Torah Study > Chapter 7: Universalism and Particularism
It is sometimes hard to figure out who we are. Modernity has segmented
individual identity into many parts. Our 21st century consciousness tells
us we are not one indivisible self but a bundle of various—sometimes
compatible, sometimes competing—selves, including those organized
around gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, regional affiliation,
age, profession, race, socioeconomic class, neighborhood, political
affiliation, college affiliation, ethnicity, height, weight, dietary preferences,
smoker or nonsmoker, environmentalist (or not), jazz music fan, country
music fan, Yankees fan, wine connoisseur...
In the best of times, these selves play nicely with each other. We are at
our happiest when our psyche, values, and behavior are all in sync. But
at other times, various parts of ourselves conflict, as happens when our
religion collides with our sexual orientation; or our western values of
autonomy conflict with our tradition’s values of obligation; or our politics
are at odds with our nation’s policies. The challenge for the Jew today is to figure out how to wed our distinctive Jewish self and values with our
universalist self and values.
There are times, after all, when being Jewish claims our primary allegiance.
“All Israel is responsible one for the other,” we are taught. We take pride—
and are renowned throughout the world—for our commitment to assisting
fellow Jews no matter where we are. A Jew helps another Jew, any where,
any time, any way.
If we find ourselves in a strange city with no place to go, we know that
we can call the local synagogue, rabbi, or Jewish institution and ask for
assistance, confident that because we are Jewish we will be taken in.
We cannot necessarily expect the same treatment from anyone who
shares our other personal identities. We could not randomly call, say, a
vegetarian or a Red Sox fan and expect that they would take us in. One
of the perks of being Jewish is that wherever you are in the world, the
Jewish community offers us a safe and welcoming “home.” And yet
today, some of us may feel a bit of discomfort about this. Why, we may
ask, should I behave differently to a Jew in need than to anyone else in
need? Why should I not love everyone else as myself and treat everyone
else equally? And even if I believe in the sacred destiny of the Jewish
people, can I celebrate our particularism and our call to be a blessing
and a light to the nations in a way that does not convey exclusivity? Can I
be a good person, help others around the world, and still give preference
to my people with my time, affection and resources?
In this section we will examine how we, as Jews, respond to and prioritize
all the needs of the world.
TEXT 1: Being Beloved (Mishna, Avot 3:18)
is the conclusion of a text previously considered which introduces the notion
that the Jewish people is distinctive and special.
TEXT 2: Have Mercy, Brother! (Maimonides, Laws of the Gifts of the Poor 10:4)
expresses the value of Jewish peoplehood and our special responsibilities
towards other Jews.
TEXT 3: You Will Be a Blessing (Genesis 12:2) offers one perspective on what
it might mean to be both distinctively Jewish and universally human.
TEXT 4: Jewish Universalism (Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Judaism and Justice) articulates the tension between Jewish parochialism and the call for Jews to repair the entire world.
TEXT 5: A Fourfold Song (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook) lays out in poetic fashion
a spectrum of ways of “being” in the world which range from the particular to
TEXT 6: A New Model of Jewish Service (Ruth Messinger) articulates a vision in which the Jewish obligation to serve—a universally oriented teaching— becomes a defining component of Jewish identity.
TEXT 7: B’tzedek (Isaiah 42:6) explores the connection between the Jewish
understanding of tzedek and the Biblical notion that the Jewish people are to
be “a light unto the nations.”
> When were you most proud of being Jewish?
> Think of a friend who is of a different ethnicity, nationality or religion. When do you remember him or her expressing the greatest amount of pride in his or her particularity? How did you feel about that?
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