Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Universalism must flow from our particularism

I just recently listened to the recording of event put on by Yeshiva University entitled, Yehudim V'Amim: Destinies Intertwined?, which was about the Jewish responsibility for the global community from a social justice perspective. It was an evening of very interesting talks given by the Richard M. Joel, the president of YU and Rabbis Michael Rosensweig and J.J. Schacter.

While one of the messages of the evening was the need for offering students a balance of opportunities including social justice outreach, as well as training in Torah along with the full range of university curriculum.

During his presentation Rabbi Rosensweig made the point that a Jewish sense of universalism must flow from Judaism's particularism. I find this point very interesting and very important. Clearly, Judaism is known for it particularism in the sense that there is a perception that it has a dominant focus on the family of Jews and not the larger family of the world. And while Christianity may claim to have offered a remedy for that particularism, I think that the more interesting type of Jewish "particularism" is the type of amazing attention to real world details that is at the heart of the Talmud. For instance in Berachos 4b we find:

This is what David said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, am I not devout? For all the other kings of the East and the West sit among their company in their glory, but as for me, my hands are soiled with blood, embryos, and afterbirths which I examine, in order to permit a woman to her husband.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, described this passage in Halakhic Man as an example of how the halakhic man gets "his hands soiled by the gritty realia of practical Halakhah."

Another example of this specificity comes from in today's Daf Yomi, Nazir 49B, which describes the amount of a corpse (bones, blood, gel, dust, etc.) needed to make a nazir tameh (ritually impure).

From these "gritty" particulars, the Talmud and its interpreters are able to build an ideal vision of reality, what one might call a universal vision. Again from Halakhic Man:

Halakhah has a fixed a priori relationship to the whole of reality in all of its fine and detailed particulars. Halakhic man orients himself to the entire cosmos and tries to understand it by utilizing an ideal world which he bears in his halakhic consciousness. p23

What I find fascinating is that another direction my attention has taken me recently is to a somewhat similar particularist vision of reality that is described by The Rule of Benedict (RB), St. Benedict's monastic rule that he wrote around 600 CE (the same time that the editing of the Talmud was completed).

Here is the reading for May 6:

Hence the Lord says in the Gospel,
"Whoever listens to these words of Mine and acts upon them,
I will liken to a wise person
who built a house on rock.
The floods came,
the winds blew and beat against that house,
and it did not fall,
because it had been founded on rock" (Matt. 7:24-25).

Having given us these assurances,
the Lord is waiting every day
for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions.
And the days of this life are lengthened
and a truce granted us for this very reason,
that we may amend our evil ways.
As the Apostle says,
"Do you not know that God's patience is inviting you to repent" (Rom. 2:4)?
For the merciful Lord tells us,
"I desire not the death of the sinner,
but that the sinner should be converted and live" (Ezech. 33:11).

Words like "rock" and "deeds" and the entire RB is filled with real world, nitty gritty details about life within a community of monks written 1400 years ago. Yet, it contains an enormous array of details and insights from which one can learn much for living in the everyday world of the 21st century.

And on the other hand, philosophical or theological positions that do not rely on the particular, but are built on abstractions or generalizations often evaporate when challenged or lose their strength over time or simply merge into one, weak message that no longer has the power to move, motivate or inspire.

Somehow, these two visions, the Talmud and the Rule of Benedict, for me contain a way to focus on the particular, but dwell within the eternal and point to the universal.

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