One time in a Judaica store that I frequent, I was perusing a newly published book in Hebrew whose topic was the seven Noachide laws. These are the universal laws which the rabbis of the Talmud asserted were given by God to all of humanity, upon which the foundations of civilization are built. They include the establishment of courts of justice, and prohibitions against denying God, murder, sexual licentiousness, theft, cursing God’s name, and consuming flesh from a living animal. The Talmud explains that all people are expected to follow these laws, but that the Jewish people was additionally singled out at Mount Sinai to be in a relationship of holiness with God through the observance of the other commandments of the Torah. As I stood looking at the book, the store’s owner, a friendly acquaintance of mine, came over to me to praise the book and encourage me to buy it.
“You know,” he said, “That book is wonderful. It lays out so clearly the whole purpose of the seven Noachide laws, which of course are intended for the non Jews, so that they can serve us, the Jews.”
His supremacist comment offended me, and I began to respond to him that I didn’t for a moment agree with his view of humanity existing as a thrall or a pack mule for the sake of the Jewish people. Suddenly, I stopped myself, thinking, “Dan, this is his store, he is a fundamentalist who will not listen to your take on things, and frankly, you don’t have to buy the book. Let the argument go.” I smiled politely and declined to buy the book.
Beliefs such as his represent a polarizing distortion of that classic tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: does God care about us exclusively or about the whole world? You and I would readily answer that a morally and spiritually healthy Judaism demands of us a careful balance between these two ideals, intellectually and behaviorally. However, as we know, there are Jews, like my friend in the bookstore, who hold fast to a rigid particularism in which Jews are the center of the world and of God’s concern. There are Jews who hold equally fast to a rigid universalism in which Jewish interests and exceptionalism are given little or no weight. Scores of Jewish texts, classic and modern, can be cherry picked to bolster either argument. They reflect the broad continuum of Jewish historical experience, which includes long periods of persecution and isolation in which we of necessity became more insular, as well as rarer, but equally influential periods of Jews’ acceptance and assimilation into their host societies and the wider world. I understand both polar perspectives, but I reject choosing either one to the exclusion of the other. The current toxic environment of polarized, often debased intra-Jewish relations which exists among us threatens to further erode the delicate balance between both values, much to our peril and the world’s peril.
With the approach of Shavuot and its focus upon God giving the Torah to the Jewish people, let me offer the following great Jewish text as a “refresher course” about the balance between particularism and universalism in Judaism. The text comes from Pirke Avot, the Ethics Of The Sages, chapter 3:14, in the name of the second century rabbinic sage and martyr, Rabbi Akiva:
Humanity is beloved, for human beings were created in the image of God. God acted out of even greater love by making human beings know they were created in God’s image.
We learn this from Genesis 9:6—For in the image of God did God make humanity.
[Unique among humanity] the Jewish people are beloved for they were called the children of God. God acted out of even greater love by making the Jewish people know they were called the children of God.
We learn this from Deuteronomy 14:1—You are the children of the Lord your God.
The Jewish people are [also] beloved, for the precious instrument – the Torah – was given to them. God acted out of even greater love by making the Jewish people know they received the precious instrument with which the world was created.
We learn this from Proverbs 4:2—For I give you good instruction, do not forsake My Torah.
Note how each part of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching develops the part that preceded it, while tying together the beginning with the end. Humanity is loved by God and is even more loved because we have been made conscious of that love. We know this from Genesis which speaks about all people being created in God’s image, like a child born to a parent. Within humanity, we Jews are uniquely loved, and we are even more loved because we have been made conscious of that love. We know this from a verse found in Deuteronomy which calls us God’s children. A still higher love of God which the Jewish people experiences is the gift of the Torah. This is God’s greatest expression of love for the Jewish people precisely because the Torah, from the Talmudic perspective, is the blueprint with which God created the universe, which is also God’s greatest love. Rabbi Akiva starts with God’s love for humanity, asserts that the Jewish people is loved uniquely, then concludes with God’s love for all of creation: its existence is the result of Torah, our unique Jewish legacy through whose verses we come to know these particular and universal values.
Underlying this sage’s teaching are two foundations of classic Jewish theology that stand in creative tension with each other. God loves the Jewish people, something for which we have no reason to apologize. Yet the natural outgrowth of our love relationship with God is our responsibility to preserve and live God’s Torah. We do this for the sake of maintaining creation and preserving humanity, the gem of God’s creative work in the world, which God loves no less. This is also something for which we have no reason to apologize.
A Judaism well balanced between particularism and universalism demands of us two different, simultaneous commitments: to be apart from the world and to be are a part of the world.