Particularism before Universalism

By Ted Belman, 10/07/05

Everyone is familiar will Hillel’s quote, loosely translated, “If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

I have always understood this to mean that an individual must make the case for his particular before making the case for the other. Particularism before universalism. Neither should be to the exclusion of the other, but the former, according to Hillel, comes first. One might add that it is only natural to fight for yourself before fighting for others. The twentieth century witnessed within the Jewish community a flight from the Jewish particular in favour of the universal. As the Jews came out of the ghetto, they shed religion for secularism. They became Communists in Russia, socialists in Europe and liberal Democrats in America.

The Jewish Right wishes to follow Hillel’s dictum by emphasizing the Jewish particular first and then addressing the “other”. Thus, it chooses a Jewish Israel even if it offends the Western notion of democracy. On the other hand, the Jewish Left wishes to do the opposite. It stresses the rights of the other, particularly the “Palestinians”, at the expense of Jewish rights. A case in point is the fence decision by the Israel’s High Court of Justice. The Jewish Right wants Israel to be a Jewish state whereas the Left argues that Israel should be a state like other states or of all its citizens. Binyamin Netanyahu got it right when he said, “Israel is the state of the Jews and not of its citizens.”

In my recent article “It pays to be Jewish”, I argued that Israel, to be a Jewish state, must give pre-eminence to Jewish Civil Law, which flows from the Torah. I implied that freedom of speech should not protect anti-Israel incitement and that persons not loyal to Israel as a Jewish state should have their citizenship revoked and should not be allowed a Knesset seat.

This raised howls of racism from some. But to deny your enemies certain rights is not racism, because it is not based on physical characteristics. It is self-defense, because it is based on their stated intention to destroy you.

Paul Eidelberg, in his important book Jewish Statesmanship, stands against a loyalty oath as the solution:

“It is the height of impudence, of conceit and even of stupidity to grant equal political rights to Arabs in the expectation that they will renounce their religion and 1,300 year old civilization for a ballot box.

“[…]From the Torah’s perspective, a people is not a random or amorphous aggregation of individuals. The essence of peoplehood is particularism and not universalism,  which is not to say that particularism precludes universal ideas and ideals such as ethical monotheism. A living people must have a revered past and a profound sense of collective purpose, embodied in national laws and literature and vivified by national holidays and customs. Such a people will experience similar joys and harbour similar thoughts conducive to friendship. They will feel responsible for each other and respond in righteous indignation to assaults on their national honour. Therein is the heart and soul of a people and the reason why their government will not bestow citizenship on foreign elements whose goals or way of life clashes with their own.”

Thus, the question becomes, are the citizens of a country entitled to preserve their ethnic or religious makeup or their culture? And who is to decide? The Western model says “no”. Multiculturalism reigns supreme, as does relativism. No one’s values are better than the values of others. Everything and everybody is to be tolerated, even those who don’t tolerate you. It is easy to see that this is the ultimate destination of universalism. It seeks to render valueless the particular, whether religious or national. It is paradoxical that the greatest opposition to universalism comes from Muslims, who are the largest intended beneficiary.

While the Left continually excoriates Israel for falling below a standard imposed by them on Israel alone, it totally ignores the reality of the Muslim world. You would think that since the Muslims are most in conflict with their tolerant world view that they should focus on castigating and reforming them. But no, they pick on Israel instead. Could this be anti-Semitism?

When Jews agonize over the survival of the Jewish people, invariably one asks, “Survive as what?” Obviously, if you give up what makes you Jewish, you, as a Jew, are not surviving. The resistance to assimilation is also often referred to as racism, but it isn’t. It denotes love of self. This is healthy. It is the self-hatred of the Jewish Left who strive to deny the Jewish particular that is to be rejected, or at least recognized for what it is.

The same goes for Israel. If Israel would become a bi-national state, it would die as a Jewish state. Even the name Israel could be changed. The Arab Israelis would argue for the Law of Return to apply to them, also. And so on. It will also die as a Jewish state if it doesn’t take steps to preserve its Jewish character. At a minimum, these should include restoring Jewish Civil Law as the supreme law of the land and creating a constitution that permits only Jews to determine its national purpose, character and defense.

I submit that a nation has not only the inherent right of self defense when its national existence is threatened, but also when its cultural essence is at risk. Israel’s enemies deny it both rights. To assert these rights is not racism. Every nation has the right to determine who can emigrate, who can become citizens and what values in its society are inviolable.

Israel even more so. The Torah defines the People of Israel (Am Yisroel) and the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisroel), and the connection between them and G-d. The People of Israel have a collective responsibility and a mission and a birthright (Israel). Whether or not you believe in G-d, the fact remains that this is the essence of Judaism. This essence has survived for over three thousand years and should continue to survive.

