Us and the others: Jewish universalism

In Shimon Peres’s funeral ceremony last October in Jerusalem, Tsvia Walden, Shimon’s daughter,  not only recited Kaddish according to the egalitarian practice of Reform Judaism but she added  to the original text,  ending with “Oseh shalom bimromau hu berahamau ya’aseh shalom alenu ve al kol Israel” (May the One who creates peace in the heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel), “ve al kol b’nei adam” (and to all humankind). It is a common practice of conservative and reformed congregations to say “ve al kol anshei tevel” (all people who dwell on the universe) or “ yoshvei tevel” (all the living beings of the universe) – an even more inclusive expression, including animals.

The theme evoked by Peres’s daughter in her recasting of the prayer is a complex one, pertaining to Judaism as well as to other cultures, faiths, and  doctrines ; it concerns the relationship between the “universal,” i.e. values and principles of “togetherness,” of the unity of humankind, and the “particular,” i.e. diversity in its manifold manifestations.

Ephraim Lessing in his Nathan the Wise in the heyday of Enlightenment at the end of 1700 portrays a wise man, advocate of religious tolerance. Nathan asks rhetorically: “are Jews and Christians Christians and Jews before they are human beings?” implying that one is a human being first and a Jew or Christian or other second. I think of a variation. Nathan who asserts and teaches he is a human being by way of being Jewish and analogously  Christian or Muslim by way of belonging  Christianity or Islam. Being Jewish or Christian or other is a variation on a single theme: humankind.

The dualism between particularism and universalism is a constant  fixture in the long and unsettled history of the Jews. On one hand monotheism, human beings at God’s image and the messianic idea express the universal. On the other the  concrete existence of the Jews in the Diaspora in secluded and oppressed communities, subjected to the hardship of exile and discrimination until emancipation at mid or late- 1800 has been dominated by the particular. This duality is a distinguishing and dominant feature of contemporary society : how to reconcile equality of rights with the right to difference. Migrants on the one hand ask to be treated like others, irrespective of their  private inclinations on matters of faith or habits, while on the other claiming  that their particular identity — ethnic, religious, and cultural —  be recognized in relation to family norms, working hours, and religious holidays. The practical dilemma — which Diaspora Jews know well — is to what extent differences across individuals or communities can be recognized as legitimate in their implications for  lifestyle, social organization, working relations and at the same time the basic rules of living together are shared and respected.

In Jewish thought the universalist dimension since ancient times takes the form of Noah’s code, i.e. the seven principles entrusted to  Noah’s children, hence to mankind in its entirety to establish the basic norms of human existence. Only the first two of those have a theological nature — forbidding idolatry and blasphemy. The others express rules for “living together” of humans : forbidding killing, theft, illicit sexual behavior, eating living animals and the obligation to establish courts to enforce the observance of those six basic principles. Judaism is for Jews and for those who wish to join the Jewish people but non Jews or gentiles are granted salvation provided they observe monotheism and in their practical life they respect Noah’s principles.

In the concrete history of the Jews the dialectic between the universal and the particular has taken various forms. The archetype of the pariah Jew depicted by Hannah Arendt as the rebel against his/her own marginality and oppression striving to subvert the social and cultural order of the time aligning with other likewise subjected to oppression dominated  Jewish and Western culture of the 1900’s. This paradigm was  broken towards the end of last century. The iconoclastic drive of the Jew champion of political revolution and even cultural heterodoxy has largely been lost. In part the material conditions of the Jews account for this development. Jews in the Diaspora live now in the West; they belong to the well-educated, middle-upper strata of society and mostly  conform to their  conservative  interests, values, and norms of behavior.

In the wake of the Shoah and with Israel’s right to exist still in question and the resurgence of antisemitism in Europe the particularistic defense of our own interest seem well justified[1]. But there are limits to this. In a hostile world a number of Jewish intellectuals and opinion leaders in the US as well as in Europe and Italy sought the help of opportunistic and improper allies, chiefly among them  neoconservatives and fundamentalist  Christians in support of Israel and hostility to Islam. Disquieting signs of that mood and sentiment are to be detected after Trump’s victory in US elections with established organizations and prominent individuals in US Jewry being seduced by the political right in power which is pro Israel, even close to the extreme positions voiced of the Israeli government, yet antiJewish. [2]

I maintain that to protect the future of the Jews it would be ethically good and politically more effective to strive alongside other minorities against racism and discrimination directed at the weak and marginal components of society appealing to the universalistic values of Judaism – justice, the dignity of the stranger, and the defense of the weakest.

Beside thinking and perceiving ourselves as vanquished and victims, sometimes rather obsessively, we should be more sensitive to the plight of others. Not only  to what the “others” do to us – the ills of antisemitism – but also to what “we” do or do not  do to others. Not only because we Jews are witnesses and bearers of memory of discrimination but there is an objective interest of Jews in fighting discrimination even when it does not concern us directly or immediately and in striving towards a multicultural society in which different identities especially the minority ones are respected and legitimized. In the history of the Jewish people racism, social exclusion and religious discrimination have carried with them in many instances antiJewish hate. Late developments in post-elections United States go worryingly in that direction.

Giorgio Gomel

source Tikkun


[1] “What is good for the Jews ?” is an effective expression of this quasi tribal way of perceiving the matter.

[2]  Peter Beinart in “America’s most influential Jewish groups have prioritized Netanyahu over US Jews’ safety” (Haaretz, November 17, 2016) asserts that the changed focus of interest of established US Jewry from the social and civic advances of the country to the defense of Israel stem from two facts : the increase in numbers and influence of orthodox Jews and the growing financial and political weight of large donors who are supporters of Israel.

Giorgio Gomel, formerly director of economic research at the Bank of Italy, is an essayist and activist with Jcall Europe (ww.jcall.eu) – an association of European Jews committed to a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and with Alliance for Middle east Peace (www.allmep.org). He is based in Rome, Italy.

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