Menahem Meier
Rabbi Dr. Meier is principal of the Frisch School
Ten Da'at, A Journal of Jewish Education, Vol. X:1, Adar 5757, Spring 1997

Key words: Jewish identity, universal, praticular

Sometimes in an effort to strengthen the Jewish identity and commitment to Torah and mitzvot of our young people, we move them to a polar extreme, resulting in a loss of balance. To be a Jew is to do a balancing act between a spiritually rich and reverberating particularistic existence and a challenging universal existence as a member of humankind. Contributing to yishuvo shel olam, civilization, is also a Jewish value! Identifying with the suffering of humankind and attempting to alleviate the plight of victims is also a Jewish value!

A Jew carries, in effect, a dual identity card, granting him both universal and particular membership. Our tradition expresses this in the Jewish calendar, in which the first month is Nisan, commemorating the exodus from Egypt (particular), but the year begins with Tishrei, corresponding to the creation of the world (universal). There is an inevitable tension between these two poles of Jewish existence. Some insist on emphasizing (in varying degrees) particularistic expression, while others place a far greater emphasis on universal expression.

If one examines the place of different Jewish groups on the particularistic-universal continuum, one will probably reach the following generalization (which undoubtedly may have exceptions): the most ultra-Orthodox Jews probably view themselves almost exclusively in particularistic terms and unaffiliated Jews probably view themselves largely, though not exclusively, in universal terms. Thus, the ultra-Orthodox will devote their religious life to reinforcing their particularistic Torah expression while unaffiliated Jews will probably devote their religio-ethical energies to a host of universal causes. Conversely, the ultra-Orthodox will probably not sponsor a blood drive for the American Red Cross and an unaffiliated Jew will see little need, if any, to immunize himself from outside influences.

Several weeks ago two planes collided over India, resulting in about 350 fatalities. I overheard the following response to that calamity: "We shouldn't be concerned; they weren't ours." That is a tragic response from any Jew or any member of an ethnic group. All human life is precious! God created all of humankind and recorded the division of nations after the Flood, and their dispersion after the Tower of Babel episode. When the prophet, Jonah, was not keen on fulfilling God's mission to bring His message to the non-Jews of Nineveh, God sought to educate Jonah. God's final argument to Jonah is powerful and direct:

"You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow. ...And should I not care about Nineveh... in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left...?" (Jonah 4:10-11).
The message is clear - all of human life is precious; and it is on Yom Kippur that Jews were to hear this lesson.

The Jew must identify with and alleviate the plight of all human suffering. To the extent that he fails, he forfeits his basic humanity. To the extent that he succeeds, he sanctifies the name of the God of Israel.

I fully understand the challenges of living in an open and free society. In such a society, assimilation is a real and profound threat. To combat the attractions of a free society, with its permissive attitude highlighting the commonality of all of humankind, the Torah educator seeks to strengthen and reinforce the Jewish identity of his students. The Torah educator feels responsible to protect his students from the infiltration of alien values by building a wall of insulation around them. But the Torah educator must also communicate to his students that while Jews are spiritually distinct, they are also part of humanity. Jew and non-Jew: both are created in the image of God.

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