Jewish Particularism, Universalism, Morality of Concern, Permanent War, by Richard Rothschild

Université de Londres SOAS


                                   The Torah is for everybody” — Jewish Virtual Library

     “Was there no end to the over-subtilizing of these people?”  Kalooki  Nights,

-Howard Jacobson                                                                                                                                                                       


Here is a statement of fact written in 2011 about contemporary Israel: “No day of the year in Israel is more agonizing than Yom Ha-Zikaron—the Remembrance Day for the fallen of Israel’s Wars.”  In the same year the dean at Boston’s Hebrew College sent this message to the enrolled rabbinical students:  “For Yom Ha-Zikaron, our intention is to open up our communal remembrance to include losses on all sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine.  In this spirit, our framing question is: On this day, what do you remember and for whom do you grieve?”.


Our protagonist let the dean know of his disapproval of the question, partly for its content and more strongly for inculcating in the future rabbis the not-Jewish world view and false knowledge of Judaism.  He transformed the question as asking, as should be asking, “whether the losses on Israel’s side touched them any more deeply than the losses on the side of Israel’s enemies?”.  The dean’s question is neutral and open, allowing answers that permit commemorating all losses without distinction and also allowing answers that admit no concern at all for the losses of “Israel’s enemies”, allows the latter but does not force it, does not demand it.  Daniel Gordis’ revision draws attention away from the focus on losses, on killings and deaths, toward sides, to taking our side or the side of our enemies.  As though Israel held the world’s monopoly in having enemies.


The dean outlined his reason for posing the question his way.  “The only thing I’m sure of is that we are trying to engage with those issues and with each other with greater openness, courage and respect than I think has been possible in most other corners of the Jewish community here.”  Major among “those issues” in several wordings is the dean’s “the conflict in Israel/Palestine” as against the conflict of Palestinians against Israel or the conflict of Israel for Palestine.  As for “engaging with each other” there are the non-Jewish other and the inter-Jewish other: Jewish denominations willing sincerely to engage in negotiation with non-Jews and Jewish denominations for whom engagement is anathema.


Here, in Gordis’ words, is the false teaching dished out at the Hebrew College and like-minded Jewish institutions: “The heartbreaking point was this:  in the case of the rabbinical students, there is not an instinct that should be innate—the instinct to protect their own people first, or to mourn our losses first.  Their instinct, instead, is to ‘engage’. … It means setting instinctive dispositions utterly aside.”  What is worse, Gordis continues directly, is “that is precisely what emerging generations of American Jewish leaders believes it ought to do”.  The openness and respect that are presupposed in sincere and effective engagement with the enemy are morally wrong. The efforts of some Jewish leaders to reduce conflicts to disagreements and to transform disagreement into equitable peace supersede the innate Jewish “instinct to protect their own people first”.   “We have produced a generation of future leaders whose instincts are simply not the instincts that have any chance of preserving Jewish life.”  Serious, disturbing accusations of Jews here, smacking of betrayal and attempted genocide. 


A word about the trumpeted instinct.  Taken literally, it cannot be the basis for any kind of morality.  Animals always held to be lower than humans are hardly more moral because they are instinct dependent.  And instincts’ close companion, intuition fares no better.  To act on one’s inner voice or gut feeling is to act reflexively rather than reflectively.  Different people, different intuitions. The same person in different moods, different inner voices. Can anyone seriously believe that all intuition-born actions are desirable?


Gordis does not have ‘instinct’ in its usual sense in mind.  He tells us he acquired his ‘instinct’ from watching his parents at a moment in near post-Nazi history.  But instincts aren’t learned.  He has a particular content in mind, a content that should become instinctive in the sense of becoming second nature or a mindset (or obtuseness) of Jews.  We’ve already had a whiff of it. 


