07/16/2011 09:13 EDT | Updated 09/15/2011 05:12 EDT

The Risks of Jewish Particularism

Tragically, we all know what happens when a particularist worldview is pushed to the unthinkable extreme.


Seems the old particularism vs. universalism debate is rearing its head again. Do we help primarily "our own," or do we view all human suffering as equally urgent? Writing in Commentary Magazine, Shalem Center Senior Vice-President Daniel Gordis recently decried American rabbinical students' criticism of Israel. Gordis sees this trend as stemming from a shift in worldview among young Jews: one towards universalism.

Gordis is clear in his preference: "What is lacking in their view and their approach," Gordis writes, "is the sense that no matter how devoted Jews may be to humanity at large, we owe our devotion first and foremost to one particular people -- our own people."

And in an otherwise sweeping critique of Gordis, Leonard Fein, writing in The Forward, has called for a thoughtful discussion on the issue of universalism vs. particularism.

Now is a good time to continue the discussion, since Repair the World has just released its "Volunteering and Values" survey of young Jewish adults. The results will no doubt prompt community members to wonder how they can better engage Jewish youth in pursuing Jewish volunteering efforts.

Of the central findings of the survey is that "only a small portion of Jewish young adults, 10 per cent, indicated that their primary volunteer commitment was organized by Jewish organizations" and that "the vast majority, 78 per cent, said it doesn't matter if the organization with which they are engaged in service is Jewish or non-Jewish." The survey also said that "Universal values rather than Jewish-based values and identity drive volunteerism."

So Jewish youth are volunteering -- 78 per cent of females and 63 per cent of males reported volunteering in the past 12 months. But they are not necessarily connecting this work to Jewish values, and most are not doing it through Jewish organizations or targeting Jewish causes.

Is the universalist-looking generation we seem to have on our hands a cause for concern? I, for one, don't think so. What's more, I think that we push for particularism as a serious community value only at our peril.

The problem with forcing a particularist worldview, as Gordis would, is at least two-fold. One aspect is strategic. We all possess multiple identities -- gender, political, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, even neighbourhood. If I were to practice a stridently particularist approach to my charitable, volunteering and political involvements, what's to say that my Jewish identity would win out over my being a heterosexual, female Canadian who lives in an urban center? There are already so many competing identity commitments that pushing a particularist vision might simply backfire.

The second reason is more chilling. It has to do with what happens when empathy vanishes from human interaction. There's a famous quotation attributed to German Pastor Martin Niemoller, and which is on display at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem:

"First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Tragically, we all know what happens when a particularist worldview is pushed to the unthinkable extreme.

To mark our son's first birthday a few years ago, my husband and I decided to contribute to Project Tembo, an initiative to build schools for girls in Northern Tanzania. We knew that at some level, our son would experience certain global privileges that his female counterparts -- particularly in other corners of the world -- would not. We specifically went universal in our giving, hoping, in some tiny way, that he would absorb the importance of empathy early on.

As much as so much of contemporary Jewish discourse tends to stress the particular nature of Jewish (and Israeli) historical and contemporary struggles (Israel being "singled out" for criticism in the face of other countries' egregious actions; the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and the particular nature of the origins of anti-Semitism), pushing the particularist mantra is a risky strategy at best.

Management theorists know that a silo-approach to organizations is less effective than one that harmonizes various levels of the corporation.

Political observers know that civil wars are more likely to break out when parties are organized along ethnic or religious lines rather than capturing cross-cutting identities under a single mantle.

And if we don't act on the pain of others, there's little reason to believe that others will help us in our time of need.

We are all interconnected on this tiny, hurting planet. At Jewish camp, we used to sing "Ani v'atah, neshaneh et ha'olam." (You and I will change the world.) The message was that tikkun olam (repairing the world) would only come about if you and I, Self and Other -- not only our fellow Jews -- join hands.

A universalist approach to fixing the world's ills is efficient, strategic, and so much more richly moral than the alternative.