Religion and tolerance

The last weeks I have been reading “ Difficult freedom, essays on Judaism” from Levinas. The essays are very interesting, the book doesn’t explain a complete theory, the short essays are pieces of a puzzle which combine philosophy with religion.

Especially the essay “Religion and tolerance” caught my attention, a topic which is very relevant at present (Levinas wrote the book in 1963). The word tolerance nowadays often has a negative connotation, as something old-fashioned which is only promoted by naïve, soft, political correct liberals who lost all sense of reality. In the desire to put a limit to the amount of foreigners who are allowed to enter a country, the first aim is to think of measures to stop as many people as possible from coming to the country. In their tries to avoid problems the government becomes so harsh that they sometimes forget that they are dealing with human beings. There is no ambition to strive for a maximum amount of tolerance, just a maximum of restrictions and rules in order not to be bothered by foreigners.

It is beautiful to see how tolerance is something which is self-evident and naturally for Levinas. He describes the dilemma between tolerance and religion, that with real tolerance you have to accept that other people look at the world in a different way, that what you believe in is not the absolute and one and only possible truth, but that other people believe in other truths, and so that you cannot be not sure that what you believe in is really true and that the others are wrong. Levinas asks himself: “By placing confession in the realm of private opinions as though it resembled aesthetic taste and a preference for a political slant, is it not the case that the modern world here again attests to the death of God?”
This is a big dilemma for Levinas, on the one hand he finds real tolerance, the real acceptance of the other as totally different, very important, but on the other hand he believes that his God really exist, that all that he believes in is true, and that means that when other people have opposed views, that they must be wrong. Conflicting ideas cannot both be true at the same time. Levinas says: “Like the universal truths of philosophers, the believer’s truth tolerates no limits. But it turns not only against every proposal that contradicts it, but also against every man who turns his back on it. Its fervour is rekindled by the burning stake. The most serene truth is already a crusade."
Nonetheless he thinks that it’s possible to combine religion and tolerance. He thinks that tolerance can be inherent in religion without religion losing its exclusivity. He calls Judaism the religion of tolerance. Tolerance is an essential element of Judaism. It is self-evident that we are responsible for how we treat the other, the stranger, we should accept that the other is totally different.

Levinas says: “The welcome given to the stranger which the Bible tirelessly asks of us does not constitute a corollary of Judaism and its love of God, but is the very content of faith. It is an undeclinable responsibility. Before appearing to the Jews as a fellow creature with convictions to be recognized or opposed, the Stranger is the one towards whom one is obliged. The intolerance this entails is directed not against doctrines but against the immorality that can disfigure the human face of my neighbour. "

And my neighbour can be anyone, my family, a friend, but also people I don’t know. The Stranger is also my neighbour. He comes from far and he might need my help, so I am responsible for how I treat him, I should treat him as well as I can. I think it would be very good if Minister Verdonk of immigration affairs would read some books from Levinas, to realise what she is responsible for…

According to Levinas Judaism as a religion doesn’t turn into an imperialist expansion of conversions that devours all who deny it, because it is only directed inwards. “ It burns inwards, as an infinite demand made on oneself, an infinite responsibility.

Levinas describes Judaism in a very positive way, as the religion of tolerance, as the ultimate combination of religion and ethical responsibility. These are of course kind of abstract ideas from Levinas about Judaism. It doesn’t mean that all Jews always act exactly in the way that Levinas envisages this. The reality is always different from an abstract ideal. The Jews are no higher or better human beings because of the nice ideals in their religion (and they exist in other religions just as well). But the ideal that Levinas describes is very good and beautiful. So let’s keep that in mind and let’s strive for that. His ideal is a utopian situation which cannot be fully achieved in reality. But his ideal shows a direction in which we should move, so that we can do the work of justice and come closer to peace and tolerance, as a way to resist against growing intolerance and war. Levinas’ analysis of ethics, humanism, human behaviour, human nature, these are practical and empirical descriptions. We should realise that we are responsible for how we treat the Other, the Stranger. We can know whether we treat him good or bad and we can choose to be good. We will make mistakes sometimes, but if we try our best to be responsible and good human beings it will certainly help. Intolerance should only be against dehumanization. We should never ever forget that the other – no matter who he is – is just as human as me.

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