Gordis deplores the absence of a certain content in the teaching in some Jewish academic institutions.  “What is entirely gone is an instinct of belonging—the visceral sense on the part of these [rabbinical students, teachers and deans] that they are part of a people, that the blood and the losses that were required to create the state of Israel is their blood and their loss” (emphasis in original).  For whom do you grieve?  An authentic Jew will answer, If the dead is a Jew I grieve for me and my people; if the dead is not a Jew I may not grieve at all.  The difference in reaction or sentiment is not due to callousness or vengeance or hate.  It originates in the Jew’s blood-tie to her people, the blood-bond membership in a people: a fact too often omitted from the Reform and traditional Conservative curriculum.


It’s tough for American Jews (and Westernized Jews everywhere) to keep the ‘people’ instinct up front, to the extent they ever had it.  The dominant cultural environment is too Christian, too liberal and humanist.  “The replacement of communal faith by personal journey among today’s young Jews is a profound reflection of the degree to which Christianity has colored their sense of what Judaism at the very core is all about.”  Personal journey?  It ain’t wintering in Florida.  Authentic Jews aren’t “personal”; they’re communal by blood-inheritance.  Each Jew is all Jews.  Me is us.  Individual personalities on the outside; the eternal-people on the inside.  Reader, if you don’t mind more cores: “Judaism is, at its core, still a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’”. 


This does not mean there’s an unbridgeable gap that separates us from them.  It’s just that the us-we cannot wholeheartedly embrace the they-them as equals:  rationed generosity, openness laced with reservation toward them-them is as far as us-we are prepared or able to stretch.  “Jewish tradition is extraordinarily nuanced and generous when it comes to the question of how Jews are to treat non-Jews.”  “Extraordinarily nuanced”:  subtly different from Christian and Western traditions of how “we” are to consider each other and “instinctively” different from what those subverted rabbinical students in Boston are being taught.  (Don’t lose sight of this last phrase as you continue reading: particularist or peoplehood Jews are a subset of Jews, Jews who believe this rather than that. Definitely not all of us Jews.)  Particularists: We-us Jews: Palms up from the outside, palms out on the inside.  Sufficiently subtle so that them-they won’t notice and be offended by our not-homogenized (and unpasteurized) cream-milk humanity. They think they hear ‘milk and honey’.  Us-we reach our open arms through holes in the fence that us-we erected and won’t pull down. That’s understandable.  Equality is attractive.  To desire equality is human.  Jews are human.  They desire equality. But equality violates the ‘us-them’ rift, profanes peoplehood Judaism.  So as not to be led into temptation, Jews à la Gordis fence Jews in.  Or is it out?


Other Jews, Jewish sects, editorialize in greater depth: as some are destined to obey 7 and others 12 Commandments, so humanity is forever riven. All the king’s freedoms and all the king’s rights cannot put humanity together. And here’s an imaginative script of high sophistication promulgated by a worldwide Jewish messianic movement. It agrees that while Jewish particularism is an instinct, this instinct as such is not a natural bio-physical phenomenon, nor is it a learned reaction, nor is its content the mother-child bond expanded into Jewish peoplehood.  Indeed, at first blush, this outlook or dorma has it that Jews are not unlike everyman: they have the universal capacity to make individual choices.  From the modern perspective, Judaism is just another religion in our multicultural and multi-ethnic societies.  It appears that at the level of the physical world populated by rational people Jewish particularism (understood as us-them) has been driven off the field.  Now here’s the clincher.  That finite space, however, is the “subjective” world.  Be introduced into the Jewish “objective”, “supernatural” and “suprarational” world with its “ineffable essence”, and voilà Jewish particularism.  It comes in the form of the Jewish soul which is “a literal part of God above” and is incorporated in each Jew as his and her “essential self”.  “God” here is the one that set the highest standard terms of conduct on earth for Jews alone.  They are spelled out in the Torah’s 613 commandments.  It follows that, among mankind, Jews are unique in the important sense that, while there is good in each human being, the good in Jews, when and because it proceeds from their God-tagged “objective” selves (souls) to their physical “subjective” selves— their “suprarational urging”, is necessarily a higher good than non-Jews can access.  Equal unequals. Now back to Gordis’ less imaginative Judaism.


