Can We Be Particularistic in a Time of Universalism?

This week, I had the pleasure of sitting in a CJP parlor meeting where we were discussing the future of the Boston Jewish community.  We enumerated many strengths before turning to some of our challenges.

A number of the participants commented on the difficulty of engaging the next generation of Jews in Jewish life and Jewish institutions.

Temple Emunah member Carl Mikkelsen

Our own Carl Mikkelsen summed it up well when he said that sometimes it feels like our mission is “to hold together our institutions long enough so that millennials can come along and blow them up.”  I assume he was speaking metaphorically; at least I hope so! We hope our millennials will create something new as they change and revision our community.

This is both a humorous and an accurate take.  We live in this strange time – where for many swaths of the world, there is an increased focus on nationalism and tribalism.  

We have seen this in elections around the globe where nativism in on the rise.  And we see more and more religious extremism.

At the same time, for many – often well-educated and liberal young people around the globe, there is a huge swing in the opposite direction, towards universalism – that we all share the same humanity.  

We are all part of the human race, living on this planet with its severe environmental and climate challenges.  That has become the dominant world-view for most younger American Jews.

And I understand it and feel similarly.  

In a world where we see the awful violence and hate that comes from separating ourselves from others, how can we not want the opposite?  To lift up a universalism that brings all people together.

This week I had the pleasure of sitting with a young person who is heading off for an intense and extended experience in the wilderness.  

Hearing this person’s passion for nature reminded me of how strong the call is for a world that promotes humanity as a whole, living in harmony with the earth.

And many young Jews head off on that path.  For the Jewish community, the question is: will they return?  

Will they want to continue to be engaged in our particularistic story?  Can one be part of a particular people while holding fast to the fundamental value of all people?  Can we still be particularistic in a time of universalism?

* * *

To hone this question, let’s look back a bit at Jewish history.  There was no question of Jews choosing particularism, of choosing to be Jewish; for most of our history, we had to.  We lived in separate communities, we experienced hate and almost constant anti-Semitism that made it clear that we were different.  

At times, the only risk was to our physical survival, but not the question about if we should hold fast to our particular narrative.

In fact, the surprising aspect is that amidst the hate we experienced, we could still create a philosophy of life that embraced the value of all people, of all humanity.  

As this week’s parashah famously states – V’Ahavta L’reiakhah Kamokha – love your fellow as yourself.  Our great sage, Rabbi Akiva, taught that this was the essential principle of the Torah, the universal ideal of loving all people.

Students at Masorti Yeshiva in Jerusalem

To think about how fast things have changed, it was only 75 years ago that our people experienced the horrors of the Shoah, of the Holocaust.  While there is still anti-Semitism, like the White Supremacist violence that led to the attack on the shul outside San Diego a few weeks ago, the greater threat to Jewish continuity may be from our inability to convince the next generation of the compelling need to be part of our distinct group.  You did not have to convince a Jew in a concentration camp to be Jewish, they were living it, neither did you have to convince a Jew studying sacred texts in a Yeshiva or a Jew farming on a Kibbutz about being Jewish, but today’s young Jews do not experience that feeling in the same way anymore.

Perhaps this is because they see particularism taken to extremes.  

Israel, which used to be such a strong rallying cry for American Jews to experience the depth of our unique story no longer holds sway to the same extent.  Its complicated history has made that far more challenging. We felt that this week – as we commemorated Israel’s Memorial Day and celebrated its Independence (and I am so grateful that hundreds came to these events!), recently Israel has pushed its particularistic aspects to the fore at the expense of its Arab minorities – something that is not only wrong, but also a huge turn-off to many younger Jews.

* * *

Now, we are not the first generation of Jews to confront the tension between universalism and particularism.  It goes back to this morning’s parashah where we are told to be “kedoshim – holy.”  

This root is found in many aspects of Judaism from kiddush, the prayer over the wine, to the kaddish and the kedushah, prayers recited throughout the service, but what does it mean to be “kodesh?”  The root – koof, daled, shin – is connected to the word hekdeish – gifts that we separate out for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Thus, to be kodesh is to be something distinct and separate.  The Jewish people are asked to live a unique life.  That means that we are supposed to live according to high ethical values.  We should try to elevate our actions to behave according to many moral teachings found in this morning’s reading, which Maddie so thoughtfully elaborated upon.

But, it does not mean that we totally separate ourselves from the rest of the world.

Think about the huppah – the wedding canopy – it creates an intimate circle in which only the partners enter – a circle of distinct holiness for them, but it is not closed off to others.  The sides are open, reminding the couple that they remain connected to others around them.

Similarly, our tradition invites us to live lives of distinction, following a unique path, but also remembering that we are all a part of one shared human experience.  

Our parashah is filled with basic moral laws that are universal from business ethics to welcoming immigrants and strangers, but also contains rituals that speak to our experience as Jews, like Shabbat.  Our rabbis wanted us to hold fast to both of these ideals – simultaneously. Thus, they wove them into different moments – before we recite the Shema, we recite two blessings – one about experiencing the spirituality of nature, the other about our particular path as Jews, utilizing the mitzvot, the commandments and the Torah as our guide.  

One universal and one particular.

They wanted us to have both values in mind each time we recite the Shema.

Perhaps that’s why they embedded them in our six word brakhah – blessing formula.  They did it so subtly you may not have noticed.

Say these six words with me.

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam – praised are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe.  The first part relates to God as our God, as we personally and communally sense the Divine.  It is a particularistic approach that highlights our uniquely Jewish experience.

But it does not remain there.  

Quickly, it shifts to the universe: melekh HaOlam – sovereign of the world.  And Olam – can mean time or space – so our new siddur, our Siddur Lev Shalem prayer book, translates it as “Sovereign of Time and Space.  This is universal, going far beyond the Jewish people.

* * *

The reality is that we all need to have both – we need our own separate families and close relationships, even as we hold the notion that all humanity is created in the imagine of the Divine and thus, fundamentally equal, of ultimate value – deserving our love, protection and care.  

We need to be particularistic people who unite around the entire universe.

So, this is our challenge: can we continue to present our 4,000 year old tradition in such a compelling fashion that it encourages our young people to embrace this particular path, while we hold up the great universal values that we have also championed?

This will not be easy, but speaking with our amazing young people, I am encouraged.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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