September 16, 2019

Judaism is the particular language through which Jews address humanity

RABBI HAROLD M. SCHULWEIS was the spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, and author of many books, including For Those Who Cant Believe, In Gods Mirror, Evil and the Morality of God, and Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion. He was the founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that identifies and offers grants to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews threatened by the agents of Nazi savagery.

Reprinted with permission from “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” edited by Ruth and Judea Pearl (Jewish Lights).


Some of my best Jewish friends share my humanistic concerns for the submerged communities, the lot of the poor, the weak, and the pariahs of society. But oddly enough, they see no connection between that universal interest and its Jewish roots. While never denying their Jewish ancestry, they find it difficult to articulate their Jewish identity. For them to declare, “I am Jewish” is a confession that, like Woody Allen’s, is appended with the coda, “guilty, with an explanation.” What is the explanation for their guilt and this inability to speak their Jewish identity with a full-throated voice? Declaring their Jewish identity appears as a compromise of their moral largesse, a betrayal of their universalistic vision. It is as if they hear the question of their Jewishness framed as a hard disjunctive: “Are you a Jew or a human being?” “Is your loyalty to your people or to humanity?”

My teacher, the philosopher Sydney Hook, confessed, in his book Out of Step, that during the Holocaust years he and many Jews like him were so enthralled by the promise of universalism that they came to regard the suffering of the Jewish people as mere parochial sentiment. “We did not for a moment deny our Jewish origin but disapproved of what we thought an excess of chauvinism.” It echoed the sentiment of Rosa Luxemberg, the internationalist socialist of Jewish descent. She turned on her fellow Jews in anger, declaring, “Why do you persist in pestering me with your peculiar Judenschmerz [Jewish pain]? I feel more deeply the wretchedness on the rubber plantations of Puto Maya …”

Doubtless, my friends are reacting to the kind of insularly Jewish particularism that confuses loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people with chauvinistic provincialism. That type of paranoiac particularism suspects any cosmopolitan outlook as a threat to the fidelity of Jewish survival and to Jewish uniqueness. My friends are caught in the vise of either/or thinking that divides the world into “them” and “us” and forces choices of false options. The consequence of this split thinking leads to the twin fallacies of pseudo-particularism and pseudo-universalism, which tear apart the wholeness of Judaism and the unity of Jewish identity.

My universalistic Jewish friends are deaf to the uniqueness of Jewish particularism and Jewish universalism and consequently mute in expressing their Jewish identity. To paraphrase George Santayana, the effort to embrace humanity in general is as foolhardy as the attempt “to speak in general without using any language in particular.” Judaism is the particular language through which Jews address humanity. Although the Bible originates out of the needs, intuitions, and revelations of a particular people, its wisdom and ethics burst into the public domain of humanity.

Martin Buber, criticized by those who urged him to liberate Hasidic tradition from its “confessional limitations” and to transcend it, offered an authentic Jewish response. He was not bound to step into the street in order to speak what he had heard to the world. He could remain in the door of his ancestral home and still share it with the world.

An authentic Jewish particularism is not contrary to the idea of universalism. It grasps both polarities in one hand. Jewish particularism does not segregate—its unitive embrace is expressed in this rabbinic statement from Tanna De-Ve-Eliyahu: “I call heaven and earth to witness that whether it be man or woman, slave or handmaiden, the Holy Spirit rests on each according to his deeds.” So the Russian Jewish refusenik Natan Sharansky understood the moral interdependence between Jewish particularism and universalism. While active on behalf of Jewish immigration, Sharansky struggled as well for the rights of Pentecostals, Catholics, Ukrainians, Crimeans, and Tartars. In the prison of the Soviet Union, he came to realize that “Only he who understands his own identity and already has become a free person can work effectively for the rights of others.” In retrospect he observed that helping other persecuted people became part of his own freedom only after he had returned to his Jewish roots. Sharansky cited Cynthia Ozick’s telling of the Jewish folk tale in which a naif asks the rabbi why one blows the shofar through the narrow side of the ram’s horn rather than through the wide side. The rabbi answered, “If you blow it into the wide end, no sound will be emitted. But if you blow through the narrow side, it will reach into the outer limits.” Like charity, compassion begins at home, but it does not end there.

Elie Wiesel, whose concern for Soviet Jewry similarly led him to a concern for peoples’ races and religions not his own, counseled, “If you try to start everywhere all at once, you get nowhere, but if you start with a single person, someone near to you, a friend or a neighbor, you can come nearer to the other.” In the celebrated biblical verse Leviticus 19:18, love of the other is linked to love of oneself. Egoism and altruism are not contradictions. The tradition cautions against that form of self-abnegation, which some declare to be the entry to selfless altruism. No more than love of one’s wife leads to misogyny does love of family lead to misanthropy.

I recall for my friends the masterful Hasidic tale in which a wealthy disciple of the rabbi boasts that he lives an abstemious life, eating dry bread and water. The rabbi chastises his parsimony and urges the wealthy man to drink of the finest of wines and eat of the tenderest of meats. When his other disciples wondered why he was upset with the rich man’s modest style of life, the rabbi answered, “I fear that if he is content with consuming bread and water, he will argue that the poor who come to him should be content with rocks and sand.”

To be Jewish is to live in a dynamic and dialectical relationship between the private and the public, the individual and the social, the unique and the universal. It is to seek the integration and harmony, articulated in Rabbi Hillel’s celebrated aphorism, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I live only for myself, of what good am I?”

In these parlous days, when great religions denigrate each other, it is important to remember the wisdom of our sages, who selected two separate readings for the first and the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. On the first day, we read of how Hagar and Ishmael, the heirs of Islam, were exiled but protected through the divine intervention of the Angel of God, who rescued the Egyptian wife of Abraham and their son Ishmael and promised that Ishmael would be made into a great nation (Gen. 21:14–21). And on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the congregation reads the story of Abraham and Isaac, the heir of Judaism, whom the Angel of the Lord saves from the sacrificial knife (Gen. 22:1–19). Both Ishmael and Isaac are God’s children and their genealogies are recorded in the Scriptures (Gen. 25:12–18). The particular-universal connection is exemplified in these twin readings on the Jewish New Year and, I have argued, also in all the major celebrations of the Jewish calendar. What else is the significance of the Rabbis’ selecting for public reading the Prophet Jonah on the Day of Atonement, and emphasizing the sacrifice of seventy animals on behalf of the seventy nations of the world in the liturgy of Sukkot? It is Jonah who initially refuses to prophesy against Nineveh because he is apprehensive lest God repent of His judgment. For this, Jonah is chastised, the pagan citizens do indeed repent, and God Himself repents of His judgment to punish Nineveh. The compassion of God is not restricted to one people. The Jewish tradition, properly understood, will not allow God to be segregated.

To declare one’s Jewish identity is to know how to sing the song that rises to holiness. The rabbinic philosopher and poet Abraham Isaac Kook caught the growing melody of the Jewish song: “There is one who sings the songs of his own self, and in himself finds everything. Then there is the one who sings the song of his people and cleaves with a tender love to Israel. And there is one whose spirit is in all worlds, and with all of them does he join in his song. The song of the self, the song of one’s people, the song of man, the song of the world—they all merge within him continually. And this song, in its completeness and its fullness, is to become the song of holiness” (Oroth Ha-Kodesh II, p. 458).