The Magnetic Pull of Torah

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 Lisa D. Grant

In one of his last articles, Daniel Elazar[1], the great scholar of Jewish political culture wrote about the cultural transformation of American and Israeli Jews with common European ancestry. The historical and social circumstances of the two groups led to significantly different paths around what were once shared values, most notably in terms of attitudes and commitments towards Universalism and Particularlism. 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. Elazar noted that a shared commitment to Jewish solidarity tempers the extent of the divergence, but also cautioned that as the need or desire for Jewish solidarity erodes, so too will the commitment to preserving the Jewish collective.

Nearly fifteen years later, Elazar’s assessment appears all the more relevant in terms of the evolution of these two main Jewish cultures. Indeed, there is much debate in scholarly and communal circles about this process of differentiation and distancing of one group of Jews from another, with some claiming we are on the road to a permanent rupture. On the American side, the focus of attention is on rates of intermarriage, communal affiliation, and attachment to Israel, each of which can be seen as outcomes of the universalizing impulse within American Jewry made all the more possible by an open society with unprecedented opportunities for self-expression and self-fulfillment. On the Israeli side the focus on the particularistic agenda of the Jewish State has slipped into excessive parochialism as can be seen, for example, in the treatment of the Palestinians and asylum seekers. Here core Jewish values have been compromised for the sake of what is framed as the collective agenda and interest.

Elazar spoke of Jewish solidarity as the magnet that holds the Jewish people together despite the centrifugal force of cultural assimilation on one side and the centripetal force of excessive parochialism on the other. To be sure, Jewish solidarity remains a powerful value that holds the two communities together, especially in response to crisis, both perceived and real. But the question remains as to how long that will be the case if these cultural tendencies continue unchecked.

The focus of this analysis is on historical and social factors that shape Jewish life from without. It pays less attention to what shapes Judaism from within. While Elazar observes the universalizing tendencies of one group and the particularizing ones of another, Chaim Nachman Bialik observes a different relationship between universalism and particularism in Jewish experience[2]. For him, these opposing forces have a magnetic pull that results in a dynamic or formative tension working to sustain both Judaism and the Jewish people. As he wrote: “No nation strives to be swallowed up in other groups as much as the Jews and, at the same time, to remain an entity – an entity whose least particle is still recognizably Jewish.”

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. Indeed, consider the manifold tensions within Jewish experience – universalism and particularism, religion and peoplehood, the individual and community, sacred and profane, Israel and the diaspora, tradition and change. Navigating these tensions is an integral part of what it means to be a Jew.

A text that encapsulates these tensions is included in the daily morning liturgy. It is based on thoughtful editing and a combination of two rabbinic texts, one from Mishna Peah and the other from the Talmudic tractate Shabbat. It lists a series of ten deeds that “yield fruit in this world and in the world to come.” It may be no coincidence that the redactors combined these texts in such a way as to equal the number ten. For ten represents minyan, the minimum requirement for Jewish community. The deeds themselves are not particularly Jewish and could in fact be considered prescriptions for anyone in leading a religiously ethical life – honoring one’s parents, providing hospitality, caring for the sick, devotion in prayer, making peace among people, etc. The closing line however, is what creates a particularly Jewish context, the study of Torah. The text is difficult to translate. In different siddurim it reads the study of Torah “is greater than them all”, “is equivalent to them all”, and “encompasses them all.” The meaning hinges on the phrase “k’neged kulam.” The word neged can mean “in opposition”, “in support”, or as biblical scholar Carol Meyers suggests “on par with” or in relationship[3]. Thus, when we look at these deeds separately, they are universal actions, but when we put them into relationship with Torah, they become a particular expression of what it means to be a Jew. Actions become grounded in Jewish beliefs, Jewish ideas, Jewish sacred narratives.

There is no denying that external forces shape Jews and Jewish communities around the world in profoundly different ways. However, the internal forces that derive from our textual tradition have the potential to be the counterweight to this split. If we accept Bialik’s thesis that the very heart of Jewish experience rests in the tension between opposing forces, then these external factors become only one side of the equation. Thus, 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.

[1] Elazar, Daniel (2001) “Changing Places, Changing Cultures: Divergent Jewish Political Cultures,” In Deborah Dash Moore and S. Ilan Troen, Divergent Jewish Cultures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 319-331.
[2] Bialik, Hayim Nachman. (2000/1922).“Jewish Dualism.” In Revealment and concealment: Five essays. Ibis (1st Editions). 22-44.
[3] Meyers, Carol, (2013). Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. New York: Oxford University Press

Lisa D. Grant is Professor of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR in New York and a fellow at the CJPE.

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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