Universalism and Particularism: Jewish Teachings on Jewish Obligation
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
by David Ellenson
It is instructive to note that within Judaism there have always been Universalistic and Particularistic dimensions, and this dual approach to the world finds expression in the concept of covenant (brit) that appears at the very beginning of the Bible. This notion maintains that God stands in relationship with all people. To be sure, the Bible tells of the unique covenant God made with Abraham and the Jewish people in Genesis 15. There the Torah states that God established the “brit bein ha-betarim – the covenant between the pieces” with Abraham and his descendants. This particularistic covenant was carried forth over the generations and confirmed by the Jewish people as a whole at Sinai. This covenant assigns the people Israel a special relationship with God.
However, in Genesis 9 the concept of covenant appears in relation to Noah and his progeny. There the Torah states that God established a covenant with Noah and his descendants after the Flood and designated the rainbow as the sign of that eternal brit. Noah, of course, was not Jewish. Thus, in Sanhedrin 56 the rabbis teach that God established a universal covenant with all humanity through Noah even before a covenant was instituted with the people Israel! The notion of a dual covenant – a covenant between God and all humanity as well as a covenant between God and the Jewish people – serves as a cardinal foundation for Jewish religious beliefs and values.
Our tradition rests on another pillar as well. For just as Judaism teaches that all human beings – Jewish and Gentile alike – stand in covenantal relationship to God, Judaism also demands that Jews imitate God and emulate the divine attributes of justice (tzedek) and mercy (hesed). This concept of imitatio dei 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. The Talmud, in Sotah 14a, captures this concept beautifully in the following passage:
- Rabbi Simlai taught: The Torah begins with deeds of lovingkindness and ends with deeds of lovingkindness. It begins with deeds of lovingkindness, as it is written, “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). It ends with deeds of lovingkindness, as it is written, “And God buried him [Moses] in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6).
Acts of justice, kindness, and mercy bind us to God. They constitute a norm that God demands be realized in the arena of life.
The implications that these twin teachings of covenant and imitatio dei have regarding the balance that must be attained between particularistic responsibilities on the one hand and universalistic imperatives on the other are profound. Jewish tradition does instruct Jews to grant precedence to the Jewish community as Jews seek to concretize the values of hesed and tzedek. The Talmud in Baba Metzia 71a teaches, “A member of one’s household takes precedence over everyone else. The poor of one’s household take precedence over the poor of one’s city. And the poor of one’s own city take precedence over the poor of other cities.” A Jew is obligated to assume responsibility for his or her household, and a Jewish community is required to do the same for its own members when it cares for persons in a time of need. This talmudic passage reflects the ethical concern Judaism has for family and the Jewish people, and it bespeaks the primacy our tradition assigns the Jewish covenantal community in the Jewish hierarchy of values. As Hillel states in the oft-quoted passage from Pirkei Avot 1:14, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
However, Hillel then immediately says, “But if I am only for myself alone, what am I?” The universalism inherent in Jewish teachings on covenant requires Jews to apply the foundational Jewish values of justice and mercy to all humanity. Thus, in Hilchot Melachim (Laws of Kings) 10:12, Maimonides writes, “One ought to treat the resident stranger (non-Jew) with derekh eretz (civility and humanity) and hesed (mercy and kindness) just as one does a Jew, for we are commanded to support them.” All persons are created in the divine image, and Jews must care for and respect all people. Consequently, in that same passage Maimonides states that Jews are required to “bury [Gentile] dead along with the dead of Israel, and support [Gentile] poor among the poor of Israel.” He then justifies this obligation by citing Psalms 145:9, which states, “God is good to all and His mercy is on all His works.” Our commitments as Jews extend to all humanity.
For Jews to behave with kindness and justice toward gentiles constitutes an act of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of the divine name in the universe. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The ultimate standards of living, according to Jewish teaching, are Kiddush Hashem and Hillul Hashem. The one means that everything within one’s power should be done to glorify the Name of God before the world, the other that everything should be avoided to reflect dishonor upon the religion and thereby desecrate the Name of God.” Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud, in Baba Metzia 4:5, explicitly links acts of righteousness and kindness by Jews toward gentiles with the concept of Kiddush Hashem. God is exalted when our community displays concern for all those in need. As the late Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, phrased it in ‘Aseh I’kha rav 7:71, “The Jewish people possesses an obligation to conduct itself towards those who are strangers in its midst with integrity and fairness. In so doing, we will sanctify the Name of Heaven and the name of Israel in the world.”
In his Orot Hakodesh, Rav Kook 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.
Rabbi David Ellenson is Chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.
Come join the conversation at www.jpeoplehood.org/blog