Opinion

Is the Idea of the Jewish People a Chauvinistic, Antiquated Canard?

Can Jews care too much about the rest of the world? Or, as Michael Chabon declares, are all boundaries between Jews and non-Jews untenable? And why has the American Jewish conversation on universalism and particularism turned so extreme?

What's the relationship between Jewish peoplehood, universalism and particularism? Rosh Hashanan could provide an answer
Shiran Granot

Perhaps the most confounding question at the moment for American Jews is how to strike a balance between a love and concern for the world at large, and a particular feeling of attachment and interest in the flourishing of the Jewish people. 

The tensions between universalism and particularism have been a perennial challenge of American Jewish life. That such a balance remains elusive, and is a source of deep confusion for American Jews, is evidenced by the extreme positions staked out over the past few months.

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Michael Chabon’s infamous speech, delivered this May at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, argued for the erasure of all boundaries between Jews and non-Jews and, in fact, all boundaries within Jewish life. 

He described in-marriage between two Jews as "a ghetto of two" and sees Rabbinic Judaism as "a giant interlocking system of distinctions and divisions." The enforcement of such divisions through Jewish ritual life result, according to Chabon, in a kind of chauvinistic rejection of the "other."

He suggests there is a direct line of logic from distinguishing between the Sabbath and weekdays, to the radicalism of Hebron settlers. Says Chabon, the only tribe that merits his loyalty is the human tribe, the one "that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct." 

On the other extreme, we have the new book by Jonathan Neumann, "To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel."

Neumann attacks the centrality of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that has become a central principle of American Jewish life, particularly in the non-Orthodox world. He equates tikkun olam with a liberal political agenda that artificially grafts itself to a misappropriated Rabbinic term.

Neumann’s critique goes far beyond suggesting that Jewish universal commitments to bettering the world need to be anchored in distinctive Jewish texts and practices. Rather, Neumann writes, "The truth is that tikkun olam has no basis in Judaism," and that "Tikkun olam represents the bastardization of an ancient civilization…" 

But his primary gripe with tikkun olam is that "its stridently universalistic aspirations undermine Jewish peoplehood." The universalism of tikkun olam, suggests Neumann, destroys the boundaries between Jews and others, and lead to policies that run counter to the Jewish community’s self-interest.

If, as some philosophers have suggested, a definition of idolatry is mistaking a part for the whole, then both Michael Chabon’s prescription for Jewish life, as well as Jonathan Neumann’s, represent an idolatrous isolation of one aspect of Jewish life artificially (and dangerously) separated from the whole. 

Shofar-making workshop, Tel Aviv. September 2016
\ Gil Cohen-Magen

The idea that Judaism posits a concern for the world at large is not an invention of 20th or 21st century liberal Jews.

The very first covenant established with Noah is made between God and all of humanity. The more particularistic covenant established with Abraham has as its end-goal that all of the families of the earth shall be blessed through him. The Hebrew Bible relays God’s command to Jonah to call upon the people of Nineveh (the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s arch-enemy) to repent in order to save themselves from destruction, and the reluctant prophet suffers when he fails to carry out that command. Isaiah spoke of Israel as "light to the nations." The Hebrew Bible is replete with more examples.

As Jonathan Sacks explains in his thoughtful and well-argued book - with almost the same title but no question mark - "To Heal a Fractured World," classic Judaism did not ask about the extent to which Jews are responsible for the wider world, because the Jewish historical experience was one of enforced separation and marginalization. When Jews had the opportunity it found ways to extend kindness and concern for the larger society.

I understand Neumann and Chabon. Neumann and others fear that an exclusively universal message of Judaism promoted in the 21st century is one that comes to obviate the need for Judaism itself, and may in fact undermine it. Chabon fears that distinctions between Jews and non-Jews will never be able to be sustained in ways that truly allow us to see all of humanity as images of God.

What Jewish life needs most at this moment is a melding of the universal and the particular. Rosh Hashanah provides us with some of the best examples.

Rosh Hashanah
Tony Shi / Getty Images

Rosh Hashanah, as it evolved, became the most universal of all Jewish holidays. It is, according to rabbinic tradition, the anniversary of the creation of the world. It is God’s coronation day as ruler of the entire universe. Our round challot symbolize the world. Our prayers underscore a time when all of creation will worship God, and that all the world will be bound together as an agudah achat – a single bundle.

Yet, the universalistic hopes and prayers of Rosh Hashanah are expressed in the most particularistic ways – with blasts of a shofar, with a distinctive liturgy, and according to a calendar all our own that determines when to mark the anniversary of creation. Language, ritual and time become the distinctive, particular container that holds our universalist visions. 

We live in a world with far too many dichotomies, universalism and particularism among them. The task of the moment is to bridge such dichotomies in ways that yield complexity and richness, nuance and depth. Rosh Hashanah presents us with just such a gift.

Rabbi Leon A. Morris is President of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Twitter: @rabbileonmorris