Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society – Thoughts on the first week

Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society

The first week of Coursera’s Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society, taught by Bernard Dov Cooperman at the University of Maryland is complete! And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. One thing that impresses me is the development of Coursera’s discussion platform since the last time I took a course (a couple years ago). The discussion board is much easier to navigate now. Plus, there is a striking lack of trolls considering the topic. Trolls were a huge problem in the last class I took (one on Greek Mythology). I don’t know if this lack of trolls is specific to this course, or if they’ve been beaten away from Coursera altogether, though. We’ll see!

In this course, Dr. Cooperman wants to depart from the question that is usually asked: “Why were the Jewish people persecuted throughout history,” and look at the issue from a different angle: 

“Our focus is not on why a majority society saw Jews as different or reacted with violence to Jews’ “otherness.” Rather, we ask how, in a society dedicated to religious uniformity, one group of people was tolerated even though it refused to join the dominant faith. Many modern writers assume that Christianity, and perhaps religion itself, is inherently intolerant of non-believers. But we will see that neither religious nor secular world views necessarily lead to toleration or discrimination…Our question then is not: how tolerant was this religious society towards members of other faiths? Rather we ask, how did a religious society manage to practice tolerance, and under what circumstances did that practice break down?

Dr. Cooperman begins his lectures by asking the students a question: what is the difference between tolerance and toleration, and why do we think he chose the phrase “the practice of tolerance” for the title of his course. 

When I looked up the definitions of toleration and tolerance in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, this is what I came up with:

toleration – a) the act of tolerating something; b) a government policy of permitting forms of belief and worship not officially established

tolerance – a willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own. 

From these definitions, many of us concluded that toleration was an act and tolerance a feeling. However, there is also a more subtle difference: the “practice of toleration” in Cooperman’s course title could refer to the act of accepting and embracing people who are different than ourselves. So this course is about how, at some times throughout history, the Roman Catholics truly accepted the Jewish people rather than just allowing them to remain in their midst. It remains for Cooperman to show us the ebbs and flows of this “practice of toleration.”

Cooperman then provided many links and references to introduce us to the Jewish faith, including this YouTube link to part 2 of a series called “History of the Jews.” This week, Cooperman is focusing mainly on Judaism and Christianity as it was during Jesus’ time and during the following Jesus Movement of early Christianity. An important issue to note about the dynamics of these two groups was that the early Christians were Jews. Cooperman points out that Paul was not a systematic thinker trying to re-create rules of Judaism, but a Jew who had undergone a powerful spiritual experience and who was most likely struggling to make sense of these new revelations. He urged us to read Paul’s letters to the Romans and keeping an eye out for passages that show this tension in Paul. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to complete this assignment yet, but I’ll post my findings when I do. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society – Thoughts on the first week

  1. Great topic to ponder Rachel.

    I have actually been thinking about something similar lately that I think relates. That is, throughout history people have persecuted, and commonly murdered and tortured one another for conflicting ideas on the “big questions”. Even secularists and folks who claim to be devoted to reason and science, when they took power through revolutions began to persecuted people of faith. It is very sad, however, I do believe that the world is getting better and that it happens a lot less often these days.


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