The Power of Jewish Particularism in a World Filled With Universalists
In fact, particularism is precisely what makes our world a better place.
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The Western world transformed much of human civilization from a culture of particularism (i.e. tribalism, nationalism, religion) to a culture of universalism — in which a “universalistic ideal” dominates and particularism is viewed as inferior.
Many of today’s institutions are designed around or within universalism, a bias against particularism that (1) produces a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness; and (2) leads to lack of meaning and purpose, lack of innovation, and lack of progress. Hyperbole aside, it is one of the great diversity issues of our time.
Modern Western culture misunderstands and undervalues the traits and capabilities of particularism, as demonstrated by the “universalistic ideal” — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is a human being among human beings, a citizen of the world, and so forth — regardless of the contexts they are located.
Western societies, based on Greco-Roman ideals, favor the common man over the man of distinction, and view particularism as somewhere between disappointment and discrimination. The historical roots of the “universalistic ideal” can be traced back to the rise of industries in the late 19th century, before which a culture of particularism dominated, and after which a perfect storm of big business, urbanization, and mass immigration” changed Western societies — including who we are, whom we admire, how we act, what we look for in friends and acquaintances, and how we court our mates and raise our children.
Generally speaking, we cannot be in a group of people without instinctively mirroring each other, and groups follow “groupthink.” Hence why there is no definitive correlation between universalism and great ideas. In fact, there is plenty of evidence which supports a correlation between particularism and great ideas, which I expand upon below.
Whether one leans more into particularism or universalism also has as profound an effect as one’s gender. Our lives are shaped as much by mentality as by gender or race, and one’s place on the particularist-universalist spectrum influences how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show affection. It also affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them.
In a culture that is biased against them, particularists are pressured to act like universalists instead of embracing their composite of particularism. For instance, the ancient source of universalism “was the attempts by the Hebrews to promote the ideal that Judaism is just a religion and ethnic Hebrews are in fact only random human beings,” according to D. J. Moskovits and J. David in their book, The Jews, Nationalism, and the Universalist Ideal.
“This spiritualization of the Jews is the ancient and modern source of the vicious anti-Jewish hatred in the world,” they wrote. “Spirituality is universal, religions are universal, Judaica is, therefore, universal — the Hebrew ethnicity is not.”
Particularism has, thus, long been a defining trait of Judaism, a term that captures and reveals something essential about its nature, values, and commitments. Quite literally, we see Jewish particularism appear not just from within, but from the outside as well — specifically, from ancient Greece.
The Greek term loudaismos (meaning “Judaism or “Jewish religion”) was in fact “initially coined to describe the religion of the Judeans in their opposition to the Hellenizing policies of their Syrian overlords,” according to the late James Dunn, a New Testament scholar.1
On this basis, Dunn argued that the terms “Judaism” and “Jew” have ineluctably “particularist” overtones. His argument runs as follows:
“The significance of this basic observation is that ‘Judaism’ in its beginnings is a term closely linked to a particular territory. In that sense we would have to say that Judaism was particularist: it identified with a particular land. Nor is it any accident that the term emerged in opposition to a policy intended to obliterate national and religious distinctiveness.
It should be no surprise, in other words, that the term emerged in Greek, precisely as a way of marking out the Judeans’ distinctiveness within a wider Hellenism which valued commonality more than distinctiveness. In that sense Judaism was resistant to a certain kind of ‘universalism,’ one that attempted to absorb and eliminate Judaism’s particularism.
This explains the Jewish division of all nations and races into the two categories of “Jews” and “gentiles” (other nations) — “Jews” as those who belong to a nation/people distinct from all other nations/peoples. Even in the diaspora, Dunn claimed, “‘Jews’ were by definition those whose identity was determined by their ethnic origin and continuing loyalty to the Temple cult (of Jerusalem), whose maintenance had been the raison d’etre for Judea’s existence as a political entity since the Persian and Hellenistic periods.”
There is, therefore, ambiguity in the terms “Jew” and “Judaism.” Do they describe an ethnic or religious identity?
“The answer was, at that time, both, since the two went so closely together,” Dunn wrote. “In other words, the original overtone of ‘particularism’ continued to cling to these terms through their early usage, simply because the definition they provided was unavoidably particularist.”
