Universalism and Particularism Within a Jewish Context

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By Andrew Seligson, Center for Interfaith Engagement Intern
July 29, 2015

The debate between Universalism and Particularism is nearly as old as Judaism itself. Dating back to Talmudic times, after the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, there was a significant pushback within the Jewish community against what we now think of as an equivalent to Universalism: Hellenization. Hellenization is a difficult term to define, but in a nutshell, it is this: Hellenized Jews were seen as having Roman/Greek influences or who were overly engaged with Greek influenced culture at the detriment of being loyal to their own. Elisha Ben Abuya is the classical Talmudic example of this: A prominent Rabbinic figure, who, as the result of Hellenistic influences, was effectively excommunicated.

Similarly, after the Holocaust, there was again a pushback against Universalism. To paraphrase Greenberg’s foundational Post-Holocaust text “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, Modernity After the Holocaust”, we as Jews put too much trust in Liberal Cosmopolitanism and underestimated the widespread sickness of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. We were too quick to identify ourselves first as “human” instead of “Jewish”, thus forgetting the historical trends of anti-Semitism, hoping that our holiness and moral goodwill would save us from the most dangerous reactionaries.

Here we are in 2015. Here I am in 2015, caught between my two identities, myself as a Jewish person and myself as a human being. My response so far has been to move towards some of my favorite Jewish philosophers like Rav Kook and Martin Buber. What would Maimonides say? How would he respond? Judah Halevi?

How can we as Jews respond, not with our “humanistic” voice, but with our Jewish voice? We’ve learned from history that leaning too far in the direction of Hellenism, of Universalism, of Humanism, leads towards, to use a perhaps inappropriate euphemism: naiveté. In my personal opinion, I believe the key is to understand the strength that Judaism can give us. The language that the prophets used for social critique was powerful. They stood up for what they believed in. Not only did they affirm their Jewish identity, they drove others to do the same. I imagine they would respond to today’s crises the way they did then, by drawing upon the language and the ways of their own tradition.

I distinctly remember, in the height of the #BlackLivesMatter protests after Ferguson, seeing a group of Jewish protesters. Many of them were Rabbis. On their sign it said: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9”. I was filled with pride: Jews had found a way to respond to a national crisis with their own voice, and to affirm their particular identity as others were doing the same.

I mentioned in a previous blog post the phenomenon of Jews wanting to distance themselves from their Judaism, and how many Jews of our generation are afraid or unwilling to affirm their identity. I will say before as I will say now: There is tremendous strength within our tradition, and we need not fear drawing upon an unprecedented history of Jewish thought, struggle, and perseverance when we tackle modern global issues.

The views and opinions expressed on The Falls are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.