Israel has not only the right to defend this culture, but the duty to do so.


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12 Comments / 12 Comments

  1. …a person cannot rise to the broad circle of universalism except by means of one’s strong connection to his own people….
    Rav Kook

  2. Self respect indeed comes first as any instructor sergeant can point out – discipline is self control. Initiative is to do what you are asked …and a little bit more. On the other hand there has to be some implicit agreement that we are hanging together for a purpose and that has to be more than keeping the kosher grocery trade in a living and the indifferent clergy and their even worse melamedim besides the eccentric alive.

  3. Israel has not only the right to defend this culture, but the duty to do so.

    Why does the Torah begin with the creation of the world? (v.1)

    Rashi: Rabbi Yitzchak said: Surely, the Torah should have begun from the words, “This month shall be for you…” (Shemos 12:2), the first commandment which the Jewish people were given. Why does it begin with “In the beginning”?

    The reason is [conveyed by the verse]: “He declared to His people the power of His works in order to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Psalms 111:6). I.e.,

    if the nations of the world will say to the Jewish people, “You are robbers, for you seized the land of the seven nations [who inhabited Cana’an],” they will reply: “The whole earth belongs to G-d. He created it and granted it to whomever was deemed fit in His eyes! It was His will that they should have it, and by His will He took it from them and gave it to us!”

    In Judges 11 “Chukat: The Legitimiate Rights of the Ammonites”
    Posted on August 27, 2010 by rabbikahane

    The modern concept of “Jewish occupied territories” rears its ugly head in Parshat Chukat and in our haftarah, Shoftim(Chapter 11). We read in our parasha how Og ,the king of Bashan, and Sichon, the king of Ammon, try to prevent the Jewish people from passing through their borders to get to the Land of Israel. Both kings decide to wage war against The Chosen Nation and both kings lost. The children of Israel conquer their enemies and inhabit their land. Interestingly enough, no one at the time suggested that the Jewish people return the land that they just conquered to the nations that tried to annihilate them. No, such a proposal was never even considered. But, what if such a proposal was raised? How would a Jewish leader have reacted?

    Land For Peace
    To answer these questions we move the clock ahead 300 years until we arrive at the haftarah of our parasha. In the time of the Judges, the king of Ammon brazenly demands that Israel return to him the territories that were conquered, and if Israel refuses, there will be war. The king recounts some well-known history: “Because Israel took away my land when they came out of Egypt, from Arnon as far as the Yabok, and the Jordan.” (Judges 11:13) Compared to the demands of today’s Arabs, this demand is quite “moderate”. The king of Ammon, unlike the P.L.O., does not call for the total destruction of the Jewish State. He only wants that which was taken from his people. In words that echo in the U.N. and in Washington, the king concludes his demand in the following manner: “Now, therefore, restore those lands peacefully.” Peace – that magic word. What normal Jewish leader can refuse such an offer? After all, Ammon’s claim is not an unreasonable one; the lands were taken from them. Ammon, unlike the P.L.O., once had a sovereign empire with a capital and an army on that land. And most importantly, here was a genuine opportunity for peace – no more war, no more bloodshed.

    Not One Inch
    The answer Yiftach returned to to the king of Ammon is far different than what Rabin and Peres told Arafat. Yiftach recounts all the past history, and then concludes: “So now the Lord of Israel has driven out the Amorites from before his people, Israel, and you should possess the land?! Will you not possess what your god, Kemosh, gives you to possess? And all whom the Lord, our G-d, shall drive from before us that we shall possess.” (Judges 11:23-24) This is the reaction of a true Jewish leader. A reaction based on emunah – faith in the word of G-d. The land is ours not because of any historical claim or because we defeated the former inhabitants in battle. Rather, the land is ours because G-d gave it to us and we have no right to give it up…

  4. The opposite of Universalism is community, not sectarianism.

    The opposite of Universalism is not sectarianism. The opposite of Universalism, I realized with a start, is community. Defining a group according to religion, nationality, or shared goals creates a community. And a community takes responsibility for helping one another.

    A community, by definition, includes some and excludes most. Its shared creed, convictions, or interests create a powerful centripetal force which bonds its members to each other. The particularism which defines a community is not its weakness, but its strength.

    A recent bestseller, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell contends that when a group becomes too large, the bonds between its members break down. Gladwell found, for example, that successful companies operate in units not exceeding 150 people. Up to that number, there is a sense of mutual helping and teamwork, which dissipates when the group becomes larger.

    In terms of interpersonal relationships, bigger does not mean better; bigger means more anonymous.


    Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) developed a paradigm for love in terms of concentric circles. He wrote that first a Jew must love himself, the center of the circle. The next step is to focus on loving one’s family. The next concentric circle outward is love for the Jewish people. Beyond that, one should strive to love all human beings. The outermost circle is love for all living creatures.

