The Never Ending Debate

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 Leonard Fein

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.

My favorite illustration: Words get spoken sequentially; that is essential to our understanding of what’s being said. But there are times that doesn’t quite work, that it distorts. I have in mind the famous two sentences of R. Hillel: Im ein ani li mi li? And then, no pause, U’ch’sheh ani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And: If I am only for myself, what am I?

I believe we are meant to hear those two statements simultaneously – and even though there’s a natural and sometimes painful tension between the two, the tradition goes on to insist on the final question: V’im lo achshav, eimatay? If not now, when? The tension cannot be used as an excuse. We are bound to act, the tension notwithstanding.

Well and good – but what useful lessons can we draw from this way of construction the question?

When Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger was founded, we immediately faced exactly this question. Note that the name of the organization is “a Jewish response to hunger” rather than “a response to Jewish hunger.” We were determined that if we encountered a hungry person, our task was to feed him/her, not to examine their credentials. Yes, our grants committee probably deals with Jewish organizations that apply to us with an extra dollop of empathy, but the requirements that applicants must fulfill in order to qualify for a grant are not a whit less stringent for Jewish applicants than for others.

I have a friend who, back during the heyday of the civil rights movement, spent considerable time in the South, and there most Sundays he attended church services. In time, he learned and came to love the songs of the movement – until one day it occurred to him that he might, as he put it, have songs of “his own.” Soon he became a robust singer of both kinds of songs – “theirs” and “ours.” Neither detracted from the other.

So, also, in my own experience: I was among the last white person with whom Boston’s militant blacks in the late 60s and early 70s maintained reasonably cordial relations. And when, one day, I chose to ask why that was so, the answer was as potent a confirmation as I might have wished: “We know that your slavery in Egypt is as important to you as our slavery in the South is to us. You are with us for your own powerful reasons, and not to as a parasite seeking cheap thrills by attaching himself to the struggles of others.”

Some say that we must put the needs of our own people first. I have two problems with that: First, my experience suggests that if that’s the chosen course, [the] second will remain unaddressed. The needs of our own community are essentially infinite, and the reduction into absolute particularism is an ever-present moral hazard. And second, I am distinctly uncomfortable with the casual use of the term “our own people.” Yes, of course, the Jews are my people. But are my neighbors here in Boston therefore not my people? Other Americans? The people of Israel, including the Palestinians who dwell there? Do they have less vested an interest in what happens there than I do, I for whom Israel is the great passion of my life but who dwells in Boston, 5500 miles distant from Jerusalem?

All of us have circles of friendship and responsibility. My responsibility as an American citizen extends to the one-third of all Americans who reject the theory of evolution, as to those with whom I share a more compatible and intimate weltanschauung. We bring to the whole, to the community (however defined) what we know and we hope that it blends into a genuine harmony. Nuala O’Folain, in her “Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman”, writes that “This was my first time to see Fidelio. Arnold and Margot had seen it in Lisbon, the very night the Salazar dictatorship ended; the soldiers in the plot of the opera, when they had come onto the stage that night, had had red carnations in the barrels of their guns, like the real soldiers of the ‘bloodless revolution’ out on the streets. In the first act there is a quartet, Mir Ist So Wunderbar. The four protagonists come down to the footlights, and they do that thing that happens in opera – seemingly unaware of each other, they each sing their line of music straight to the audience, as if it is not their doing that the lines intermingle in a complex and perfect harmony it takes the four of them to make, but is a separate thing from each of them. I was transfixed, as I always am by ensemble singing. When the curtain came down on the act, I wiped the tears from my eyes and I said to Arnold, ‘Why is ensemble singing so beautiful? What makes it move us so much?’, and he said, ‘People would be like that all the time, if they could.’”

Perhaps. We need more examples. Fidelio is gorgeous, but the examples we need are from life, not from the stage. Here and there, typically in small or even tiny settings, we have such examples of genuine harmony. Can they not be brought to scale?

And if and when that happens, we will quickly learn that it does not “solve” the particularism vs. universalism tension, which will persist to provoke and enrich us.

The pretty words aside, who among us can pretend ignorance of Israel’s accelerating withdrawal from the arena of universal concern? The heart of the matter is, of course, the Occupation. But for all that the Occupation screams for a Heimlich maneuver that will disgorge it, and while acknowledging Israel’s readiness to provide medical teams in faraway scenes of disaster, Israel and Israelis pay shockingly little attention to the larger world. The standard explanation is that Israel daily faces existential challenges. But too often, by far, that sounds like an alibi, not an explanation. On the continuum between particularism and universalism, Israel is decisively at the particularistic end.

And that is more than a philosophical error; it is a clear and present violation of the richest tension of the Jewish tradition.

Leonard Fein is a writer and teacher. His most recent book is Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope. He founded Moment magazine, Mazon, the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy and more.

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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