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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick



One of the longstanding tensions in non-Orthodox Judaism revolves around the question of “particularism” versus “universalism.” This is just another way of asking to what extent Jews should focus their life and energy on their own community and identity as opposed to the larger world in which we live.

This tension lies behind the sixth (and final) open question that Rabbi Wine posed to every Jewish movement.

He put it this way: "In a cosmopolitan world where ethnic and religious groups live intermingled how open should Jews be to the non-Jewish world?"

Conventional Jews tend to answer this question by pointing out that our loyalties are owed first to the Jewish people and then to others. They see this as an obligation of the special covenant that God made with the Jews, first through Abraham and again at Mt. Sinai. Our obligations to non-Jews are fulfilled by carrying out that covenantal mission by spreading the idea of radical ethical monotheism to the nations, reminding them of their own covenant with God, established through Noah. (Note that all of this appears in a Jewish book.)

Of course, all of this is nonsense. There was no Noah, no Abraham, and no revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Those are legends with no basis in historical reality. Nor are they harmless. What I’m about to write may feel insulting to some believers, but I don’t think that the invention of Jewish monotheism was any kind of step forward for humanity. (Polytheists were much more tolerant of each other’s beliefs.) No, not only was monotheism a step backward, the Jewish version is the worst version of monotheism I can imagine.

The idea of one deity who rules the entire universe while simultaneously taking a special interest in one tiny desert people is, to be honest, one of the most narcissistic theologies to emerge in human history. Nevertheless, Jewish monotheism did spread. Ironically this didn’t help the Jews. Even as others adopted the deity that Jews invented, his new believers conjured up their own superseding covenants featuring the rejection of the Jews.

Today, in the name of imagined unity, they pretend that all that is behind them. At prayer breakfasts and other interfaith gatherings, believing Jews and other monotheists link their arms in solidarity while extolling their common belief in the “one true God.” Then they each go back to their houses of worship where the Jews teach about their special covenant while the Christians remind their followers that no one goes to heaven without being bathed in the blood of Christ while the Muslims point out that the only true path to salvation is through the teachings of their Prophet.

One God? Unless he’s suffering from multiple personality disorder, he sure doesn’t sound like he’s one.

Believing Jews – especially those in the liberal movements – will twist themselves into pretzels trying to square the circle of “chosenness” with the universalism of Adonai. In an effort to re-define chosenness for modern times, they assert that Judaism teaches that only by first being committed to our own, will we learn to join hands with others. That’s not a bad teaching on its own, but that’s not what classical Judaism taught. They got that from humanism.

Alone among the Jewish movements there is only one philosophy that acknowledges the divisive nature of loyalty to a divine god and covenant. (Akin to proclaiming, “There is but one ‘God of the Universe’ and he picked us!”) That philosophy is humanism. Humanistic Jews share with other humanistically-inclined folks a huge sense of relief that we have freed ourselves from the old tensions of particularism versus universalism.

We are mature enough to understand that, yes, people can feel familial commitments to those who share their heritage while simultaneously working for the benefit of all. This is no more difficult than supporting one’s own town or region while also feeling a sense of camaraderie with one’s nation and the world. When I find myself at so-called “interfaith” gatherings, I remind my colleagues that many of us do not express our mutuality through a belief in one uniting deity. (I keep to myself our belief that their deity is most assuredly not "one" and quite frequently the very source of disunity.) I tell them that for us humanists, the source of unity is our shared human history and fate.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m as absorbed by my Jewish heritage as a person can be. I chose it as a career! But it has never been a source of tension for me when considering my commitments to humanity.

Rabbi Wine answered his own question this way:

The affirmation of human power, human reason and human happiness is more than Jewish. It is also universal. Humanistic Jews find their ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ not only among other Jews. They find them also among other humanists.

To which I would only add that – on the basis of our shared humanity – I also feel connected to all people of goodwill. Even when they think it’s the Lord that unites us while I have more than a strong feeling that it is not. 


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