Universalism vs. Particularism

When we joined our first temple a decade ago, my wife and I were primarily looking to give our kids the Jewish education we never had.  But it was clear during new-member orientation that the community we were entering offered many ways to explore being a Jewish adult, with strongly hinted encouragement that those who get the most out of the place are on some sort of spiritual journey.

Given how, up until then, my Jewish identity was so bound up in pro-Israel politics, it was a gift to be able to explore my relationship with God through study, discussion and argument that still had much to say about the Zionism I still so strongly identify with.

Not that Israel and politics are ignored within the Temple.  While they must compete with other events and activities, a steady flow of diverse Israeli and Israel-related speakers make pilgrimages to our halls each year, many invited by the temple’s Israel Action Committee (which I led for a while).

Our Chief Rabbi’s own journey has included yearly participation in summer programming at Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute (including the summer of ‘14 when he had to dodge Hamas rocket fire to get to class).  Lessons from those experiences have made their way into more than one service, and Hartman’s iEngage programming – introduced a few years ago (co-sponsored by our town’s Reform and Conservative temples) – recently made a return with a series of lunchtime discussions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

At a kickoff event, we began by exploring the different arguments regarding what might make Zionism unique among different forms of nationalism.  But by the end of the session (which could have gone on for weeks), I sensed one of those potentially fruitful areas of discomfort regarding how much Jewish nationalism might represent a form of particularism that stands in contrast (possibly even in conflict) with more universal values.

Notions of the universal vs. the particular have been of particular interest since reading the works of that gay, conservative, philosopher/iconoclast Lee Harris, especially his second book The Suicide of Reason.

The subtitle of that book “Radical Islam’s Threat to the West” – along with earlier writing that established him as the philosopher king of 9/11 – put Harris squarely on one side of the culture war that has emerged over the last two decades.  But Suicide of Reason is much more about our own Western culture vs. contemporary events related to Islam.

At the heart of his argument is a rejection of the dichotomy between universalism and particularism, whether related to Jews or anyone else.  To take one example, Christianity could be seen as a “universal” faith since it, unlike “particularist” Judaism, has a mission to create a universal culture.  But the nature of the individual who will inhabit that universal culture (i.e., a Christian) is highly particular.

Perhaps this confusion arises from mixing together two different interpretations of the word “universal” that should be kept separate.  One of them would include things that are truly universal for all members of the human race such as our mortality or need to interact with others to survive (at least as a species).  But “universalism” also implies the desire to see all people live in a particular way, with candidates for that particular culture being both religious (Christianity, Islam) and secular (Communism or plain old modernity).

That last example: the modern identity that arose from Europe’s Enlightenment, is what Harris dwells on in Suicide of Reason.  For those of us who live in this age and this world (including everyone participating at our Temple’s iEngage session) are so surrounded by the modern world view that it takes on the air of the universal truth, just as “Christendom” was the world for those who lived in Medieval Europe.

But, as Harris points out, the notion that all people are (or can become) rational actors (the heart of the Enlightenment’s appeal to reason as a ruling virtue) was the product of unique cultural evolution, no different (and no less iconoclastic) than other man-made creations such as the culture of ancient Greeks or Chinese.

One way to deal with this issue is to eliminate terms like “universal” and “universalist” from our vocabularies and say, rather, that all cultures (including modernity) are particularlist through and through, but that some of these particular cultures are more expansive (like Christianity or Enlightenment modernity) than others (like Judaism).

Discussing the role of Jews and Zionism in the context of expansive vs. non-expansive particularist cultures certainly changes the nature of the debate regarding Israel and the world, but might do so in a way that increases insight – even as it increases discomfort among those of us (including me) who would prefer a world made up of rational actors ready to solve our problems via discussion and debate vs. appeals to God and the sword.

One Response to Universalism vs. Particularism

  1. Barbara Mazor December 18, 2017 at 10:41 pm #

    This is the two topics that I think about often. Regarding the tension between universal versus particular, you hit the nail on the head about the dual meaning of “universal” – homogenizing versus pluralistic. Ironically, while most religions see their paths as the exclusive road to salvation – Judaism has 2 paths. One for Jews – Torah and Mitzvot. And one for non-Jews – Noahide Laws. And yet, within Judaism, each expression of Judaism often behaves in an exclusivist manner – acting as if it is the only one that has “truth,” and all others are invalid.

    Regarding reason versus emotion: This seems to be a very big topic now, that humans are actually more emotion driven than reason driven. Because appealing to emotion is so effective, and because there is so much research on exactly how to appeal to press our buttons, I think humans are becoming far more sensitive and reactive than they were when you and I were growing up. There is no longer a value put on self-control and self-restraint. This does not bode well.

    Finally, if you want to listen to something really interesting and thought provoking, find Rabbi Sack’s lecture at Chatauqua this past summer. In his analysis, we are splitting apart in secular/religious divide as well.

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