Religion, Politics … and Tolerance

“Religion, Politics … and Tolerance” is a pervasive conversation with Elie Wiesel on some important subjects of our time. In this specific context, Wiesel appears not only as a witness but also as a public intellectual. In open and lively responses to the exploratory and provocative questions by Richard D. Heffner, Wiesel deals with intriguing but often perilous political and spiritual ground, explaining individual and universal issues, also introducing elements from his own life experience. Wiesel tells us subjects that include the moral responsibility of government and individuals; the role of the religion and the state in our lives; the moral perspective of our decision; the danger of hate; and above all the meaning of tolerance.

The conversation starts with the definition of the boundaries between religion and politics.

For Wiesel, and I quote “There should be a separation […]. It’s not good for religion to be involved with politics […]; both lose. And the losers usually are the people” (50). Politics involve power and power can be dangerous. In “All Rivers Run to the Sea”, Wiesel quotes a statement from Rabban Gamliel: “Be careful in your relations with those in power; […]. They are your friends when your friendship is useful to them and affords them pleasure”. In fact, as he states in the interview, the main problem lies in different interests. However, the subject is a complex one, since, as Wiesel underlines, political leaders are also religious, and because of their beliefs, it is not easy to discern what is universal good and what is not. When political leaders are also religious, “they oppose or support” ideas “not because of their policy, but because of their religious beliefs”. From universal issues, the conversation goes to peculiar issues, that of “the relationship between a woman and her body” (52).

“Who makes the decision?” (52), and what could be the best decision? The answer is not obvious even for Wiesel. While discussing abortion, the writer admits that it is not simple to define what is right or not. When it comes to a religious point of view, in this case the Catholic view, abortion is consistently condemned. However, as Wiesel states, there is no rights to discourage a woman who is in pain, in agony, a woman “who, for her own reasons cannot go on with her pregnancy” (53).

Going back to the relationship between religion and state, and specifically to Israel, Wiesel recognizes that politics and religions have too much influence on each other. The writer traces a brief summary of the relationship of religion with government during history, and he states: “today we have to recourse to other expressions of our attachment to God and his law” (54).

In explaining his point of view about moral, religious beliefs and political beliefs, Wiesel argues that we should not believe that our morality is the right one: “morality also means to accept the morality of the other person” (55). It seems to me that Wiesel’s conception of “the other” is close to Levinas’ idea, where both the concept of understanding and knowledge are combined: “Certainly our relation to the other consists of wanting to understand him, but this relation goes beyond understanding. Not only because knowledge of the other, independent of curiosity, also demands sympathy or love, modes of being which are different from disinterested observation but also because the other in our relation to him does not affect us on the basis of a concept. The other is a being and is regarded as such” (Levinas). In Totality and Infinity: An essay on exteriority, Levinas, describes how subjectivity arises from the idea of infinity, and how infinite is the product of the relationship of self to another. On the same spiritual ground, we find not only Wiesel’s concept of the other, but also the concept of ethics. In fact, as Wiesel claims “what I believe to be my need for morality and for my quest for ethical considerations must be matched by somebody else’s” (56). By the same token, Levinas admits that man is not naturally moral; it must be awaken to ethics. Thus, in my opinion, both Levinas and Wiesel make ethics, respect for others, the first philosophy.

The concept of ethics and respect for others is clearly presented in Wiesel’ s idea about the recognition of a Palestinian State (56). However, what concerns Wiesel is the increase in “the fanatic form” (56). The concept of “others” is also well represented when the interview goes through the example of “refugees”. As Wiesel suggests, to mention the word refugee implies not only our community, our people but conversely we should also consider “others”: “How about Pakistan and India?” or the “Germans who where expelled […] in 1945?” (58). In the writer’s conception, and I agree, we cannot place a boundary between “worthy and unworthy victims” (Chomsky).

Another perilous ground that concerns Wiesel, is the relation between “Israel and herself” (59), “the hatred between Jews and Jews” (59). The writer attempts to relate this issue to our modern history, explaining that the reason could be found in the way by which history moves: “too fast and it brings everything up from the depth of our collective psyche” (60). Even if history seems to represent the same issue, what should be important is the way we look at situations: we should learn from these and “not pass judgment” (60-61). Only depriving “religion of its nefarious possibilities in human relations”, can we look at the other and consider his “face” and his human being. In all of these, we should also be careful in using the word “tolerance:” “I do not like a word that has been used today, with very good intensions. I don’t like the word tolerance. Tolerance is in a way, I don’t know, it’s degrading. Who am I to tolerate you? You are a free person. I would rather replace it with respect. We should fight for respect. I must respect other religions. I must respect other political theories, unless they become murderous. But in general it is the key word, at least, that should govern […] our lives” (Havel[1] 2001).



[1] Havel, V. The Expectations of World Leaders at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Budapest: CEU Press, 2007.



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