First Things. (August 1, 2011.)
In an article for Haaretz (subsequently picked up by the über-aggregator The Huffington Post ), Mira Sucharov reopens the “particularism vs. universalism debate,” arguing the utter superiority of universalism and the foul depravity of particularism in strident terms“even to the extent of invoking everyone’s favorite debating tactic: tying the other side to Hitler. Surprisingly, this is the smaller of the two major problems with her argument.
Sucharov is responding to two recent publications she deems particularist: an article for Commentary by Daniel Gordis and a study by the Jewish service organization Repair the World. She finds fault with Gordis for suggesting that Jews ought to feel a special attachment to the Jewish State, and with Repair for suggesting that young Jews ought to consider serving the needs of others (including non-Jews) through Jewish programs, and within Jewish contexts.
In her article, she presents a “chilling” objection to such particularist attitudes:
It has to do with what happens when empathy vanishes from human interaction. There’s a famous quotation attributed to German Pastor Martin Niemoller, and which is on display at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.” Tragically, we all know what happens when a particularist worldview is pushed to the unthinkable extreme.
Leaving aside the tiresomely ubiquitous Nazi connection in the excerpt above, I think it’s clear to most people that any concept, when “pushed to the unthinkable extreme” is very bad. Indeed, that’s what would make it an “unthinkable extreme” in the first place.
It’s much more interesting that Sucharov leaps right from particularism to vanishing empathy without feeling the need to explain how one leads to the other. Does particularism really mean that universalist empathy “vanishes”? Does having a special love for one’s own people automatically preclude loving others? In other words, is the only possible interaction between universalism and particularism a zero-sum game? Sucharov’s article makes sense only under the assumption that this is the case.
But love and empathy don’t have to work that way. Whoever you are, dear reader (unless you are one of my two brothers), I love my mother more than I love your mother. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any empathy for your mother. If Sucharov wishes to argue that particularism”the special love of those close to us”is an enemy of universal empathy, then I must ask: Does she really have no more empathy for her own mother than for mine? Or would she, in an ideal world, establish a uniform empathy quota for every person on earth?
The idea of an inherent conflict between universalism and particularism is absurd. The two are often mutually reinforcing. For many Jews, thinking about our own relatives being murdered in Auschwitz disallows us from turning away when people less connected to us are murdered in Sudan. Thinking about our great-grandparents stepping off a boat in New York without knowing a word of English prevents us from thinking of Mexican immigrants as being less worthy as human beings, and thinking about those same relatives living in squalor and poverty on the Lower East Side informs our thinking about poverty by making it a personal concept, instead of an abstract question of policy.
Interestingly, Sucharov herself makes this point powerfully, if only implicitly:
We are all interconnected on this tiny, hurting planet. At Jewish camp, we used to sing “Ani v’atah, neshaneh et ha’olam” (You and I will change the world). The message was that tikkun olam (repairing the world) would only come about if you and I, Self and Other”not only our fellow Jews”join hands. A universalist approach to fixing the world’s ills is efficient, strategic, and so much more richly moral than the alternative.
The best argument against the last sentence above is the two sentences immediately preceding it. By referring to tikkun olam, and quoting the Hebrew song she sang at Jewish camp, Sucharov demonstrates why that particular Jewish connection doesn’t cut off universal empathy, but rather enhances it. An argument against particularism is an argument against singing that Hebrew song to begin with, the one that inspired Sucharov to join hands with everyone.
Now, it is true that some Jews emphasize either particularism or universalism to the detriment of the other. Some Jews really don’t care enough about people beyond the Jewish world, and to them we ought to speak of Judaism’s many teachings that insist they open their hearts to all people. Other Jews are completely disconnected from Judaism, preferring to hitch their idealism to exclusively secular wagons, and to them we ought to speak of the importance of Jewish connections and their relation to universalistic action.
But the existence of these two mistaken groups doesn’t validate the idea that universalism and particularism are inherently enemies. To cite these groups as proofs for an unavoidable conflict would be to allow the most insular Jews to define universalism, and the most disconnected Jews to define particularism.
The much-debated conflict between universalism and particularism is an illusion, a nonexistent problem. Perhaps I could see my way to acknowledging an occasional tension between the two values, but tension isn’t the same as mutual exclusivity. And, as Ari Hart points out, tension can be creative. The presence of this particular tension can inspire the more particularistic among us to think more about the broader world, and the more universalistic among us to reconnect to our roots, and rekindle a kind of powerful inspiration that exclusively universalist abstractions often lack.
Seth Chalmer is a graduate student at NYU in Nonprofit Management and Judaic Studies.
Mira Sucharov, The Risks of Jewish Particularism
Daniel Gordis, Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?
Repair the World, Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults