Guest column by Dr Toby Mendelson

Guest columnist Dr Toby Mendelson, Philosopher

I enjoy my father’s little columns, as I’m sure many of you do. Usually I bite my tongue/hold fire on the keyboard. Sometimes he induces me into a response, which I think is actually his true intent (he just wants us to think, even if it is critically against his opinion).

On his assertion that Judaism is fundamentally a particularistic tradition, and that lefties read the Torah as universalistic, I cannot help but take the bait. What an absurd and incoherent assertion! To remind you, the claim goes a bit like this:

“Furthermore, this has led to treating the Bible as being universalistic rather than particularistic. That is, it is really the story of God’s relationship with mankind, rather than just the Jews. For example, the Exodus is not just about God guiding Moses to free the Jewish slaves, but about redemption for mankind.”

The counter claim spills out almost effortlessly: what is Exodus without Genesis? And what could be more universalistic than the claim that The One God made the entire universe, and indeed, all of humankind? Universality emerges out of this most central of biblical predicates.

I could happily raise a number of other effortless arguments, but I would rather take the invitation to think about the relation between Judaism, the universal and the particular. Because, it is a beautiful invitation – it takes us to the very core of what Judaism is, and I think it is a lifelong challenge to understand the dynamics of this relation.

I think that Judaism can never be just the universal or just the particular; it is a constant fascinating dance of them both, a dialectic between history and the timeless/eternal, between culture and Being, between morality and metaphysics, between dialogue and silence, between the social and the mystical, between the Jews and God.

With respect to particularity, I agree that Judaism is incoherent without its tribal roots, without its specific immanent cultural manifestations, without its liturgy, without Aramaic, Hebrew, Yiddish, without its incredibly rich history (both dark and luminous), without matzah balls and without its myriad of rituals, mores and traditions. So, to reify the universal would be to abandon all of this, and I take my father’s point to be, to fundamentally abandon the Jewishness of Judaism.

But Judaism is also incoherent without its most original, essential and enduring contribution: that there is one universal God for all humankind. The lefties are not wrong to see that this extends Judaic moral-social praxis out of mere concern for other Jews. Nor are they wrong to worry that tribalism misses the true metaphysical (and therefore, moral, social and political) implications of monotheism. Nor are they wrong to find an egalitarian impulse in the thought that humans share a fundamental equality predicated on the theology of Genesis. How all this might play out in terms of political economy is an open question..... all I’ll say here is that it cannot be resolved by reifying the particular and denying the universal.

To see and enter into the dance of the universal and the particular: that is the genius and very heart of Judaism.

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