Of all the wrap-ups of the 2016 US Presidential election, Prof. Yehuda Mirsky’s essay on “the new Jewish Question” has had the most profound impact on me. In a sweeping historical overview, Professor Mirsky comments how the new global populist waves bring Jews back into the passion plays of the right and the left. The tension between Jews as a particularist tribe and Judaism as a universalist creed gives both liberal democrats and ethnic populists something to admire and something to attack.
Mirsky’s diagnosis leaves no instruction other then to safeguard the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of worship and utilize them to help create the new intellectual underpinnings for global politics.
Reading through his essay, I was struck by the systemic view with which he perceives the Jewish people. Here is a tribe, a particular people with familiar links — the Jews. The Jews, however have a universalist mission, Judaism. Jewish values are not distinct to Jews, it is in fact the Jewish mission to bring our values to the world. What we are is a particular delivery system for a universalist message.
That contradiction is what is motivating so much of the Jewish communal angst on so many different levels. For the majority of American Jewry, the liberal Jews who form a key part of the Democratic party, Tikkun Olam is the guiding philosophy. Social justice, repairing the world, the expression of Jewish values writ large, is what we are about. What happens in the shul is less important than the work we do outside of it. It is no surprise that Zionism, the ultimate expression of the Jewish people as a tribe, is causing such heartache with liberal Jewish America, that is struggling to come to terms with the particularism that liberal nationalism demands.
While the world outside the synagogue walls motivates the majority of US Jews, to the minority that voted for the Republicans it was overwhelmingly the world inside the shul that mattered. The strong bonds of community, faith and tribe, the particularism of Jews and the needs of Jews as a people link this community far closer to the mindset of the Jews of Israel, where the particularist part of their identity shares more in common with the global populist wave.
While the polices of the government of Israel and the US might make up the foreground of the rifts within the global Jewish community, the background is the tectonic shifts and tensions between our universalist and particularist identities. The unending controversy of ‘who is a Jew’ alongside practice of reform Judaism within the State of Israel is part of the challenging of the paricularist shibboliths that are the bedrock of the tribal leaders of Israeli Jewry.
Reflecting on Mirsky’s writing, I was struck how the oscillation he described resembles a similar struggle that the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) described in his seminal book, “The Lonely Man of Faith.” The Rav describes man as both majestic and covenantal. Majestic man is a master of the universe, imposing his knowledge, culture and technology on the world. Covenantal man feels alienation and seeks companionship to relieve him of the existential alienation of creation. The Rav famously describes how we oscillate between these two halves, both being an essential part of the human condition, but that we should not expect to find a synthesis between these two poles.
Looking at Mirsky’s essay I can see how our universalist mission can run alongside the majestic man of faith, global in scope self assured in its value to all. It is also easy to see how our particular instincts fall into the covenantal man, that the world is lonely, and that we seek comfort with others and with G-d as we go about our mission.
For the Rav. the Jews are a covenantal community that tries to bridge both parts of the human condition in their day in and day out activities. Neither aspect of the man of faith is superior. In Mirsky’s categorization, neither our universal values of Judaism nor our particular tribe as Jews takes precedence. Our job is to struggle between them.
In an uncertain world, one in which the political right and left will have their fetishes around Jews, our task is to carefully traverse the complexities of universal values as a particular people. If we manage to do this, without tearing ourselves to pieces, we will continue to be a light onto the nations as the world struggles to find its way forward.