Universalism

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen


The three weeks from the Seventeenth of Tammuz until the Ninth of Av, have for thousands of years been a period of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, twice. First by Babylonia in 586 BCE and then by Rome in 70 CE. This period will culminate after the Ninth of Av which this year will be the 7th of August ( actually starting the night before).


The fact that we have continued to mourn these losses for thousands of years, says something about our reverence for the past. It also points to the fact that we are not only rooted in our history and immensely proud of it, but we have this fundamental optimism about our survival and future. And that we are supposed to remember the past to learn from history not ignore it.


Amazingly the dominant theme in the Talmud is that the loss was all our own fault. We do not fall into the trap that almost everyone else does now of blaming others when things go wrong or do not turn out as we might wish. The catastrophes came about because we were divided.


In the words of the Talmud, it was because of Sinat Chinam, needless hatred, pettiness, internal divisions, political rivalries, and poor decisions. And when I am asked why we Jews insist on raking up the past so much, I reply that the sad fact is that we still have not learned our lesson and even less so the world at large. Miraculous as our return to home rule in Israel after two thousand years is, we are still as split and ravaged by hatred and conflict. We have indeed earned our name as the stiff-necked people. This is why I still take this period of mourning very seriously.


Over the past two thousand years, we Jews have been accused of being excessively preoccupied with our own survival and preserving a closed, inward-looking mentality that ignores the rest of the world. This is the delusion that infects much of the opposition to Jews and Israel today, blaming us for surviving (and of course for everything that is wrong today). This is the clue to Jew-hatred.


Whether Greek, Roman, Christian, or Muslim, they all accused the Jews of being too particular, too legalistic, and too inward-looking. As if they themselves were not all of these. And yet at the same time, they accused us of trying to corrupt the world. And thus, it continues to this very day. We are either accused of being too insular or too interfering in other people’s lives. Marxists complain that we are rootless cosmopolitans and at the same time nationalist bullies. Every society has elements of both.


The catch word of our times is universalism, good, particularism bad unless it’s your particularism. In itself, universalism is a beautiful idea. We are all children of one God to use a Biblical expression. But like every beautiful idea, it can be misunderstood and misused.


Even within Judaism, the disease has spread. The catchphrase of Tikkun Olam is understood as universalism, which often encourages an alliance with those who seek our elimination. It has become the core message of most Jewish denominations. Ironically universalism is the core of Judaism, but not when it comes at the cost of particularism, of preserving identity. The phase in its entirety is LeTaken Olam Bemalchut Shaddai – To repair the world through obeying God’s commands. Which means not just words but actually living a godly life.


Because that is what defines a specific Jewish religious culture (although it is not the only crucial element in being Jewish).


Survival does not come from nice ideas. It comes from behavior and living a specific way of life. That is how cultures survive. Through daily actions more than daily thoughts. But most Jews have given up on the behavioral, the practical, the specific, and the particular.


When King Solomon dedicated the First Temple it was, in his words, to be a place for all peoples on earth (1 Kings 8 41). Similarly, Isaiah (Chapters 2 and 66), and Zechariah (Chapter 14) both expressed God’s concern for all humanity. Similarly, the Books of Jonah and Daniel have universalism as their themes. What can be more universal than the Psalms stating that we, all of humanity, are the children of God? That was and remains a core concept in Judaism

At the same time, the prophets were fiercely protective of a very definite religious way of life.


The two did not preclude each other. They never called for abrogating the law, only to end hypocrisy. Yet those who tried to demean us focused only on the specific Jewish way and its national aspirations as if one necessarily meant not caring about the other.


And yet our very welcoming of others and giving them equal civil rights, as laid down in the Torah, did not necessitate conversion. Our very reluctance to impose ourselves on others by demanding conversion was taken to imply that we did not care about others. Yet we were the ones who said before anyone else that you must feed the poor no matter where they came from and not stand by and watch others suffer.


We never held the view that you had to be a Jew to be saved. We did not try to impose our religion on others. Our tradition said long before others that all righteous people of the world “had a place in the World to Come.” Our holy texts stressed respect for nature and the animal and vegetable universe. But we have also recognized that being Jewish in practice is very demanding and not for everyone. It was not our mission to water down our way of life in the hope of attracting others. Of course, oppression and hatred have made us more protective and wary. But that does not mean we have ever given up on our dreams of universality.


If we have turned in on ourselves it is largely because the so-called universalists within and without, have constantly attacked us in different ways. All human systems, religions, and cultures have their failures, their hypocrites, and those who betray their core values. But to claim we have no interest in universal values is to ignore the whole of our holy texts and religious literature. It is simply that we never gave up on living a Jewish life as well. We need both but not at the cost of one rubbishing the other.


This is why during this period of mourning we should remember our tragedies and mourn those who gave their lives for their people. We should value our past. But at the same time, we should rejoice in the magnificence of our prophets and their optimism that better days will come and must aspire to improve the world and society. We are universalists, but we are also particularists and nationalists. They are not mutually exclusive. But combining them may simply be too hard for most people.


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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.