Posted by: RaeAn | 4 May 2013

Universalism vs. Particularism

I’ve taken too much of a break from this blog. I’ve decided to revive it, though since I’m no longer in exotic faraway places (I know, some may count Los Angeles as such, but once you live here, it’s just home), I’ll be transitioning to posting various things I write. Excerpts from school assignments will pop up a bunch, and I’ll mostly be posting writings on theology, ideology, philosophy, etc., but who knows what else will pop up here. Plus, can’t hurt to get some of my writing out there for others to enjoy when they’re sufficiently bored. 😉

This is a reflection on the relationship between universalism and particularism in Reform Judaism. Enjoy, and feel free to comment and debate with me! I love debates. Call me out on things. I dare you. (Just please be respectful. I moderate comments for appropriateness and niceness, not for the ideas expressed within them.)

My approach to particularism vs. universalism in Reform Judaism is one of intellectual and religious openness with a basis in core values. The term “reform” is the most accurate description of my approach to Judaism: we have a basis, a form, which each generation must re-form to make sense in their lives within the world around them. Religious diversity within our congregations is the result of this generational re-formation: every generation adds to the corpus of tradition; Reform Judaism re-introduced the possibility of also taking elements out of the tradition; and the variety of formulae (regarding what to leave or add in and what to take out) that people subscribe to will inherently increase over time if we leave the decision-making process behind creating those formulae to the individual (rather than to the community leader, for instance, as would have been the norm in Rabbinic Judaism more so than any modern form of Judaism, let alone Reform). This is a value-free observation: this increasing diversity can be beneficial, or it could be detrimental, depending on how we approach it. Reform diversity in the approach to universalism and particularism is no exception: it can complicate our unity as a movement, or it can create a multifaceted approach that deepens the commitments our people have in the world. The extent to which we see our obligations as Jews extending to the outside community will vary as much as all other views within the Reform Jewish context. The obligation to the stranger is mentioned too many times in the Torah to be ignored, therefore, the particularly Jewish worldview commands a responsibility to the universal whole.

As for social justice issues, my guiding value comes from the Pirkei Avot Mishnah, lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimenah – it isn’t required of you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it. We cannot, as individuals, fix all the ills of the world, nor even the ills within our own people, but we are all obligated to make some effort toward a better world. Some among our community will find their calling in universal causes – Darfur, hunger, immigration reform. Others will be more drawn to particular issues: Israel, outreach, youth engagement.  The diversity within the community aids in this goal, which the Reform platforms posit as the “mission” of the Jewish people, “to cooperate with all men in the establishment of… universal brotherhood, justice, truth and peace on earth” (Columbus Platform).

No one person can work on all the issues in the world or she would burn out. No individual could solve a single problem by himself. However, if each of us commits ourselves to working toward the resolution of one issue in the world, the cumulative effect can create a wave of change for the better. Particularism is important, as is universalism; my understanding of the Reform approach to such seemingly contradictory but valued elements is to vote for all of the above anyway. Some of us will work toward one, others will work on the other, and we, as a people, can accomplish the multiplicity of goals as set before us from the Torah, to seek justice and truth, and to continue as God’s partners in creation by working to repair the flaws, however big or small, wherever we see them. We all simply have different points of view and will approach the flaws that stand out to us – and that’s how it should be.


Assignment context: For our Mandel Inquiry groups, we write one-page reflections on various general topics. This month’s topic was Universalism and Particularism. Not much more context to explain than that.


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