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Is Judaism a Universalist or a Particularist Religion?

It would be beautiful if we could achieve such harmony here on earth, but the war in Gaza has raised the stakes for pluralism.
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May 30, 2024
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Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God; the Lord is One!

There are two meanings hidden in this message of Oneness — two visions of Judaism. 

The Lord is our God—a particularist religion and a particularist God who serves as the patron of a particular tribe. 

The Lord is One—a universalist religion and a universalist God who alone created the universe and all that is in it. 

This tension is explored more explicitly in the blessing read before the morning recitation of the Shema. It is a strange and beautiful piece of liturgy, which invites us to imagine two choirs of angels standing across from one another in the heavens, singing words of Torah. 

One choir sings a verse from Isaiah: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory!”

The other choir sings a verse from Ezekiel, “Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place.” 

Both choirs, it is written, are saying  “words of the living God,” a phrase that indicates that this heavenly choir is no choir at all, but rather a cacophonous yet harmonious debate club.

The more famous usage of the phrase “words of the living God” comes from the Talmud: 

“For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God.”

In other words, the angels are having what is known in rabbinic thought as a machloket—a dispute. 

According to the first choir, God’s presence is boundless and omnipresent. All the earth is God’s domain. 

According to the second choir, God’s presence is localized to “His place,” which is to say Jerusalem.

Both perspectives, according to the blessing of the Shema, are “words of the living God,” which is to say that this tension is not a tangle to be combed out, but rather an integral part of the Jewish ethos. 

Both arguments are equally compelling. Our job, however, is not to decide which choir is correct. After all, both are the “words of the living God,” which is to say that this tension is not a tangle to be combed out, but rather an integral part of the Jewish ethos. 

The debates of the houses of Hillel and Shammai, when we look at them, seem to be earthly echoes of this heavenly dispute. Hillel’s Torah is expansive, flexible, and generous. Shammai’s Torah is strict, formalist, and uncompromising. Later Jewish debates (Hasid vs Misnaged, Orthodox vs Reform) will revolve around the same axis. 

It is said that a machloket for the sake of heaven will endure. True, but a machloket that loses its tension becomes a schism. When Paul stripped Judaism of its particularity, focusing exclusively on the universality of Jesus’ message, a new religion was born. Judaism, without the tension between the universal and the particular, ceases to be Judaism.

The blessing of the Shema states that each heavenly choir “gives permission” to the other to chant its verse. Though they sing different songs, they sing in harmony.

It would be beautiful if we could achieve such harmony here on earth, but the war in Gaza has raised the stakes for pluralism. We are hurt, frightened, and deeply concerned about the future of Judaism and the Jewish people. And while we can try to learn from the example of the angels, we are not angels ourselves.

Too many of us have already lost the balance. We have seen Jews abandon all tribal affinity in favor of a pastiche of universalist progressive values wrapped in a keffiyeh. We have also seen Jews abandon the Torah’s universalist message in favor of chauvinist, far-right iteration of Jewish nationalism.  

Those who hold the tension—honoring Judaism’s universalist morals even as they participate in the particularist life of the tribe—are little more than a remnant, but they are the true inheritors of the Shema’s message.

On their behalf, we read the plaintive prayer from our siddur, “Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and let not Israel perish, who say, ‘Shema Yisrael.’”


Matthew Schultz is a Jewish Journal columnist and rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (Tupelo, 2020) and lives in Boston and Jerusalem.  

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