Jewish identity delicately balances two opposing attitudes toward the non-Jewish world. We are a particularistic race, asserting an exclusive covenant with Hashem, which awards us His land of Israel. Distinctive dietary and marital customs, along with a rigid system of commandments and prohibitions, preserve our cultural insularity. Jewish day-to-day experience is fundamentally unlike the daily routine of non-Jews. We are different and we are chosen.
However, we were not chosen for privilege or for luxury, but for responsibility and mission. We are wardens of religious conscience, tasked with calling humanity to higher ground. To many, the phrase “chosen people” sounds bigoted and racist and, for centuries, our enemies invoked this term, to accuse us of arrogance and condescension. Our haters didn’t realize that our chosenness doesn’t entitle us but obligates us.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin considers a hypothetical scenario whereby a divine commandment only applies to a Gentile, but not to a Jew. Prior to Har Sinai, Hashem had delivered numerous commandments to a non-Jewish world, some of which weren’t reissued at Sinai. Perhaps these pre-Matan Torah halachot apply only to Gentiles.
The Gemara patently rejects this notion, as it is inconceivable for Jews to have fewer commandments than Gentiles. As we are intended to showcase the nobility of a godlike life, we possess more commandments than Gentiles, not fewer. We model 613 so that humanity, one day, appreciates the value of 7. Given this historical assignment, it is unimaginable that Matan Torah reduced our level of obligation. We aren’t chosen for privilege or pleasure but for greater devotion and commitment. A nation of priests, steadfastly guarding human conscience.
Ideally, Judaism blends nationalistic and universalistic experience. While our daily routines are particularistic, our mission is global. Our mitzvot, customs and lifestyles are distinctive, and culturally, we are inward-looking. If we neglect our Torah and mitzvot or corrupt our moral integrity, we are no longer priestly, and our message expires. However, if we ignore our duty to inspire humanity, we betray the very reason for which we were chosen. Jews are both internalist and externalist, insular and outward.
Dark Days for Universalism
The past few months have severely challenged our ability to merge these two cardinal values. It is not an easy time to be a Jewish universalist. On Oct 7 we were brutally attacked by barbaric murderers who, astonishingly, received political support from much of the Arab world. Antisemites across the globe came out of the woodwork, supporting the rape, murder and mutilation of Jews. We received a rude awakening that deep-seated animosity toward our people still lingers under the surface of a shiny and shimmering modern word. The monstrosity of antisemitism still lives.
More recently, our people and our nation were publicly tried for genocidal crimes in a kangaroo court. It is particularly absurd and painful that Jews are now being falsely accused of the very crime which we faced only a generation ago. We have survived genocidal attacks for centuries and currently, are being wrongly charged for the crimes which were ceaselessly perpetrated against us. History is ironic and painful, especially as it relates to our people.
The UN, supposedly a beacon of international cooperation, was exposed as an accomplice to murder. Ever since its inception, the UN has been hijacked by anti-Israel blocs weaponizing it to concoct nonstop prejudiced resolutions against our people. We have now discovered that UNRWA, a UN agency intended to deliver humanitarian aid, has been, in fact, an essential cog of the Hamas murder machine. Always a chamber of hate toward Israel, the UN now has its hands stained with Jewish blood.
The past few months have provided a harsh reality check, reminding us that much of the modern world is still unwilling to accept us and our rights to Israel. In some ways, we have returned to the days of our ancestor Avraham who was dubbed “Ivri” because he stood alone on one side, opposing an entire pagan world which discredited his religious beliefs. Seventy-five years into our modern state we too, stand alone, defiantly upholding our moral cause and our historical license to our homeland.
This eruption of hatred and opposition has shocked many Jews of strong universalist orientation. Many, particularly those who reside outside of Israel, assumed that Jews had been warmly accepted into a modern and enlightened world of racial and religious equality. They assumed that our historical Jewish mission had now transformed into a shared universal agenda of promoting equality, education, and peace. Jewish mission had now been conflated with a broader modern movement in which Jew and Gentile were equal partners. We could trust our new Gentile partners in this great mission of tikun ha’olam to protect Jews against hate and violence.
The hatred and antagonism of the past few months has revealed that Jews are not always seen as equal partners crusading for common values. So many of the communities whose legitimate rights Jews valiantly defended, such as African Americans and LGBTQ, have viciously turned their backs on us while supporting our murderous enemies. Many “universalist” Jews have been shocked by the past few months. Anytime a conception crumbles an identity crisis follows.
More particularistic Jews haven’t suffered the same crisis of identity since they never envisioned the same degree of partnership with the non-Jewish world. Though particularistic Jews feel comfortable participating in universalist agendas alongside non-Jews, this partnership doesn’t define their identity. Comfortable living among Gentiles, these Jews never viewed tikun ha’olam partnership with Gentles as a core value. For them, Oct 7. and the outburst of antisemitism didn’t shatter their preconceived notions of society.
Preserving Our Universalist Voice
Though the war has severely challenged our universalism, we cannot allow it to make us too insular or to promote bigotry or racism. The war in Gaza and our battle with antisemitism can easily plunge us into ugly misanthropic hatred of “others.” In the face of brutality and rabid hatred it is easy to paint the entire world as our enemies. A battle of this magnitude can easily cause us to dig in our heels, stand alone and dismiss humanity at large. It is specifically during this dark period of hatred and violence that we must reaffirm Jewish universalism.
Though it is true that we face sweeping global antisemitism, we also enjoy significant backing from a broad coalition of countries who support our just and moral battle for Jewish survival. It is extremely symbolic that Germany has become a stalwart supporter of the Jewish state. Decades after threatening Jewish survival they are among the strongest to defend it. We are not alone, and we should not delude ourselves into believing that we have completely returned to the condition of Avraham ha’Ivri. History has moved on since then.
Moreover, regardless of international support, we can never allow antisemitism to blur our universalist vision. Our messianic narrative doesn’t envision the apocalyptic elimination of all humanity with only Jews surviving. In our utopia, only the wicked are removed from Hashem’s Earth, but most civilized and upright human beings enjoy prosperity, even without converting to Judaism. We are the only religion which doesn’t believe in a Messianic conversion of all humanity to our own religion. We yearn for a world in which every being created in Hashem’s image lives in peace and welfare, embracing Hashem and acknowledging Jews as His moral and religious representatives.
Don’t let the haters turn us into haters. It is bad enough that they murdered our people. Do not allow them to murder Jewish universalist identity as well.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.