Culture, Identity, Israel, Justice, Politics

Safeguarding Jewish universalism in times of terror

Last week, I was accused on two separate occasions and blogs of not issuing a “peep” and of a “deafening silence” about the Mumbai killings. One was even on a blog with nothing to do with international affairs. Meanwhile, the conservative blogs are in a bloody feeding frenzy.
But on the other hand, as the Hebron settlers rioted and carried their pogrom to the point that even the head of the Yesha Council has condemned them, the reciprocal silence has been interesting to watch. Jewlicious: nothing. Israelycool: one sentence. A hapless jaunt around the Jblogosphere results in more posts about the injustice (vomit) of the evacuation than condemnation of the rampages. It makes me sick.
Safeguarding Jewish universalism after these events is not easy. Mumbai has depressed all of us. Us meaning the progressive Jews specifically. And certain commentors have accused us of a guilty silence about it. Their implicit challenge is whether progressive Judaism has anything to say except to eat our words about coexistance, the Muslim world, and terrorism.
Yes, yes, we do.
First, our rejection of the media frenzy:
When Jews die somewhere in the world, it is a sensational news event, media fodder for Jewish publications around the globe to publish every gory detail, speculate endlessly about the culprits, and remind us why they hate us. I speak for myself, but I feel our contributors would agree that it’s an ugly form of self-interest. So many people died in Mumbai — to focus on just the Jewish deaths, as if only they mattered, betrays us. To unite with the mourners of India, to remember all victims (even our own), that uplifts us instead. That is the progressive thing to do.
And we do fear. We hate the truth of it, but fear and anti-Semitism unites us. The topic of hatred brought Jews together with a speed and power that our good deeds can’t seem to replicate. As Jews, we’re aware that terrorism is not spared from those with dovish commitments. And as progressives, we feel keenly the bullets that are shooting down our coexistance dreams.
And second, our rejection of Mumbai as right-wing prooftext:
The shrieks of outrage from Jewish blogs to date are mostly or almost entirely abusing the events in Mumbai to ratchet up support for their worldview. Which we cannot and won’t. I’ll not dance and sing with seeming joy around proofs that anti-Semitism isn’t dead.
Nuance and complexity are the first to die as universalism is forgotten. An ethnic-national conflict over territory and the terrorizing used by extreme actors within said regional conflict to achieve political ends, is suddenly, stupidifyingly simplified and blame laid: Islam. Muslims. Anti-Semites. Sounds familiar, except I’m talking India-Pakistan.
It builds our suspicion that those Jews who tout Mumbai as Jewish rallying point have nothing to build their Jewish identity upon except the witchhunt for the Jew-hater. They have no Middle East security vision except the superiority of Israel over her neighbors. And they have no values except saving themselves. A progressive Judaism and Jewish community have alternatives. And what outrages us is different, as a result.
Thirdly, their hypocrisy is as loud as their hatred:
The people of Israel have reacted in shock to the hooliganism of Hebron. The settler leadership has appealed to the Israeli security forces to help them control the monsters they unleashed. They have built a culture that values land over life, a piece of dirt over a peace of nations. The hilltop youth fought tooth and nail for an apartment building and, failing that, took out their wrath upon the Arabs.
As a religion, or a people, or a civilization, whatever we are, these youth are the epitome of the anti-Jew. The un-Jew. We have been taught that the Jew throughout history has been on the receiving end of this exact act. Burning homes. Shooting indiscriminately. Hate speech. Dispossetion of property. Looting.
So finally:
No, no, we’re not going to spend pages bending to the hysteria of Mumbai. And we’re going to focus squarely on the parts of our community that shame us the most. More than just Jews died in Mumbai and Jewish extremists just committed a pogrom in Hebron. These two events spell bloody and important lessons.
It is dependent on the progressive voices to prove to the world that Jews don’t only care for themselves and aren’t too hypocritical to bear a moral voice on anything anymore. As we see it, failing to do so re-commits our people’s greatest sin: despite being saved from persecution time and again by non-Jews, we still care mostly about our pain, our suffering, our Shoah.
It is not a part of the Jewish narrative that we may owe the world more than it owes us. I stun even myself with such a proposal. It’s totally against everything we’re taught about ourselves. “The Jews owe the world?” As progressives, we should behave so, even if it’s not true. But I believe wholeheartedly that it is.
In times of terror, safeguarding Jewish universalism is not popular. But we don’t do this to be popular. We do this to be right. It’s the only way to build a better world where someday we will put down our swords for plowshares.
X-posted from Judaism Without Borders.

