For Whom Are We Responsible? Peoplehood in the 21st Century

PP12_cover[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

For Whom Are We Responsible? Peoplehood in the 21st Century
Balancing Particularism and universalism in the 21st century

An Editor’s Introduction – Shlomi Ravid

In an article published in Peoplehood Papers 6, Jack Wertheimer challenges the new drive of Jews to contribute to nonsectarian Universal causes. His claim is that “representatives of every denomination have discovered a Jewish imperative to ‘repair the world’ (Tikkun Olam), a commandment unknown to Jews for most of their history, but that now, in the view of its most outspoken advocates, is preeminent”. While factually Wertheimer may be correct his point is missing the historical context. Tikkun Olam as we understand it today was not, for most of Jewish history, something that Jews were able to implement. They were powerless and fully consumed by their own survival. Modernity and coming into power opened the door to their ability to contribute to others. Furthermore it called for a new interpretation of their contribution to the world. Even a superficial review of modern Jewish history shows they embrace the opportunity to become active in numerous ways of making the world better (not the least of them – social activism).

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik captured the tension in his famous Kol Dodi Dofek address by introducing the concepts of covenant of fate and covenant of destiny. Using another set of sociological concepts he framed the challenge: “A MAHANEH (camp) designates a coming together for protection and self-defense; it is a product of fate. An EIDAH (congregation …), on the other hand, is created as result of the recognition of a shared past, but also of mutual aspirations: a common destiny… The congregation is a holy nation that has no fear of fate and is not compelled to live against its will. It believes in its own destiny, and it dedicates itself, out of its own free will, to the realization of that destiny”. The vision he proposes is: ”the elevation of a camp-people to the rank of a holy congregation-nation and the transformation of shared fate to shared destiny.”

This issue of the Peoplehood Papers grapples with the tension between sustaining the Jewish People and contributing to Universal goals. Finding new ways of contributing to the world has become part of the search for a new meaning for being Jewish. The Jewish people are seeking meaningful answers to the question of “why Jewish” or to what could be our collective destiny and contribution to the world going forward. But there is also the question of how we balance the sometimes conflicting goals. How do we make sure that the new challenges we address do not cause us to neglect the well-being and strength of the Jewish collective? This is not a technical question but one that grapples with our core identity as a people.

Our group of respondents is a mix of veteran educators and scholars together with young ones. It includes theoreticians and practitioners. It represents a diversity of geographic locations. They represent a rich diversity of perspectives as to both the meaning of the concepts and the collective priorities. And yet we feel that this conversation is only at the beginning stage. We hope that the different perspectives will contribute to your view of the matter as this conversation evolves.


Rabbi David Ellenson begins by pointing out that “God established Remarks a universal covenant with all humanity through Noah even before a covenant was instituted with the people Israel!” However, “Judaism also demands that Jews imitate God and emulate the divine attributes of justice (tzedek) and mercy (hesed)… (calls) upon Jews to be partners with God in tikkun olam and asserts that Jews share responsibility with God for the achievement of morality in the world”.

Ellenson’s interpretation of the Jewish text points out that “for Jews to behave with kindness and justice toward gentiles constitutes an act of Kiddush Hashem…” He concludes with the words of Rav Kook who wrote: “The love for Israel (ahavat Yisrael) entails a love for all humankind (kol ha’adam).” According to this great sage, Jews must display concern for Jews and gentiles. By allowing this imperative to direct us, the Jewish people, to cite Rav Kook once again, succeed in expanding the Jewish “soul” and the Jewish “song beyond the limits of Israel.” In this way, our people “sing the song of humanity” that Judaism requires.

Lisa Grant broadens the meaning of the concepts of Universalism and Particularism as she points to the different paths the American Jewish community and the Israeli adopted. Based on the analysis of Daniel Elaazar she points out the following: “American Jews, seeking integration into the larger society, focused on the values of universalism and social justice for all. In contrast, to develop and sustain a majority culture, Israeli Jews needed to emphasize Jewish particularism even to the degree of parochialism”.

