Universalism vs. Particularism – Thoughts from Limmud NY

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Last weekend, for the first time in more years than I would like to admit, I participated in the Limmud NY conference, held (appropriately, for those who believe New Yorkers are inherently imperialistic) in Stamford, Connecticut. Limmud is now a global “brand” for dozens of conferences held annually around the world, including the “mother ship” that takes place in England each December. Limmud NY is North America’s largest, with more than 700 participants, and it’s distinctive among Jewish conferences in several ways. It has no theme – except for the theme of Jewish learning itself. And Jewish learning is defined very broadly, from text study to Jewish cooking. It’s remarkably diverse and inclusive, with teachers and participants of every age, background, and affiliation. And, it’s democratic: There are invited presenters (of whom I was privileged to be one), but it’s also open to anyone to submit a proposal to speak.

image courtesy of Yossi Hoffman Photography

image courtesy of Yossi Hoffman Photography

For obvious reasons, there’s no way to sum up a Limmud conference or even pick out a single dominating thread. I was intrigued, though, that one of the topics I chose to present on, the ostensible tension between particularism and universalism, reappeared in various forms in several other sessions. The phrase “universalism vs. particularism” is itself a shorthand for a number of different issues. Sociologically – and this certainly came up at the conference – Judaism’s or the Jewish community’s “particularism” is often cited as a barrier to engaging young Jews with Jewish life. Judaism’s particularist claims, embodied in the concept of Jewish peoplehood and the notion of a special responsibility of one Jew for another, are seen by some as parochial and ethically unjustifiable. When particularism translates into a call for endogamy, it’s even seen as “racist.” On the other side, there are those who argue that without a strong sense of peoplehood and an affirmation of Jewish distinctiveness, we not only put our survival in peril, we lose the capacity to be the “light unto the nations” that our ethical mission demands. On a more philosophical level, the issue may appear in the form of the question of whether Judaism is a universal religion with a message for everyone, or one intended and relevant only for Jews. The flip side of this is another question: Does Judaism have anything distinctive to say anyway, or is it not the case that all religions (and other non-religious philosophies) ultimately promote the same universal values?

We need to take these concerns and questions very seriously. In fact, in our open society, how we deal with the dynamics of universalism and particularism may be the single most important factor in determining what Jewish life will look like in the decades ahead. At our foundation, we believe that universalism and particularism are not in irreconcilable tension with one another. We believe that Jewish Wisdom speaks to universal concerns with a particular voice through what we call “Jewish Sensibilities.” And, we believe that Jewish life can be open and embracing of all while preserving the special character that comes from being part of a community with a distinctive story and history.

No question, though: How to make the Jewish blend of the universal and the particular work in today’s world is a challenge. What do we say to the young person who wants to know why we should give priority to Jewish causes in our philanthropy (should we?) or why it’s important that the Jewish people survive or Israel remain a “Jewish state”? What do we say to the individual who asks why we should go out of our way to help others when so many Jews remain in need? How do we answer the claim that all religions are alike, or that we would be better off if, as John Lennon imagined, there were “no religions too”? And, what about those who insist that only Judaism has the truth and that we need not pay attention to what any other tradition has to say?

The questions aren’t going away; how will we answer?

-Jon

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