Universalism’s Core Predicament
Universalism searches for what is systematic and tries to impose the rules, laws, and norms on all of its “members” so that things can run more efficiently. Particularism searches for what is different, unique, or exceptional to create something that is incomparable or of special quality.2
Where universalism loses major credibility is in its core predicament: Universalists are, in reality and after all, particularistic. The rules, laws, and norms that one thinks should be imposed on a certain group of people are not necessarily the same as those that others prefer, inherently making each person or group’s desired impositions particularistic.
“Any claim to the universal validity of specific beliefs is itself a form of particularism (our belief and not yours),” the late, great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote. “And any notion of special revelation, quite apart from the idea of special election (of a people or a group), likewise cannot avoid being particularist.”3
This is one of the reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has not been solved — because outside forces (e.g. the United States) have tried to impose a “Western” set of mores, customs, and norms on this peace process. At the most basic of levels, we saw this come to life at a dinner in Spain organized by Westerners for Israeli and Palestinian delegations, during which pork was served, even though Jewish and Arab traditions forbid the consumption of pork!
“Truth on earth is not, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth,” Rabbi Sacks added. “It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. When two propositions conflict it is not necessarily because one is true and the other is false. It may be, and often is, that each represents a different perspective on reality.”
Hence why particularism is not the concept of one truth, one belief system, one code of morals and ethics, one way of life. On the contrary, it is the idea that unity creates diversity. The supreme challenge, according to Rabbi Sacks, is to see the goodness in one who is not in our image, “the converse of tribalism.”
“But it is also something other than universalism,” he wrote. “It takes difference seriously. It recognizes the integrity of other cultures, other civilizations, other paths...”4
So, really, we are all particularists. And there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, it’s superb, because particularism is precisely what makes our world a better place. Options allow us to compare and contrast. Innovation comes from differing preferences; from improving the assortment of (or from adding to) whatever exists; from serving various communities and audiences which have specific, often dissimilar needs, wants, and aspirations.
What’s more, a culture of particularism promotes progress, whereas a culture of universalism provokes groupthink — in which members of a group prioritize unanimity over more realistically appraising a given situation. Had the Jews surrendered to Pharaoh and ancient Egypt’s groupthink of nonstop slave labor, for instance, the Jewish commandment of Shabbat — a day of rest — might have been lost. Instead, it resulted in the weekend as we know it!
In modern times, groupthink has been oftentimes applied to poor decisions, including incidents like the Bay of Pigs and Pearl Harbor, as well as scientific mistakes such as the Challenger, and the near-unanimity among news media outlets and polling organizations that Hillary Clinton’s election was extremely likely in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Irving Janis, a research psychologist who coined the term “groupthink” in 1972, went on to outline eight symptoms of groupthink,5 including:
Illusion of invulnerability
Belief in group’s inherent morality
Collective rationalization (e.g. closed-mindedness)
Stereotypes of out-groups
Direct pressure on dissenters
Self-appointed mind guards
“Excellent sheephood, like wokeness, is a species of conformity,” according to William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep. “But wokeness also serves a deeper psychic purpose. Excellent sheephood is inherently competitive. Its purpose is to vault you into the ranks of society’s winners, to make sure that you end up with more stuff — more wealth, status, power, access, comfort, freedom — than most other people. This is not a pretty project, when you look it in the face. Wokeness functions as an alibi, a moral fig leaf. If you can tell yourself that you are really doing it to ‘make the world a better place’ … then the whole thing goes down a lot easier.”6
A similar term to groupthink, and another phenomenon observed among universalists, is the Abilene paradox; when groups fall into this paradox, they take actions that contradict their perceived goals, therefore defeating the very purposes they aim to achieve.7 The Watergate scandal is a prime example: Before the scandal had occurred, a meeting took place where they discussed the issue. One of Nixon’s campaign aides was unsure if he should speak up and give his input. If he had voiced his disagreement with the group’s decision, it is possible that the scandal could have been avoided.