But Grant points out that the above is an external analysis and points us to an internal one proposed by the poet Bialik: “Bialik claims that Jewish life is challenged, but ultimately strengthened by the constant tension between the pull to assimilate and universalize and the push to retain and preserve our particular identity and forms of expression”. Grant proposes that “Torah maintains the dynamic tension in the dualisms. Torah is the magnet that keeps the universalizing and particularizing impulses in check that holds the people together.”

Leonard Fein challenges in his opening paragraph the theme of this publication (i.e. creating a balance between Particularism and Universalism) by stating: “The tension between Particularism and Universalism can never be resolved – nor, for that matter, should it be. Some tensions – this among them – are meant not only to challenge us but also to enliven us”.

His issue here is not strictly practical, as even if we reach that harmony, “we will quickly learn that it does not “solve” the particularism vs. universalism tension, which will persist to provoke and enrich us”. According to Fein who expresses concern with the State of Israel’s shift to the particularistic end, “that is more than a philosophical error; it is a clear and present violation of the richest tension of the Jewish tradition”.

Mijal Bitton proposes to address the challenge through “the practice of balanced particularism while still contributing towards the rest of humanity”. If we stay away from ideal and theoretical universalism, she writes, we can “view the Jewish people as one family [and] reduce the tension between universalism and particularism to its lowest denominator in a way relevant to all”.

Bitton is aware of the dangers of uncontrolled particularism, and wants the Jewish people to achieve “the golden path between a universalism that is too idealistically impossible and between a fundamentalist particularism that harms others.” She believes that when correctly applied our laws, ethics, government and collective ethos can keep us on track. Her bottom line is: “… derakheia darkhei noam, our tradition commands us to care first for our people while being a light into the nations”.

Scott Aaron focuses on the rationale of the old Jewish particularism. In the Age of Faith, “the common wisdom was that a particular god prioritized his own followers in terms of blessings, riches and prosperity”. That, together with the denial of rights by rulers and members from other faiths, made particularism the only viable option for Jews”.

All that changed with the Enlightenment. As Moses Mendelsohn pointed out “the human ability of reason allowed all people, not just Jews, to access G-d’s laws and wisdom as universal truths”. Aaron concludes that “perhaps the Enlightenment’s greatest impact today is that far more Jews in the West, even many Israelis, are comfortable living with and among the gentile than we are with each other, and we retreat to opposite corners of secularism and dogma to turn our backs on each other rather than try to find common commitments and ideals that impact us all”. He proposes that rather than ask – For whom are we responsible? “let’s focus instead on what we all need to ensure to survive and thrive both as a community and as part of a globalized world”.

Ed Rettig explores the question of “for whom are we responsible” by going back to the story of Cain and Able and the famous “am I my brother’s keeper” question: “From Cain and Abel, we learn the first lesson in human responsibility toward other humans and its relationship with deadly violence. The story of Cain and Abel tells us of the intimate connection between the shunning of responsibility toward our brothers and the horrific consequences for the victims”.

Rettig sees a straight line from “Cain’s field where he killed Abel, through the Shoah to the killing grounds in Rwanda… Where human beings question their responsibility toward their fellows, death follows”. His conclusion is: “How to be our brothers’ keeper is a complicated question to answer. Whether to do the best we can to be our brothers’ keeper is not complicated at all”.

Joelle Fiss takes the conversation to the comparative level and proposes that a lot can be learned by looking at the characteristics of other Diasporas. “What’s clear is that some universal patterns have been set into motion by the Jewish historical precedent”. Oxford scholar Robin Cohen defines “five broad diaspora types[1] that go beyond the generic term. The first is the victim group. It’s based on the Jewish model, which is the oldest recorded in history. The Jewish experience sets the prototype for all groups to follow. Victim diaspora groups are marked by a traumatic historical episode, during which the population flees or disperses. Even if migration goals are pursued after that, the “scarring calamities” of their initial displacement demarcates this diaspora’s key characteristic”.

Fiss points out the similarities between the Jewish and the Armenian Diasporas. She also points out “how both are grappling with the question of how diaspora groups can strengthen ties and exchange ideas with those living in the “homeland”.

