Particularism & universalism: Outlook divides us

I’ve lived my life between the two largest Jewish communities of our time, those of Israel and the United States. And over the past several decades, drastically different levels of religious observance and opposing positions on the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians have both been described as some of the driving factors behind a growing divide between these two communities. However, at its core, this divide is about more than simple policy; it’s about the opposing ways that our communities view the world. By and large, the Jewish community of Israel is particularist and American Jewry is universalist. 

Particularism is usually defined as attachment to one’s own group, party or nation, whereas universalism is loyalty to or concern for all of humanity. Though Judaism has always fostered elements of both, modernity has seen individual Jews and even entire Jewish communities adopting only one exclusive lens through which to view the world. 

Yossi Klein Halevi, eminent Zionist author, writes of these differing ideologies as various interpretations of Jewish history.

 “Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember,” he explains. “The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive. 

“The first command is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek. ‘Passover Jews’ are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; ‘Purim Jews’ are motivated by alertness to threat.”

The Jewish community of Israel, though not without its fierce universalist progressives, is largely made up of “Purim Jews.” Zionism at heart has always been a particularist endeavor, it deals with the fate of the Jewish people, not the entire world. And after decades of war and terrorism, surrounded by enemies who claim to seek their destruction, Israeli Jews have come to identify strongly with particularism, a worldview normally adopted by ethnic communities that feel unsafe and insecure about their place in the world. American Jews are often seen as naive, assimilationist, and more concerned with social justice everywhere than with Jews anywhere.

For their part, American Jews, even those proud Zionists, live their lives as “Passover Jews.” After centuries of successfully integrating into American society and climbing up the socio-economic hierarchy, American Jews feel secure enough to reach out to disenfranchised communities. Commitment to broad social justice and political causes including immigration reform and religious tolerance are seen as the essential values that Jewish history seeks to teach us. They find Israeli Jews nationalist, provincial, conservative, and out of touch with “true” Jewish values.

What these communities lack is the understanding that each of these approaches are authentically Jewish; they’re each an expression of different lessons of our history. Halevi writes, “both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.”

Particularist Israeli Jews are spearheading the first sovereign Jewish state since the defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE. If anything, we should feel more secure in our identity and more free in our expression than any diaspora community. In true Zionist fashion, we must be able to escape the ghetto mentality and extend a hand to others. And though throughout the short history of our state we’ve extended aid all over the world in times of natural disasters, in the wake of another national election, it’s time for us to acknowledge the stranger that lives and struggles right beside us. To see so fully our own identity and heritage that we are blind to the narratives of others is a violation of the Jewish sense of justice.

American Jewry, the most prosperous Jewish community that has ever existed, has spearheaded Jewish universalism and solidified it into a distinct political agenda. But with staggering rates of intermarriage, plummeting rates of synagogue attendance, and widespread estrangement from the Jewish state, American Jews would do well to take the lessons of particularism in their hearts. Jewish tradition, the Hebrew language, our sacred texts, and our attachment to the Land of Israel are all particular and essential parts of Jewish identity. American Jews cannot forge forth as citizens of a multicultural world without first having a deep love and appreciation for their own rich heritage.

Rav Kook, the intellectual father of Religious Zionism, wrote that modernity has whirled the three central dimensions of Jewish identity — what he terms “the holy, the nation and humanity” — away from each other and that “the sacred, then, is the energy that synthesizes all three elements — religious commitment, national identity and ethical universalism.” Inspired by our love for God, we must challenge ourselves to see both the world in our people and our people in the world.

Dallas native Matan Rudner made aliyah in August 2017 and serves as a Lone Soldier in the IDF.

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