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Toward a New Understanding of Jewish Peoplehood

Undoing the False Tension of Particularism and Universalism or Between Aniyei Ircha Kodmim and Tikkun Olam
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi s a Jewish institutional leader, author, and sought-after public speaker. Currently, Rachel serves Ohavay Zion Synagogue and is a senior scholar of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. Most recently she served as Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics at Hebrew Union College (HUC) and led a four-campus team to achieve strategic goals. Prior to her national role at HUC, Rachel served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman

On every level, modernity both challenges and expands our understanding of Jewish identity and Jewish values. While some may decry the decreased commitment and tribalism inherent in a modern or postmodern Jewish identity, here I want to explore not only the root of the challenge of modernity to Jewish identity, but also what opportunities for the evolution of Judaism it offers us.
While our contemporary realities may often appear to create a conflict between our particularist Jewish values and universal values, I argue that in fact modernity affords us the opportunity to live out a truer and fuller expression of Judaism’s ethics and can stimulate and inspire us to develop a more balanced and accurate set of Jewish values and identity. Modernity, while it certainly challenges our particular identity, also allows for a more complete evolution of Judaism because it allows us to fully express the core ideas of our system of ethics, which insists on a concern for the world and all its inhabitants, as well as a particular love of self and the Jewish people.
Because in the pre-modern context Jewish values were primarily lived out in closed or limited Jewish contexts, the particularist elements naturally deepened and thrived. Perhaps the best examples of these particularist values are the value and practice of tzedakah within the Jewish community and the value of the precedence of self-protection/defense over a concern for non-Jews and their welfare. Without a doubt, given the often hostile environments in which we lived we were necessarily and primarily concerned about ourselves, our welfare, our security. Even if, as we shall see, our tradition might have embedded deeply within it universal ethics and a profound concern for all peoples and for the world as a whole, our collective experience often made the expression of those ethics impossible and even unethical given our ethical responsibility to love and care for ourselves, especially when, as our experience taught us, no one else would.
Because Jews, now living and loving in the larger world for several generations, enjoy fully the gifts of universal values such as pluralism and equality, the hyper-particularist and self-protective modes of identity that had characterized the Jewish people and contributed to our survival and flourishing in the pre-modern context are now questioned and – we should emphasize – positively forced to develop in the modern context.
Indeed if we can now live out our universal values more fully because most of the world’s societies accept these same values, some Jews understandably ask why we even need our particularist Jewish values. Put another way, if we are living in a world where the universalist values of ethical monotheism are largely accepted, at least in the West, and we are fully accepted, what role should our particularist Jewish values play?
Should we primarily live out the obligation to put the poor of our own community first ("aniyei ircha kodmin") and the needs of our own people first? Or should we primarily be concerned with the larger world, the sufferings and needs of others in order to better engage in tikkun olam, the repair of the world? Given new understandings of Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood, which should take precedence?
But the fact that we ask this question actually points to a misunderstanding of Judaism itself. Often a false dichotomy emerges between the particularism of such and identity and the universalism of modern sensibilities. It is a false dichotomy or rather a false tension in my mind because, in fact, it is through the particular identity of Judaism that we learn about our obligation to the universal. In other words I need the particular identity of Judaism in order be able to fully understand and perhaps even to fulfill my obligations to the universal. Often a false dichotomy emerges between the particularism of such an identity and the universalism of modern sensibilities. It is a false dichotomy or rather a false tension in my mind because, in fact, it is through the particular identity of Judaism that we learn about our obligation to the universal. In other words I need the particular identity of Judaism in order be able to fully understand and perhaps even to fulfill my obligations to the universal.
The choice is a false and unnecessary one, according to Jewish tradition itself. In fact, what both Judaism at its core and the contemporary reality demand of us is a deeper understanding of the value of both and the necessity of integrating both sets of values. In fact, once Judaism can more fully express itself freely, it can now also evolve and allow us to live out all our values. What then emerges, or what can emerge, is the possibility of a more balanced identity, based on a fuller integration of the values of Judaism and the values of modernity many of which are also Jewish values but which were not fully developed or expressed.
One need look no further than the book of Genesis for the textual foundations of the combined the universalist and particularist values of our tradition. While God is interested in the creation and potential of us as a particular people and how we live in covenant with God, our character and potential to fulfill that covenant are based on who we are as human beings, created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim, (Genesis 1:27) responsible to be as godly in the world as we can, in part through fulfilling our responsibility to perfect God’s imperfect world (Gen. 1-2ff). Only thereafter does God turn to create the Jewish people, carriers of additional responsibilities to fulfill humanity through our unique system of ethics and relationship with God. Thus our Jewishness is based on our humanness, and in our humanness we have a primal commitment to the value and equality of all human beings. Similarly our humanness is in fact expressed through our Jewishness, precisely because of the powerful combination of both the particularist and universalist ethics which are at the core of our tradition. 
Jewish tradition developed a system of how to act in the world, which at its inception included a myriad of practices aimed at ensuring the ethical behavior of the individual Jew, but it was simultaneously never blind to the larger world, repeating as if a chorus or mantra of universal responsibility our commitment to the stranger, to the other, to the world. 
In other words, the apparent tension between the particularist values and the universalist values of Judaism is in fact a false dichotomy and forces upon the souls of many Jews a false and often self-destructive choice between the two. While the tension does exist, Judaism’s notion of ethics does not demand that we choose, but rather ensures that we constantly engage in and balance both. We should understand our present context as a new opportunity both to return to our core and more complete ethical instincts which allow for and demand both, as well as the possibility of further developing ways of living out and reaching a more positive balance of both aspects of what it means to be a human being.
Recent decades, however, have shown that this ideal evolution of a balanced or more integrated Jewish identity is not a simple one, and the apparent although false conflict between universal values and particularist identity has stymied our necessary evolution. This necessary evolution, or rather the capacity to return to a more balanced identity and system of value is, in my view, not only a more accurate representation of Jewish tradition but also another gift of modernity.
For the Jewish people as a people to survive and thrive in the modern world, and for Judaism to both fully express its core and evolve in this context, we must not seek to resolve the tension between the particular and the universal, but enjoy the ways in which the tension can be sustained and even intensified, for it lies at the center of who we are as people and as Jews. A full understanding and integration of the tension will, I believe, make us both better Jews and better human beings. We will be better Jews because we will be more deeply connected to the vision that God had for us as a people, and we will be better human beings because we will be better able to live out what God intended for us at the beginning.
Originally published in, Peoplehood – Between "Charity Begins at Home" and "Repair the World," The Peoplehood Papers (Vol. 6, November 2010), published by The Hub, a project of The Jewish Agency, The Nadav Fund, and UJA Federation of New York. This publication was distributed widely at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in New Orleans, November 7-9, 2011.

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