“Today’s universalism leaves no room for the particularism that has long been at the core of Jewish life.”  Yet particularism exists and co-exists with universalism.  Since ‘universalism’ takes in everyone or all of categories of persons by definition, then why, when it has room for Christian denominations each one with its particularities, Islamic denominations with their particularities, Hinduism with…, Taoism with…, why does universalism have no room for Judaism, for Jewish life?  We are accustomed to believe, with good reason, that people invent their religions.  What you have been reading about is the opposite: religion, the Jewish one alone, invents its people.  Judaism invented Jews, is the creator of “Jewish life”.  A Jew can choose her religion (God forbid), but her being a Jewish person has been divinely chosen and has been sexually transmitted throughout generations. This abandonment of an empirical, anthropological history of Jews in favour of the Torah account of the history of Jews explains why the ‘people create their religions’ approach “leaves no room” for its contradiction.  For the contradiction affirms that Jews are qualitatively different from the rest of mankind, ever since Jews ceased being Hebrews.  In this sense Jewish particularism is particular.  I shall not say more about it here, but if you have doubts, reread the previous paragraph to put your doubts at rest.


Now a new and related topic:  Jewish authenticity and its moral consequence.  Gordis: “It is a matter of fact that Jews have always been taught to care, first and foremost, for other Jews. (…) [Judaism] actually does mean that Jewish authenticity requires caring about ourselves before we care about others, just as we are to care for our own parents and our own children first” (emphasis in original). 


Against this thesis is the plain matter of fact that it is not a matter of fact that Jews have always been taught always to consider themselves and each other first and foremost.  The rabbis and deans in the rabbinical schools whose Judaism Gordis disqualifies have not been and are not teaching it.  Accused of ignorance or worse, they’re not Jews or are inadequate Jews, on the say-so of another Jew?  (Jews or too Jewish on the say-so of an Aryan? to speak uncomfortably so from the other side of the coin.)  Besides, if ‘me-us first’ or, same thing, ‘Jewish peoplehood first’ were the benchmark test of authentic Judaism, how does one explain that the same ‘my country (people, nation) right or wrong’ formula is trucked out the world over wherever a national cause or loyalty is found wanting?  Authentic in some sense it might be, but to claim or suggest that an overriding group-egoism is intractably embedded only in Judaism, and is its distinguishing nature to boot, is as offensive as ridiculous.  (Incidently, if Gordis is right about “first and foremost,” would you hire a Jewish lifeguard for a non-segregated swimming pool? allow a Jew to schedule surgeries in a public hospital?)


A Jewish life?  Is it a life lived by any born or converted Jew whatever his beliefs, values, life hopes, worldview and religiosity; or is a Jewish life only of the kind which, whatever else it has, has at its core the value that Jews are obligated to care for Jews first and foremost, that particularism in life?  If it is the second, which is Gordis’ conception, then “Jewish life” revolts against the existence of the duty of humanity: universal duty of non-preferential concern and respect.  Presumably Gordis does not acknowledge or sees but dismisses the universalism entailed in ‘equality under God’, ‘equality in dignity’ and ‘human rights’. Each person counts as one, in whatever communities, cultures and faiths they are.  Gordis is right.  Universalism has no room for ‘my people first’ equality. 


I find no hint of humanity-wide equality in Gordis. “The Jews were from one bank of the Euphrates and the rest of the world was from the other.  There is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ in Judaism’s worldview” (italics in original).  Again, if we still need another again, “To love all of humanity equally is ultimately to love no one. … There needs to be priority and specificity in devotion and loyalty. … Without instinctive loyalty to the Jewish people, Jewry itself cannot survive.”  The world would be a better place for Jews if they alone had all of it!  This last sentence is shocking.  It revolts me.  Yet it’s an inescapable conclusion (mine) of Gordis’ argument. 