Moreover, research indicates that enforced teamwork (i.e. groupthink, universalism) can stifle creativity.8 And Aristotle maintained that the major function of practical wisdom is to discern the moral truth via a close examination of the situational particulars.9
So, particularism is actually a good thing for the progress of our world, and it’s also a good thing for the individual, because meaning (the proverbial child of purpose) arises out of differences. In her children’s book, What If We Were All The Same!, C.M. Harris contrasts a rather grim and boring world of monochromatism with our own diverse reality where no one is exactly alike, even identical twins; she shows how these differences add infinite spice and dimension to our lives, and why these differences are also a cause for celebration.
“Because we are all different,” Rabbi Sacks said, “we each have a contribution that only we can make.”10
Violinist Lindsey Stirling said that, sometimes, being different feels a lot like being alone, “but with that being said, being true to that and being true to my standards and my way of doing things in my art and my music, everything that has made me feel very different ... in the end, it has made me the happiest.”11
Drake, the Canadian rapper and actor, had a similar transformation, saying: “Nobody understood what it was like being Black and Jewish … being different from everyone just made me a lot stronger.”
Jews: ‘History’s Most Universal Particularists’
According to Rabbi Sacks, Judaism teaches the progression from the universal to the particular. The Torah begins with God creating a covenant with all of humanity, then singles out the Jews as different, not because of moral superiority, but “in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference.”12
The concept of covenant also 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 the Bible the rabbis teach that God established a universal covenant with all humanity through Noah even before a covenant was instituted with the people Israel!” wrote Rabbi David Ellenson, former president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “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.”13
According to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, president of the J.J. Greenberg Institute, Judaism features a “multiplicity of perspectives” and “real-world wrestling with human complexity and imperfection.”14
“The Jewish worldview enables us to reject simplemindedness and silver bullets,” Rabbi Greenberg added. “It embraces incrementalism over radicalism, even in striving toward revolutionary goals. Judaism’s approach acknowledges the complexities of human existence. It puts forward flawed people as role models, rather than impossible ideals.”
“Judaism combines a liberal, utopian, universal vision of completely transforming the planet with a conservative, realistic, particularist method of transformation,” he continued. “The interplay between these elements advances revolutionary ideals while preventing runaway excesses or socially destructive overreach. Typically, this leads to gradualist, incrementalist steps toward ultimate perfection.”
As the famed Talmudist Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote: “To live up to the Torah’s ideals, maximally, one must develop every human capacity and insight — and its opposite.”15
Rabbi Ken Spiro, author of WorldPerfect – The Jewish Impact on Civilization, asserts that the Jewish People are “history’s most universal particularists,” saying:
“The Jewish People have always pushed a universal worldview, an idea of the whole human race united … [We are] particularists in that the Jewish People are supposed to do this, not at the expense of their identity, but by preserving their Jewish identity as a role model.”16
With all that said, the Jewish tradition instructs Jews to grant precedence to the Jewish community as we seek to concretize the values of chesed (mercy; loving-kindness) and tzedek (justice). The Talmud 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.”17
This talmudic passage reflects the ethical concern Judaism has for family and for the Jewish People, and it bespeaks the primacy our tradition assigns the Jewish covenantal community in the Jewish hierarchy of values. As Hillel the Elder states in the oft-quoted passage:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”18
However, he proceeds to immediately say, “But if I am only for myself alone, what am I?” The universalism inherent in Jewish teachings on covenant requires Jews to apply foundational Jewish values — such as mercy, loving-kindness, and justice — to all of humanity. Thus, Maimonides wrote:
“One ought to treat the resident stranger (non-Jew) with derekh eretz (civility and humanity) and chesed (mercy; loving-kindness) just as one does a Jew, for we are commanded to support them.”19
Judaism predisposes that all persons are created in the divine image, and Jews must care for and respect all people. Consequently, Maimonides stated that Jews are required to “bury [Gentile] dead along with the dead of Israel, and support [Gentile] poor among the poor of Israel.”
As the late Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, phrased it:
“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.”20
Hence why it is no coincidence that the Israeli army — the Israel Defense Forces — is considered the world’s most humanitarian military — as well as why you often see Israeli organizations engaged in global welfare (e.g. Save a Child’s Heart, IsraAID). And why Israeli startups are frequently introducing innovations that improve completely non-Jewish aspects and groups of people in our world (e.g. desalination, drip irrigation systems, noninvasive diabetes treatments, devices to help the physically paralyzed walk — and run — again).
Additionally, the Torah tells us:
“When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”21