    Success with the inner circles impacts one’s success with the outer circles. A person who hates himself will have great difficulty loving others. A person who does not love his own siblings or cousins often bears only a specious love for all Israel. How can a Jew claim to love all humanity but hate his own people? A person who is devoted to saving the whales but couldn’t care less about saving starving Africans suffers from a glaring myopia.

    Judaism considers the entire creation worthy of love (for, after all, who created it?), but prioritizes according to an inner logic. Thus, the Mishna lists “loving all humanity” as one of the prerequisites for acquiring Torah (Ethics of the Fathers 6:6) and Torah law forbids causing unnecessary pain to animals. No circle is skipped, but the more genuine the love, the more it will radiate from the center out.

  5. I am surprised no one has commented on Hillel’s statement and its English translation. I think the first half should be translated “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Truly, this is the problem with empathy. Empathy should start at home.

  6. This is an exceptional rendering of Hillel’s quote, which, while I had some notion of its meaning, never-the-less, in lacking the language of “Particularism” (juxtaposed with Universalism), said ‘understanding’ was only a shadow.

    With this, seeing that particularism and universalism are to the individual what nationalism and multiculturalism are to the collective makes the whole issue much clearer.

    Unfortunately, corporate-exploitive multiculturalism – further distorted by postmodern liberalism – does not align with the egalitarian panacea once promised.

    The hard lesson here (for Liberals), is that nationalism is not a simplistic good/bad dichotomy; it is a more complex Goldilocks dilemma.

  7. @ yamit82:
    This concentric circles meditation is called the Metta Meditation in Buddhism. Goes all the way back and is an important one. You start by saying, “May I be happy, well and peaceful.” Then, you widen the circle one degree at the time, May my family, loved ones, pets, friends, people on my block, people in my town, people in my country, people in my hemisphere, people in the world, all living creatures everywhere. any way you want to do it. Like that grade school humorous return address, ending with the world, the Milky way galaxy, the universe.

    Did I mention? I’m a lousy Buddhist. I don’t wish our enemies well at all. I mentioned that it has been speculated that Jesus of Nazareth spent the missing years of his life in India. Makes sense to me. Judaism says, “Love your Neighbor” and to Feel compassion for the stranger in your midst, the poor, the vulnerable, the downtrodden. “Love your Enemy” is Buddhist. Hinduism absorbed Buddhism into it later. That’s where Ghandi got it. Actually, he got civil disobedience from Thoreau, who was one of the transcendentalists who were American poets trying to revive Indian mysticism. The flag of India with the wheel of the Dharma on it is the Buddhist flag designed by the 19th Century American Buddhist Missionary to Sri Lanka which was Ceylon in India, Colonel Alcott. Only makes sense if all you value is the after life. All of the Buddhas early followers were itinerant beggar monks. The “Sermon on the Mount” is full of early Buddhist sentiments. Don’t plan for tomorrow, do the lilies of the valley worry about what to wear? Turn the other cheek. If somebody robs you don’t take him to court, give him the rest of your stuff. The Jatakas are a collection of Buddhist Children’s stories that are supposed to be an account of the Buddha’s virtuous previous lives that led to him becoming the Buddha through the cultivation of virtue and compassion. In one, he throws himself off a cliff to feed a hungry tiger or lioness and her young. Sound familiar?

  8. @ Sebastien Zorn:
    Not sure if significant or incidental, but both the life times of both Buddha and Mahavira (who founded Jainism, which has a similar, even stricter philosophy, though less influential internationally and they knew each other) coincide almost exactly, give or take a few years, with the time span of the Babylonian Exile. Different dates given by different sources, but mostly approx: Mahavira (Vaishali, India) 599 BCE to B27 BCE, Buddha (Nepal, then part of India) 567-483 BCE, Babylonian Exile 605/597-538. Buddha and Mahavira begin teaching in their early 40s and taught for thirty or forty years so the birth of both Buddhism and Jainism coincides with the end of the Babylonian Exile and the Construction of the 2nd Temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Among Notable sixth century figures in China: Sun Tzu, Confucius, Lao Tsu, Greece: Aeschylus, Aesop, Sappho. Persia: Zoroaster. Israel: Ezekiel. First archaelogical surveys of the Arabian Penninsula by Babylonian King Nabonidus.

  9. Ted, this was brilliant and I’m so glad I read it. This should be compulsory reading for every Jew!
    I continue to think that the world is upside down, especially when I see arabs who continually promote the destruction of the Jewish State of Israel as members of knesset. Are we the only people who see this as a problem? I think we should in fact change the name of the country to ‘The Jewish State of Israel’ so that all of her citizens and the rest of the world will finally get it. It’s a country for the Jews, a Jewish state that may allow non-Jews to live there so long as they agree that it will forever remain so.

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