Gordis rejects universalism, and he can draw on a non-faith argument in support.  Here’s a well-known secular universalism argument. Ask any number of rational people to design a just society according to each one’s preference, each one knowing she’ll be in it but not knowing socially where and with what personal abilities and capacities.  (You recognize John Rawls in this formula).  Cautious and prudent, none will include in his blueprint a position which, should he find himself there, he will deeply regret.    Therefore he, everyone, in self-interest, will insist on, in addition to an acceptable minimum standard of personal wellbeing, an inviolable, basic equality among all in case he himself came to be condemned to second class, a possibility only if there were an Outsider or Below class built into the structure of the just society.   


Now insert Gordis.   If he were in the start-up group under the same initial veil of ignorance, would he want to organize a society of irreconcilable ‘us’s’ and ‘thems’ only later to find himself to be his own enemy?  Would he consider an ‘us’ and ‘them’ society to be just or fair if he were to land among the Outsider ‘them’?  He would come round to see that an ‘us and them’ world is unjust at its core.  In self- interest it is highly unlikely he would have recommended his bipartite world plan.  Dismayed, what would he do? 


Gordis will (or would) ask whether it makes sense to build an argument from prudence and self-interest when, under the veil of brain-blackout, it is impossible for anyone to know what interests, what possibilities of interests, he might actually have beyond being and staying alive.  Indeed, without ever having had any, could you grasp what interests as such are? what part they play in one’s life? what prudence has to do with it?  One would not be the person one is; one would be a balloon figure, not a person at all.  So Gordis would start with his irreducible self-knowing himself: a Jew and perforce a steadfast anti-universalist.  In his just world Jews can never be ‘them’ for the sufficient reason that Jews are, and know they are, the eternal ‘us’.  As a human and a Jew Gordis cannot permit himself even in imagination to lay aside who he is.   He would reject the possibility of Rawls’ initial position on the grounds of unrealism.  He would stick to his particularism guns.  But to what purpose?  Gordis’ argument (if it was not his, he could have tried it) is an argument against an argument in favour of universalism.  It is not an argument against universalism tout court.  It does not vanquish universalism.


A universalist argument would run from 1) I have my interests; 2) I live in a world of others each of whom has her interests; 3) therefore everyone should respect everyone else’s interests.  Our particularist’s argument runs from 1) I, as a Jewish person, am in my soul different from non-Jews; 2) I have interests as does everybody; 3) irrespective of my empathy or whatever toward non-Jews and their interests, as a Jew, by God’s voice within me, by “suprarational urgings”, I am bound to give absolute and unconditional preference to my people, whatever other interests and inclinations I may have.


Perhaps you think that Gordis’ fault is his exaggeration, that his ‘us/them’ argument is overblown.   Cut down to size his reasoning is sound and moral after all.  To argue that every Jew has or ought to have an innate bond with, an instinctive sense of belonging to, and an overriding obligation to help foremost and first the Jewish people is too abstract. ‘Jewish people’ takes in all the living Jews plus 5,000 years of Jewish ancestors, with myth and tradition thrown in.  However, Gordis’ argument is modelled on the prosaic, the relation between mother and child, as he mentions.  Surely for the fact that the child is hers, a mother has a deep moral reason to help her child first.  What a monster if she doesn’t and were to neglect to fulfill her instinctive, maternal role.  It’s a natural condition that applies to all mothers everywhere.  So it seems that after all there is a universally recognized morality at the core (again) of Gordis’ argument.


Well, consider two mothers each of whose child is ill and for whom there is only enough medicine for one.  Two moves are open.  Each can stick to her guns, arguing from motherly duty toward her own child; alternatively one or both can invoke a new argument pointing out the greater pain or frailty of one child compared with the other.  The second position points to a solution based on need:  give help to him who suffers more.  The first position ends in stalemate, anger, self-righteous hostility, and two sick children still not medicated. The second position has a principled morality in it: Strictly give first consideration to her, him or them who are shortest in physical, material, social, relational, and cultural wellbeing and are most lacking in self-respect, respect from others, in freedoms and in powers. (In a nutshell that’s T. Honderich’s Principle of Humanity.)  For comparison, the mothers’ first position cannot be called unconditionally or unquestionably moral.  Its would-be recommendation is that an action is right for the reason alone that it rises from a special or unique relationship (e.g. mother and child) or belonging (e.g. to a people), or that it satisfies one’s sense of duty, loyalty, conviction or self-respect, even if this action causes, increases or prolongs avoidable distress, harm or worse overall. What kind of morality is that?