21 thoughts on “Safeguarding Jewish universalism in times of terror

  1. Nice post.
    I still think there could have been at least something written about Mumbai sooner, and it would have been great if you had included the comments about it that you just gave – but a week ago. If we can mention a suicide bombing in Israel the day of the attack – at least praying for the victims – then why not the attacks in Mumbai – where yes, of course most of the victims weren’t Jewish, but there was definitely an anti-Jewish element that was at least a significant part of it (hence the targeting of the Chabad house). To not mention SOMETHING, either a condemnation, a word about who the murdered were, a word about terrorism, well, that’s a bit inconsistent with some of the other events that Jewschool chronicls in great detail and in great fashion.
    The last week and a half – with multiple horrible events – I’m guessing have had – and should have – a big effect of the progressive Jewish community.

  2. I still think there could have been at least something written about Mumbai sooner, and it would have been great if you had included the comments about it that you just gave – but a week ago.
    I’ll ask again: Is this because, without a post from Jewschool, you had no way of finding out what was going on in Mumbai? Or is it because you think that Jewschool had something unique to say about it that all the other media outlets missed?
    Even if we had written about Mumbai at the first opportunity (rather than gone to the airport to visit our families for Thanksgiving), people would then have written “I think it’s sad that you need to condemn the attack. You’re Jewish, it should go without saying.” There’s no winning this game.

  3. No, it’s not that I get my news from Jewschool (though of course I miss things sometimes and Jewschool gives news I haven’t heard before). For something like this, I generally rely on the NY Times for main news coverage and the Israeli news sites for the Jewish angle and responses.
    But I generally value Jewschool from more of an editorial angle. And as I said, regardless of the fact that the majority of people targeted and killed in this attack were not Jewish, there was still a portion of the story that clearly was relating to Jews. And – though Jewschool shouldn’t publish meaningless crap simply because it has an “obligation” of some sort to so – I felt that the lack of coverage was noteworthy because I didn’t get the Jewschool opinion on it, which I value. Right-wing, left-wing, smright-wing, shmreft-wing. It’s not a sin for a journalist (or blog with a devoted following) to talk about tragedy and terrorism. It’s an obligation imo.

