In Defense of Particularism

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

by Mijal Bitton

I was 15 years old when I began to question the idealist utopia found in John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. This was the year in which I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a satirical tale in which animals rebel against their human masters and establish a society in which “all animals are equal”. Their socialist vision, though, quickly disintegrates and concludes with one group of animals taking control and proclaiming: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

We can learn a great deal regarding Particularism, Universalism and Jewish peoplehood from these works. Lennon’s “Imagine” beautifully describes what the world could look like under universalist principles. “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace”. The promise that we could live in peace with no differences separating us is enticing. This seductive concept, though, has remained elusive. Many societies tried to apply it and failed: the demise of 20th century communist regimes and their inability to provide equality to their citizens attest to this. Animal Farm teaches us what Lennon’s lyrics fail to convey: certain utopian principles cannot survive implementation and are dangerous for those delusional about their impossibility.

The Torah is not a theoretical treatise or an abstract philosophical thesis. It is a book about humanity and the encounter between God and the people of Israel. It is intimately concerned with all details of human life and takes into account the nature and psyches of men and women. Its Mitzvot are constructed in a way appropriate to human nature. An Israelite King – even anointed by God, for instance – is not trusted to stay away from corruption. Rather, he is commanded to not increase his money, horses and spouses, lest he sins.[1] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most important Jewish theologians of the 20th century writes, “The Torah has not imposed upon Israel a tyranny of the spirit. It does not violate human nature”.[2]

With this in mind I want to argue that Jewish tradition advocates for an approach in which the Jewish people – and other nations – are called to practice a balanced particularism while still contributing towards the rest of humanity. This vision of Jewish particularism does not assume that there is something ‘better’ about Jews than non-Jews. We can contemplate the Jewish people as one family joined in covenant with God at Sinai. According to Maimonides, this does not make the Jews ontologically different than non-Jews.[3] The Jews are simply one family joined by history, covenant and destiny.

If we view the Jewish people as one family, we can reduce the tension between universalism and particularism to its lowest denominator in a way relevant to all. Should individuals care more for members of their families or for strangers? Some, like bioethicist Peter Singer, advocate for a radical universalism.[4] Inspired by Kant, Singer argues that an individual’s self interest cannot come before a stranger’s. When one is faced with a practical question – such as the allocation of resources or distribution of aid – the only question should be ‘who needs it more?’ Accordingly, if one’s elderly mother needs a medical procedure that will help her live more comfortably, one should instead give charity to low-cost surgeries in third-world countries, since the funds can help alleviate greater suffering. It follows that Jews (and really any citizens) should care for strangers as much as they would for individuals in their own people.

While Singer’s views represent an extreme, they help elucidate why I believe in balanced particularism over universalism: universalism is a concept that works only in theory. In theory, we might all be able to give to strangers as to our own family. In reality, though, this concept does not match people’s lived experience, human psychology and sociology. We tend to care for ourselves more than others, love our families more than strangers, and feel closeness to our people more than another nations. In the same way that most of us feel stronger love towards our families, it is natural that we feel closer to our nation, the Jewish people.

I must confess that many of my peers – people in my generation – disagree with me. I remember participating in a doctoral seminar in which all my fellow students agreed that national particularism was intrinsically racist since it leads to discrimination and conflict. I understand their claim. It is one that comes to mind when I hear of Jews gratuitously harming others in the name of our people – whether through tag mechir attacks in the West Bank or discrimination against foreign immigrants in Israel. Advocates of this dangerous and xenophobic form of Jewish particularism often argue for support in the Torah, which describes how Jacob’s sons destroy the city of Shechem and contains the command to kill the seven nations inhabiting Canaan.

But Judaism is a living and complex tradition containing many multifaceted messages. The prophets preach a different Jewish vision, one more universalistic in nature. This was my answer to my classmates. Yes, particularism and nationalism can lead to discrimination. So does democracy. The abuse of an evil majority is only prevented by bills of rights protecting the individual, which a majority cannot easily overturn. The dangers of democracy, though, do not lead us to discard the promises of democratic societies. Instead of abandoning particularism, its dangers must be addressed and checked in our laws, educational system, religious governance and national ethos. We must find the golden path between a universalism that is too idealistically impossible and a fundamentalist particularism that harms others. The prophet Isaiah formulated a dream of peace, more realistic than Lennon’s, based on balanced particularism: one in which nations care for themselves but find a way to co-exist in harmony with others, in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.[5]

When the Jewish people check the dangerous impulses of an extreme Jewish particularism and engage in a balanced one instead, we exhibit, borrowing a term from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,[6] belief in the dignity of difference. In the same way that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would lose its glory if all its paintings were the same, so too will the world lose its majesty and awesomeness if all individuals, all families and all people were the same. At its root, universalism eradicates difference since it demands that we think of all people in the same way; by believing in particularism we recognize and encourage national and cultural diversity.

God did not create a world with only one religion or one people or one language: the tower of Babel was an affront to the divine. Every single man and woman is created in God’s image, btzelem Elohim,[7] a semblance revered through venerating the immense diversity of the human experience. Respecting otherness demands the people of Israel to engage in a balanced particularism. This aligns with our natural love for those closer to us and encourages an appreciation of difference. The Torah, immensely sensitive to our nature, wants to prevent the tyranny of Animal Farm and thus it does not want us to “Imagine” an impossibly utopian Universalist society. Instead, derakheia darkhe noam,[8] our tradition commands us to care first for our people while being a light into the nations.[9]

[1] Devarim 17:16-17.
[2] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays. Macmillan, 1997. p 76.
[3] See Menachem Kellner’s discussion regarding Maimonides’ views on the difference between Jews and non-Jews:,com_docman/task,doc_view/gid,459/
[4] Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
[5] Yeshayahu 4:2
[6] Sacks, Jonathan. The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. Continuum, 2002.
[7] Bereshit 1:27
[8] Mishlei 3:17
[9] Yeshayahu 49:6

Mijal Bitton is a Jewish educator and doctoral candidate at New York University studying Education and Jewish Studies.

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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