Reader, you have noted that Gordis’ us/them world is the two battling mothers writ large: two self-righteous, feuding mothers and two untreated ill children, expanded and rewritten as immutable Jewish particularism and annual additions to Jewish lives lost (to speak just of them): a continuous supply of raw material waiting to be commemorated at each year’s Yom Ha-Zikaron. 


Daniel Gordis has it in particularly for Jews, the Boston rabbinical students and the rest, who work toward and express desires and hopes for peace. What comes with peace?  The loss of your enemy.  What is lost with the loss of your enemy?  The horrors that can be done to you only by your enemy.  What goes along with the loss of the horrors inflicted on you only by an enemy?  Your justification to give it back to ‘them’ who are your enemy before the enemy evaporates in the state of affairs called peace, God forbid.  How could us-we justify our particularism to the world then?  For there are the real, physical, armed to the teeth with weapons and hate enemies which the rest of the world knows about, and the wrong-minded liberal, humanist, treasonous Jewish enemies of Judaism which the rest of the world practically does not know about.  “Without instinctive loyalty to the Jewish people, Jewry itself cannot survive,” you have already been forewarned.  As you also have read, “Jewry” here is that particularist, God-given inequality thing, taught within the tribes by Gordises, scarcely known about outside their tribes.  Justifying human inequality to Outsiders is a tough sell, particularly for Jews I would think.  Their hearts shouldn’t be in it.  So let’s talk about the other, the familiar, enemy instead.  War is a distraction from the unthinkable.


Peace!  What a loss!  Every people marks the outbreak of war, celebrates its final victory, cheers itself on in between, and annually mourns its war-dead ever after.  But peace?  What is there to commemorate and to celebrate?  Definitely not the establishment of a bi-national Israel/Palestine state, Gordis states explicitly.  None of that “Jews and Arabs able to live side by side” pipedream.  What’s wrong with those Jewish peace lovers?  “They… avoid confronting the fact that the Jewish people has intractable enemies.  Their universalist worldview does not have a place for enemies.”  The particularist worldview has place aplenty.  Peace without enemies simply is not a Jewish thing.


—  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —


Reader, you have persevered.  Was it worth it?  That depends largely on whether my protagonist is an intelligent, rational and influential somebody or a, same adjectives, nullity.  Rabbi Daniel Gordis has been called “one of Israel’s most thoughtful observers” and referred to as being “perhaps the most popular speaker on Israel to American Jewish audiences”.  He has eight books related to our subject to his credit and won the National Jewish Book Award for his 2009 title.  He’s a regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post and a frequent contributor to a number of leading U.S. media, that in addition to his numerous blog communications.  More than a writer, Gordis is Senior Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, created as an alternative to some leading U.S. rabbinical schools that have strayed off Judaism’s particularism course, as you have read.  He’s one of one kind of Judaism’s real world things, not a loner or oddball sectarian.  Mainstream, not shtetl.


My target essay is his Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel? reprinted in Commentary, June 1, 2011.  Still within the best-before date by decades, by centuries.  You’ll find out more about the article and its author the usual internet way.  In the meantime you will have noted or been reminded of something that usually gets drowned out: Jewish voices, particularly in regards to Israel, in regards to peace and its opposite, justice and its opposite, are in the plural. They come in multitudes.  And none is less fully, less authentically Jewish for that.  ‘Onward Jewish Soldiers‘ is the loudest today but not the only hymn in town.  A religious or secular prayer for a conciliated and just peace in our lifetimes, soon, and for humanity, does not rise from Jewish “instinct”, doesn’t grow Jewish peoplehood, as you have been reading. It rises from Jews who remind us that a flag raised too high is a floppy graven image.  Leviticus 26. 



Richard Rothschild                                                                                                         September 2015


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