  4. Jewish universalism? Jewish universalism is in danger even when there are no major attacks on Jews. I mean, let’s face it, our leadership has an extreme paranoia that if you leave the kids without Jewish guilt crammed down their throats every second, then they will just run off and fuck a “sheigetz/shiksa”. You know I’m right. Every Jewish institution aimed at young people is directed at making sure the right penises enter the right vaginas, believing that if they do, this will somehow generate more money for B’nai Brith and AIPAC down the road (a dubious hypothesis).
    While there are few exceptions, the majority of programming is particularly geared toward lessening the associations between Jews and non-Jews, and increasing Jewish solidarity (read: groupthink).
    Our tribalism some times comes off as universalism (“I won’t convert you, you won’t convert me, as long as you recognize my right to my piece of land, everybody is okay.”) But it isn’t.
    It’s still tribalism. Cause we may not be skewering people ala Pinchas anymore, but anyone who pulls a Zimri is pretty much pushed out the circle. And maybe that’s what you want.
    Nobody seems to mind tribalism in other cultures, so why not embrace it in your own? Of course, to do that, to commit to that fully means creating restrictions on your interaction with the emerging global village, something even most tribal peoples are no longer willing to do.
    For those progressives who think I’m going too far here, I got a question for you.
    What non-canonical reason give you give for why two agnostic Jews should get married to each other as opposed them marrying two agnostic non-Jews? If it’s something about, “Jewish children”, then why have many of you in the progressive Jewish movements (much to your credit), been such overwhelming proponents of gay marriage (or at least civil unions)? Those won’t produce Jewish babies, either. But they have the same chance of being healthy, positive and productive and stand to benefit the wider Jewish community.
    I’m not suggesting a Reform-style patrilineal lineage thing, because that misses the point entirely. The point is, ala Rabbi Akiva, Judaism isn’t about blood. It’s about ideas. And if you say, well, there are no ideas we can agree on, then who gives a shit about the bloodlines? if there aren’t ideas attached to it, Jewishness has no value. But I don’t believe that is the case.
    I think young progressive Jews have let themselves be complicit in the errors of the established movements, excepting some of the shining examples of iconoclasm that I have mostly only read about.
    I started reading Jewschool because of a crazy genius named Daniel Siedarski, and while he may have taken an indefinite break from Jewish culturejamming, I still think his vision of an open-source, network society Judaism is possible, and in fact, one of the keys to ensuring the longevity of progressive Judaism. (It is also somewhat the logical descendant of Kaplan’s “Judaism as a Civilization”) In the post-bureaucratic world, people need to have the tools to easily do things like:
    1.) Compile and create their own siddurim based on their own and other peoples ideas
    2.) Establish an organization that does not simply give out hechshers, but gives the consumer sufficient information (in an easily accesible format, like wiki style) about the factory and the food processing that one could decide for ones own self (incorporated into this would be worker’s wages/conditions at all levels of production, use of pesticides, hormones, tzaar baalei chayim, etc)
    3.) a complete, free hypertext Tanakh, with the option of selecting from an inclusive list of commentaries to print on a hard copy of the document.
    4.) Better ways of networking indie minyans. Cause lets face it, indie minyans are a blank canvas with a pretty reliable measure of flexibility.
    5.) Create “blue blocs”. Judaism tends to, and should, engender political causes within relatively tolerant societies (such as America). However, instead of PACs and highly structured campaigns, greater networking capabilities could give rise to smaller, more effective affinity groups, which could protest/fundraise/help people out all on their own with little need for building structures within the organized Jewish community, and little need to go begging from the big money.
    I probably stole all those ideas from other progressive Jews, because you know, they’re good ideas. I’m just sayin. Think about it. Are we merely to survive as a community, or are we to LIVE?

  5. So you progressives criticize Jews for re-acting to the Jewish aspect of the tragedy and condemn Jewish settlers, calling an event in which there were no serious injuries, a pogrom. Conspicuously absent from this editorial was any condemnation by the progressive Jewish movement of Palestinian violence against settlers.
    It is astonishing that your entire purpose in being progressive is to damnify Jews.

  6. no serious injuries? two people were shot! tens of cars were burned and a couple of house were set on fire! there were over 50 injuries of Palestinians by stones over the past week. what are you talking about??

  7. I don’t think universalism means what you think it means. It sounds to me like you’re talking about Jewish unity. Or am I missing something here?

  8. The question is – as a media collective, should Jewschool:
    a. have immediate posts condemning ANY major tragedy around the world
    b. have immediate posts condemning ANY major tragedy around the world when there are Jews involved (on any of the possible sides)
    c. something else?
    Speaking as a Jewschool editor, we do not currently have a policy requiring our bloggers to post on certain topics. Actually, our main goal is to cover things that AREN’T covered in the mainstream press. I think that when we are able to share editorial opinions on mainstream stories, it definitely enhances them; however, I believe our best posts are the stories from the sidelines.
    Regarding universalism vs. particularism:
    –>One does not have to go far to find a Jewish media outlet that is Jewishly particularist – thus, Jewschool strives to fill this gap, reminding the world that Jews don’t care only about Jews and aren’t always going to side with the Jews or defend the Jews simply because they are Jews. In our view at Jewschool, this is how we show our universalist values.
    Readers, what are your thoughts on this?

  9. Again, I’m uncomfortable with this use of the word universalism. To me, Jewish universalism is summed up in the second paragraph of the Aleinu, where we hope that one day all other religious will be destroyed and the entire world can worship our God — one God with one name.
    Particularism, on the other hand, says to me that Jews understand ourselves to have a particular relationship with God, expressed covenantally through mitzvot. (I know, people who know me are snickering because I wouldn’t quite define my own Judaism so narrowly, but stay with me. But let’s say that my understanding of the mitzvot that Jews (can) do is broader than a traditional understanding might include.) The upshot of this worldview is that (to me) it doesn’t preclude others from having their own unique relationship with God (under whatever name they use to describe God) expressed in whatever way is appropriate for them.
    Jewish universalism says we have the answer for the world. Jewish particularism says we’re looking for the answer for ourselves, and we hope that everyone else is also looking for the answer that’s right for them.