How to Address the Challenge

Limor Friedman focuses her article on the issue of treating the African asylum seekers in Israel: “The current ethical dilemma facing Israel of whether to absorb immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea is at the heart of the challenge of balancing particularism and universalism”. Friedman asks if Israel which legitimately struggled in the past mostly for its own survival should not reconsider the particularistic approach: “…now that the State of Israel is prosperous and strong – with a standing army, a flourishing economy, and power and influence around the globe – should we continue to take care only of our own, or should we direct the help to those who need it most?”

Friedman reports about Siach, a network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals from Europe, Israel and North America that aspires, between other things, to integrate the vision and know-how of Jews from throughout the globe as the particularism-universalism tension is being addressed. “I believe there is a great value in bringing together activists from Israel, Europe and North America to share, discuss and learn from one another. Each geographic region shares this dilemma in a different way and represents a unique model”. Bringing them together to address the issues can yield creative solutions.

Josh Feigelson proposes to address the issue through what he frames as Big Questions. “… when nurtured with proper care, the seed of a Big Question like “For whom are we responsible?” can blossom into an encounter that enhances understanding, trust, and community”. Big Questions don’t just answer questions. They have the potential for creating new dynamics and new paradigms. “If we are to renew a sense of peoplehood, we have to renew a language and ethic of responsibility. And doing that starts with asking bigger questions … that animate all our lives and the tradition to which we are heirs”.

According to Feigelson, “In a fundamental sense, we reorient the question about universalism and particular, away from the notion of a zero-sum game, and towards a more capacious, expansive, and resilient experience both of what it means to be human and what it means to be Jewish. Thus, at the same time as they lead to a greater humanism, Big Questions lead to a richer sense of particularism too”.

From Concept to Practice

Nir Lahav and Idit Groiss grapple with the ramifications of to Practice understanding our responsibility for others and implementing it: “Having established the basic requirement that Judaism demands of us – to take responsibility for that which we understand is wrong – we need to define what that responsibility means in practice today”.

Their conclusion is: “…by using our knowledge, in conjunction with our conscience and actions, we make the transition from passive bystanders, satisfied with just looking on at the world’s injuries, to active bystanders, who are aware of their responsibility to lend a hand and heal the world (“tikkun olam”). This is along with the humble understanding that maybe we cannot change the whole world, but perhaps just a world – the world of a child, of a family, of a community. And that is an excellent start”.

Ruth Messinger and Jordan Namerow propose two guiding principles to advance the discourse about balancing universalism and particularism in the 21st century:

“1) Move beyond the binary. Embrace hybridity. The debate about our spheres of obligation – for whom we are responsible – has, historically, been posited as a sharply divided split between those who care about advancing the condition of the Jewish people and those who care about advancing the condition of the broader world.” For AJWS this means that “we work for universal justice and honor the inherent dignity of all people, particularly those who are on the margins”.

2) “Value productive discomfort.” “In the 21st century, we must ask ourselves this: Can we be comfortable with Jewish expressions, opinions, and obligations that look and feel unfamiliar when we see people who derive deep meaning from them?”… “Can we trust … that while Judaism continues to evolve into new forms, there is an unbreakable link to Sinai?” Their answer is: “all of us, moving through a messy world and grappling with the unfamiliar, share the responsibility of inheriting a complex history and shaping our collective future”.

For Elana and Jacob Sztokman “one of the most powerful messages in the Torah is the mission of the Jewish people to look after the vulnerable members of society. This is an integral theme – if not the most important theme – of the Bible: to care for all marginalized people, the poor, foreigners, and all those fates have left them vulnerable in this world”. Furthermore they propose that the “directive to take action to alleviate the suffering of the other is one of the prime contributions of Jewish culture to the world… The Torah tells us that we actually can change others’ lives and fates for the better. This radical idea, that we can and must intervene to alleviate the suffering of the other, is a defining concept of Jewish peoplehood”.

With this mission in mind, the Gabriel Project Mumbai was created. “GPM offers a simple but extremely effective solution: We bring Jewish volunteers to deliver hot meals to some 1000 children who attend classes in the slum, alleviating hunger and malnutrition while relieving the parents of pressure to find food, and simultaneously promoting the long-term solution of literacy and education”. For the Sztokmans, the volunteers and the organizations involved “the essence of Jewish peoplehood is this service to humanity”.

[1] The five diaspora types are: victim, labour, trade, imperial and de-territorialised.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

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