The Failure of Jewish Universalism

The never-ending push by numerous Jews to universalize all aspects and rituals of Judaism is shortchanging and endangering the Jewish people. Hermann Cohen was an influential German Jewish philosopher who felt there was no distinction between being Jewish and a citizen of the world because the purpose of the Jew was to sacrifice his “parochial” Jewish interests in causes for humanity that, for him, were greater than immediate Jewish needs. He called it Universalism. He was against Zionism or having a Jewish state.

Rosa Luxemburg, a famous Jewish communist of the early years, similarly remarked that she could “not be bothered or side-tracked by mere Jewish rights when what was at stake were the great universal rights of the workers and proletariat”. She, too, felt that Judaism existed to serve the interests of humanity.

Their disdain for Jewish particularism in service to universalism went so far as, later, to assign greater importance to even the particularism of other groups over Jewish needs, i.e., Jewish needs were nullified not only to universal aspirations but the aspirations of the particular needs of other groups. In short, Jewish survival in itself meant very little; its survival was important not for the continuation of Jewish people per se, but only for the Universalist (liberal) message they had now assigned to Judaism. For them, and their followers, Jewish need was defined as, and meant, the needs of others.

At the 2015 Chanukah party in the White House, a non-Orthodox female rabbi, while lighting the Chanukah menorah, declared: “These are the lights for the oppressed. These are the lights for freedom, for (among others)… the Palestinians.” And, she continued, “this freedom and these rights shall come this year hopefully, inshallah (the Arabic phrase for Allah-willing)”. She universalized Chanukah so that those who have declared their intention to murder Jews and destroy Israel represent to her Chanukah more than the Macabees of past and today who restore the Land to the Jewish people. Inshallah was spoken with the pride of one who is so conspicuously hip and avant garde, someone so “untribal”.

No doubt President Obama, who stood beside this rabbinic champion of Palestinian Arab statehood, was encouraged by these words when surmising the lack of pushback he’d receive when one day he’d use the UN to censure Israel for thinking that the Jewish State had legal ownership of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and the dozens of Jewish cities in Judea and Samaria. Another Green Light for Obama brought to him courtesy of the Jewish Universalists.

At this year’s Chanukah party (2016) a male rabbi from what is called “Open Orthodoxy” declared that “Obama has shown forth light to the world, and from the Obama White House has come a beacon of morality and justice.” This rabbi said this knowing full well of the Iran deal that severely threatens Israel, the numerous Obama humiliations of Netanyahu, the pressure by Obama to have Israel return to the pre-1967 Auschwitz borders, and the relative silence by Obama in the face of Islamic terrorism against Israeli and Jewish targets. Beyond doubt, such continued groveling and affirmation of Obama was complicit in making easier Obama’s almost immediate betrayal of Israel at the UN.

Obama hears what comes out of the mouth of today’s liberal Jews and sees a verification of the universalism that back in Chicago he was told defines Judaism, a universalism that puts the demands of others above the needs of the Jewish people, a universalism that sees Arab Palestinian statehood and diminishment of Israel as a message of Chanukah. One noted British historian aptly and ironically declared: “The particularism of the Jewish people is universalism.”

It is this obsession with universalism that impelled the Jewish people to redefine the lesson of the Holocaust from being never again should we allow the world to single out and destroy the Jewish people to its preferred lesson of never again should we stand by and watch any type of suffering. Holocaust Memorials and messages which should have been dedicated to alerting the world to the unique, historic, and unmatched hatred of the Jew, a type of hatred with a longevity that has no parallel to any other form of hatred, was sidelined to a more universal message. Jew-hatred has been, in the name of Jewish universalism, reduced to warning against general intolerance of sexual, racial, gender, and cultural differences. The upshot is that today in the name of remembering the lesson of the Holocaust, European governments and liberal Jewish groups are demanding the influx of millions of Muslims into countries where Jewish people and synagogues are becoming the primary targets of those very newly arrived Islamic immigrants.