  10. dlevy:
    I think we have our lines crossed somehow.
    In the way kunfujew and I are defining it, “universalism” says we take a universalistic approach, meaning we aren’t favoring Jews over another people – we equally favor all peoples, universally. “Particularism” would mean we favor Jews in particular (or whoever we favor.)
    It seems you are using the Christian meaning of Universalism, which yes, does mean that all should ideally come under Jesus. This is where we are getting tripped up in words.

  11. I’m using the, um, accepted? meaning of universalism. You know, the one that’s used in academia and dictionaries and whatnot.

  12. yes, this is confusing. let’s ask wikipedia for help:
    it seems like kungfu&i are talking about moral universalim: “if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us”
    whereas what you are talking about seems to be closer to Christian universalism: “In Christianity, Universalism refers to the belief that all humans can be saved through Jesus Christ and eventually come to harmony in God’s kingdom.” [transferred to Judaism]
    kungfu, will you weigh in?

  13. Am I allowed to call foul on wikipedia cites? 🙂
    I’d be more comfortable if you’d replace “Christian universalism” with “theological universalism” (which I think the wikipedia entry you link to would allow). My understanding of “Jewish universalism” as I’m describing it is probably largely informed by Rabbbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference, in which he argues for particularism (as I described it above).
    Some quotes from Sacks:
    “…universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism, and no less dangerous. It leads to the belief — superficially compelling but quite false — that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition, and it holds true for all people at all times. If I am right, you are wrong. If what I believe is the truth, then your belief, which differs from mine, must be an error from which you must be converted, cured and save…” (pg 50)
    He argues that the Torah, by beginning with creation and stories of a human monoculture (Eden, Flood, Babel) before moving to particular stories of Abraham and his family, “the Bible argues that universalism is the first, not the last, phase in the growth of the moral imagination.” (pg 51)
    “Is it the attempt to impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity. That is what is wrong with universalism.” (52)
    “…though God makes absolute demands of the Jewish people, other than the Noahide laws these demands are not universal.” (55)
    “The God of Abraham teaches humanity a more complex truth than simple oppositions – particular/universal, individual/state, tribe/humanity – would allow. We are particular and universal, the same and different, human beings as such, but also members of this family, that community, this history, that heritage.”
    Anyway, we’re mostly arguing about vocabulary here, not about concepts. But I also think Sacks’s book is pretty fantastic, so why pass up a chance to plug it? 🙂 (For a fascinating and fairly compelling counterargument in favor of Jewish universalism, I’d look at Douglas Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred, another fantastic book I like to plug.)

