The Universalistic Vision of Judaism


At the Revelation at Mount Sinai, God chose the people of Israel to receive the Torah. This unique and unprecedented covenant between God and a group of human beings was to have an immense influence on human civilization. The Torah prescribed a specific way of life for the Jewish people. Yet, the Revelation — though experienced directly by Israel — was also concerned with humanity as a whole.

A fascinating Midrash points out that at the Revelation the voice of God divided into seventy languages, representing the seventy nations of the world i.e. all of humanity. The Torah, while containing a particular message for the people of Israel, also includes a universal message for all human beings. We must maintain an equilibrium, keeping our particularism and universalism in balance.

Some stress universalism. They advocate Jewish ethics, but denigrate the need to fulfill the specific ritual commandments of the Torah. Others are devoted to the ceremonial rituals, but are little involved with the world at large. They retreat into their own spiritual and physical ghettos, often trying to drive as many wedges as possible between themselves and the rest of society.

Judaism emptied of its particularistic mitzvot is hollow; Judaism robbed of its universalistic vision is cult-like, rather than a world religion.

Both of these approaches represent a deviation from the harmonious balance implicit in classic Judaism. An ethical universalism outside the context of observance of the mitzvot is not true to the Jewish religious genius. Likewise, a parochial commitment to rituals, without a concomitant concern for universalistic ethics, is also an aberration. Judaism emptied of its particularistic mitzvot is hollow; Judaism robbed of its universalistic vision is cult-like, rather than a world religion.

During the modern period, efforts have been made to strengthen the universalistic impulse within Judaism. Those who have been most identified with universalistic attitudes have also tended to be those who have moved away from traditional religious beliefs and observances. Thus, universalism has been identified with assimilation and loss of Jewish religious integrity.

Although the tendency toward isolationism may be understandable from a historical and sociological perspective, nevertheless, it is a tendency which needs to be corrected. Vibrant, religious Jewish life needs to look outward as well as inward, and to regain its spiritual vision that focuses on all humanity.

Jews are commanded to be constructive members of society. The Torah demands that we be righteous and compassionate. This responsibility is not confined merely to the broad category of social justice, but extends to the general upbuilding of human civilization as a whole. Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel (Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 2, p. 98) discussed the classic concept of “yishuvo shel olam,” responsibility to help in the upbuilding of human civilization. This involves practical society building, but also includes expanding human knowledge. Scientific research, for example, helps us gain a deeper appreciation of God’s wisdom. It also leads to technological discoveries which improve the quality of life. Working to improve the human condition is a Jewish religious imperative.

The Jewish impact on human civilization has been vast. We have given the world many ideas and ideals. On the other hand, we have also learned from the non-Jewish world. And we have been strengthened by non-Jews who have converted to Judaism. In the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh (“Israel and Humanity”), “each proselyte in becoming converted has contributed his own impulses and personal sentiments to the Israelite heritage.” Rabbi Benamozegh argued that “in order to achieve the concept of a universal Providence extending to all peoples and sanctioning the legitimate rights of each, men must cease to believe that the national or ethnic group is all that counts, that mankind has no significant existence apart from the nation or tribe … We should not be surprised that such has not been the case with Hebraism, which teaches that all mankind has the same origin and thus that a single Providence looks over all.”

Victor Hugo observed that “narrow horizons beget stunted ideas.” Classic Judaism has included an idealistic universalistic world-view. Judaism’s horizons have been great; and it has begotten great ideas. The challenge to modern Jews is to remain faithful to their distinctive mitzvot while maintaining a universalistic ethical idealism.

Rabbi Angel is Founder and Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

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