As opposed to stressing the need for self-defense and preserving one’s own people, Jewish universalists are uncomfortable and squeamish in making any uniquely biblical, exclusive, or robust Jewish imperative and claim in support of Israel’s landed-legitimacy. Thus, when we write of Israel’s unique biblical covenant with the land, there are those even among the modern Orthodox, and certainly the Reform and Conservative, who criticize such justifications as “a redneck” type of justification, i.e., not universal enough.

They remain uncomfortable with any rationale that is uniquely Jewish, preferring instead some type of universalist appeal that, in truth, is today dismissed and replaced by the more universalist and, ironically, particularist appeal of Arabism. Zionism is today seen and demonized as a creature of the Right, whereas Palestinianism, and other forms of Islamism, are glorified by the Left as aspirations falling under their great basket of minority liberations -- be it feminism, native Americanism, Black Lives Matterism, gay marriage, transgenderism, anti-colonialism, or anti-Westernism.

The Jewish Bible is seen as too particularly Jewish and thus irrelevant, whereas the Koran has been elevated into a leftist-approved book deserving universal reverence.

Universalism has always been the province of the Left, indeed its identity. Those Jews championing universalism end up harming Jewish interests precisely because today Jewish interests and Israel are seen as particularist, an embarrassing province of the Right, something universalists must strive to defeat.

To that end, The International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), a rabbinic group for what is called Open Orthodoxy, was disappointingly unwilling to condemn the Obama/UN Resolution for reasons it should have: that the resolution denies the biblical Jewish tie to Jerusalem; that we Jews uniquely sacrificed when building Israel; that we’ve had a continuous history and demonstrated an unparalleled love for it; that claims of a Palestinian people are specious; that the Muslims have too often tricked the Israelis into forfeiting land they now use for missile launching pads against Jewish children. No, such a rejoinder would be, for them, far too particularist, not Universalist enough.

Instead, their problem with the pro-Muslim, one-sided Resolution was that it was not conducive to the peace process and that George Mitchell has so declared. Universalism, even among the so-called Open Orthodox, leads to timidity, lack of passion, and ultimately confusion as to whose side you are on and whose narrative touches you. As good Universalists, these rabbis blamed both sides equally and opined unfavorably and exclusively regarding settlements, which, for them, are “controversial”. They came across so detached, so impartial, so striped-panted…. so unrabbinic. Universalism leads to moral relativism and moral relativism is the antithesis and the nullification of Torah and Torah’s message which is rooted in distinctiveness, rights and wrongs, and special covenants.

That Jews have felt the need to universalize the Holocaust, Chanukah, or their rituals may be due to an insecurity that, absent a universal message, the world will turn a deaf ear. Perhaps a feeling of unworthiness and lack of self-respect makes them feel that they, themselves, must universalize things if those things are to have significance and import to them. Perhaps universalization allows every item and experience of Jewishness to be reshaped into something that twins with what is currently faddish, “sophisticated”, or politically correct… all three of these phenomena being quite important to the cosmopolitan yearnings and  identifications of most post-World War I Western Jewry.

Unlike the Islam we often see today, there are many Jewish/biblical appeals to equal justice and fair treatment for all; it is a hallmark of Judaism and something we are proud of. But treating people fairly and being concerned about human dignity and the condition of those created in the image of God should not be confused with universalism, especially a political and moral-relativistic universalism that diminishes the importance of one’s own people on the altar of serving others; one where its adherents forsake their own people and validity as a way of showing they have risen above the tribalism of their volk and serve higher causes, making them, thereby, morally superior and more sensitive than their “backward, unworldly” tribesmen.

A universalism that pushes people to make secondary the needs of one’s own people and nation is not what Torah had in mind when speaking of fair treatment.  Taking the easy way out by loving theoretical humanity while abandoning the people you should be pledged to protect is shirking personal responsibility. It is the stock of cowards. We are first enjoined to take heed for those who are close to us and for those whose welfare we are uniquely responsible. They should be special to us. Universalism is a moral copout and an abandonment of personal responsibility.

Rabbi Aryeh Spero is author of Push Back, president of Caucus for America, and author of Why Israel Matters to You.

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