  14. A little bit of commentary, as I’m limited in time:
    dlevy, great sources you’ve cited, I love The Dignity of Difference deeply. That being said, Sacks upholds the Noachide Laws as God’s covenant with other people’s, within which anal sex is prohibited and thus many gay and plenty of other couples are wholly damned. His is an inspiring suggestion…to be coming from an orthodox rabbi, I mean. I quote him as an inspiration, but not otherwise. I would like to suggest that some very unqualified ancient rabbis pulled the Noachide Laws out of their butts through very, very tenuous Biblical citations. It’s not a proposal I believe is halakhically sound, although what I adhere to is awfully close.
    I have been a little unspecific and even a bit loose in my use of the world “universalism” and more than one person has asked about “Jewish” universalism.
    True, universalism is a theologically-grounded idea…mostly. I’m using it a little more broadly, so stick with me. To be universalist in our outlooks means not believing other people are damned for not believing what we believe. It also means to extend our caring to those people and not treat ourselves as above them.
    Which, as in the case of Mumbai, too many Jews out there have made a spectacle of our share of the pain, and have priviledged the other 120 victims out of the picture. And they have failed to extend the same assumption of universal goodness to whole religions, countries and civilizations. To protect Jewish universalism means to keep a picture of the whole universe, not just our .5% slice of it. It is the opposite of parochialism. But you can correct me if I’ve used the wrong word.
    What unites Mumbai and the Hebron settlers is the use of terrorism. The settlers use intimidation and violence to make political accomplishments against the local Palestinians and to the Israeli government. No one need die for an act of terrorism to be instantly condemnable. You’ve posited a good point about the sizes of both events, but did I hear you condemn the Hebron violence? Conspicuous from your comment is anything of the sort.
    It took quite a bit of thinking to pull together the warring emotions involved in both Mumbai and Hebron. Further complicating it has been a feeling in the more right-wing world (particularly Lubavitch circles, or those close to them) that they were under attack on three fronts: Mumbai first, Agriprocessors second, and Hebron lastly. Some, for example, claim that anti-Semitism is the root cause of all three. The conflation of the three issues has not made dealing with them very easy.
    Postmodern Orthodox:
    I’m glad that since Dan is gone from Jewschool that you still read us. It’s now bigger and has a lot more ideas than just one person. And he would be the first one to tell you that all those very awesome ideas you suggest require money. Lots of money that he’s tried and failed to raise. Got suggestions on that front?
    There’s a lot going on in your comment, so I’m going to have to get back to it all later. But I at least agree with your parting sentence: Jewish continuity is pointless unless it’s living out values. And it’s the values we’re fighting over and advocating for here at Jewschool. This is a forum where we progressives are trying to define and promote the values we feel should be the central forces in Jewish life.
    Lastly, Shamir, rock on for chipping in on the universalism front. And BZ, thanks for pressing your question.
    I agree that it would be *nice* to have posts about everything going on in the world, but we’re a volunteer blog, so we put up whatever people are motivated to put up. I’m a little lost as to why some people can’t understand that we’re not a business; we’re a community.

  15. Just a little note KFJ:
    That being said, Sacks upholds the Noachide Laws as God’s covenant with other people’s, within which anal sex is prohibited and thus many gay and plenty of other couples are wholly damned.
    Just a reminder that gay does not equal anal sex, anal sex does not equal gay. Lots of gay couples (esp Orthodox ones) don’t engage in this, so not all gay couples are damned by an anti-anal-sex law. Though it’s hard for some people to imagine, there are lots of way for two men to have sex. And as you know lots of married straight people do engage in anal sex , but it’s a lot less clear what the attitude is towards that, especially if seed is not spilled, so I wouldn’t say straight anal sex participants are wholly damned.
    I’m reading this unversalism conversation with interest but have little to say, for once.

  16. T: I said “many” gay couples and “plenty of other” couples. I’m very aware of the distinctions, but thanks for the reminder, of course.
    Mastrubation is also off-limits in the sexual conduct laws, so that damns a helluva lot of people right there.

  17. Sorry, I even quoted it back to you yet I didn’t even see the word “many”! That’s what I get for commenting when tired and coffee-less.
    The Noachide Laws make me feel a little uncomfortable, too, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly why.

  18. The Noachide Laws make me feel a little uncomfortable, too, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly why.
    Some theories..
    1. We like to think of Judaism as a tolerant, non-imperialistic religion that gets along with everybody else. We make lots of laws for ourselves but only expect gentiles to “be good people”. Extensive discussion of the Noachide Laws brings up the problem of us Jews legislating for them non-Jews, something that we always condemn when Christian, Muslims, and other missionary religion do it to us.
    2. The Noachide Laws tend to be a particular obsession of Lubavitchers and Judaizing Christians, groups who tend to present themselves as the true voice of religion with the One Right Way… usually not the rest of ours’ way.
    3. The Noachide Laws have never been developed in the halachic literature. Similar to Hilchot-Indepedent-Jewish-State, Hilchot-Space-Travel and Hilchot-Agriculture, since the beginnings of Rabbinic literature there hasn’t been pressure to explore all their outlines and details because they were irrelevant to the life-circumstances of exiled, dispersed, disenfranchised Jews. Any time someone today claims to know a psak from Noachide halacha, they are actually walking on the thinnest of halachic foundations.
    …well, at least that’s what makes *me* uncomfortable about them.. 🙂

  19. As an American Unitarian Universalist (the current incarnation of Christian Universalism) let me define Christian Universalism in much the same way that KungFuJew does: Christian Universalists believe that all people ARE saved by dint of being children of a loving God who damns none of them. Quite different from positing that everyone must, can, or should believe anything in particular about Jesus.

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