The Netziv was not as open-minded as some would have us believe. In an Op-Ed in The Jewish Week (link), Dr. Eugene Korn criticizes people on left and right for their behavior in the recent girls-wearing-tefillin controversy. Dr. Korn invokes the Netziv in calling for a more tolerant atmosphere:
[B]ut whether we choose to demonize, mischaracterize and deny room for those who disagree with us may well spell the difference between Orthodox survival and our demise.
The great rabbinic leader R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) also understood this fact of life. He taught that our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were righteous people (“yesharim”) who got along even with their pagan neighbors. By contrast, the “righteous” tzadikim of the Second Temple were consumed by intolerance, believing that anyone who disagreed with them was a heretic to be excommunicated. The result was the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of our people.
“The Holy One,” insisted Netziv, “does not tolerate ‘tzadikim’ like these.”
In an October Op-Ed in Haaretz (link), R. Asher Lopatin also invoked this same passage from the Netziv in calling for tolerance:
Attempts to write people off as heretics and disbelievers are not new. Going back to 19th century, the great Netziv, Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozyn Yeshiva, traced this exclusionary approach to the righteous and Torah-filled leaders of the Second Temple period; they too looked at anyone who feared God in a different way than they did as a Saducee and a heretic.
However, while these references are accurate, a broader reading of the Netziv’s voluminous output reveals a sharp limit to his tolerance. He believed in tolerance among the truly Orthodox but had little patience for those who breeched the boundaries of traditional practice and belief. Consider his famous responsum on “right” and “left” (Meishiv Davar 1:44), which was really an extended plea for intra-Orthodox tolerance. In the third-to-last paragraph, Netziv calls for united Talmud study as a method for discovering how to overcome those who reject the authority of the Talmud.
Dr. Gil Perl, a leading authority on the Netziv, wrote about the great scholar (“‘No Two Minds Are Alike’: Tolerance and Pluralism in the Work of Neziv” in The Torah U-Madda Journal 12, 2004, p. 80):
[A] review of Neziv’s writing reveals his advocacy of contemporary religious coercion, his description of the non-Orthodox Jew as theologically worse than an idolator, his instructions to separate from Sabbath violators in the religious and social spheres, and a justification for slandering those Jews who “deny the Torah of Moses.”
About this particular passage, Perl writes (p. 82):
He is not advocating, as some have erroneously suggested, unqualified tolerance of the religious other. In fact, he clearly acknowledges the existence of a group he deems to be heretics. He is wary, though, that a justifiable halakhic position may be interpreted by zealots as a sign of heresy which, in turn, would lead to unjustifiable results.
I am not suggesting that the Netziv’s attitude must serve as our guide today. I am merely commenting on the inappropriateness of citing the Netziv as a leading voice for Jewish pluralism, especially since we are living in a time when not only the authority of the Talmud but even the sanctity of the Pentateuch is questioned by some calling themselves Orthodox. It is almost as incorrect as citing R. Moshe Feinstein as a precedent for openness to Conservative rabbis. Netziv’s view should not spliced in half for convenience.