora set up for the express purpose of engaging controversial topics are also appropriate discussion outlets.  Even casual conversation, where a person asks another questions in a genuine attempt to understand or learn from them (without necessarily wanting to adopt the other’s beliefs) must be allowable.  But your rabbi is probably onto something when he says that it is best to avoid subjects that are sure to bring the conversant parties to loggerheads.  In my youth, such subjects included politics, religion, and the opposite sex.  People are best left to their judgement about when hot-button issues like these are pursued in discussion.

  3. Mark and Shimshonit,

    I tried to respond to these comments earlier and I guess my response didn’t take.
    Basically what I said is that Shimshonit seems to summarize my thoughts better than I did when she said “If respecting other’s contradictory beliefs means we have to agree with them, how can we hold any beliefs of our own?” Mark, I believe that respect for other people and for their right to hold their various opinions and beliefs is tantamount in a just and open society; however, I can’t agree with the idea that my respect should necessarily extend to the content of those beliefs–so while I respect the Christian right to believe that Jesus is the messiah I cannot actually respect the belief itself without compromising my own Jewish beliefs.

    Sometimes in our world today we can so wrapped up in trying to not step on anyone’s toes and offend anyone that we are willing to compromise or water down our own thoughts and beliefs in the name of peace and respect; but I, personally, don’t think that it has to be an either/or situation–it doesn’t need to be “either I respect your beliefs or I don’t respect you.” It can just as easily be “I may not respect your beliefs, but I have respect for you as a person and for the fact that this is YOUR truth.”

  4. It can just as easily be “I may not respect your beliefs, but I have respect for you as a person and for the fact that this is YOUR truth.”

    I think that is the most difficult aspect of this. It’s easy to claim respect for someone’s beliefs, but to respect that they are true versus they are the person’s particular truth…that is the sticking point. It may also be a matter of regard for absolute truth. If one believes there is absolute truth, and that one holds that truth, others must necessarily be wrong.
    I suppose in the end I agree with your rabbi. :)

  5. I just feel that any religion or belief that directs their adherents to lead moral lives is respectable. This is the reason for the Noahide Laws, for non Jews to be able to be righteous. And if a certain religion or belief helps its followers get to the world to come or, Olam Haba, that is in my opinion respectable. I respect it, I don’t agree with it, and it is my job as a Jew, and the responsibility of all Jews, to show the world that Judaism IS the absolute truth.
    Thanks again d’varim for the post. It’s has been really thought provoking.

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