Jewish identity delicately balances two opposing attitudes vis-à-vis the non-Jewish world. We are a particularistic race, maintaining attachment to our group interests and asserting our 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. The Jewish day-to-day experience and routine is fundamentally unlike that of non-Jews. We are different and we are chosen.
However, we were not chosen for privilege or 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 Talmud considers a hypothetical scenario whereby a divine commandment only applies to a gentile, but not to a Jew. Prior to Sinai, G-d delivered numerous commandments to the non-Jewish world, some of which were not reissued at Sinai. Perhaps these pre-Sinai injunctions applied only to gentiles.
The Talmud patently rejects this notion since it is inconceivable that Jews would 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 commandments so that humanity can one day appreciate the value of 7 [Noachide laws]. Given this historical assignment, it’s unimaginable that Sinai 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 rituals, customs, and lifestyles are distinctive and culturally inward-looking. If we neglect our religious commitments and 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 an outwardly shiny, shimmering world. 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 we faced only two generations ago. After surviving centuries of genocidal attacks, we are now being falsely charged with the very crimes that were perpetrated against us. History is ironic and painful, especially as it relates to our people.
The U.N., supposedly a beacon of international cooperation, has been exposed as an accomplice to murder. Ever since its inception, the U.N. has been hijacked by anti-Israel blocs weaponizing it to concoct nonstop prejudiced resolutions against our people. We have now discovered that the UNRWA, an agency founded to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians, has been, in fact, an essential cog in the Hamas murder machine. Always a chamber of hate towards Israel, the U.N. 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 “HaIvri” because he stood alone on one side, opposing an entire pagan world that 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, particularly those of a strong Universalist orientation. Many of them, particularly those who reside outside of Israel, assumed that Jews had been warmly accepted by the modern, enlightened world of racial and religious equality. They assumed that our historical Jewish mission was now transformed into a shared universal agenda of promoting equality, education, and peace. Jewish mission had now fused 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 tikkun 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 other minorities, have viciously turned their backs on us while supporting our murderous enemies. Many “universalist” Jews have been shocked by the vitriol of 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 in the first place. Though particularistic Jews feel comfortable participating in universalist agendas alongside non-Jews, this partnership does not define their identity. Comfortable living among gentiles, these Jews never viewed tikkun olam partnership with gentiles 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 promote bigotry or racism. The war in Gaza and our battle with antisemitism can easily plunge us into ugly misanthropic hatred of “the other.” In the face of brutality and rabid hatred it is easy to paint the entire world as our enemy. 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 our Jewish universalism.
Though it is true that we face sweeping global antisemitism, we also enjoy significant backing from a broad collation 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 HaIvri. 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 G-d’s Earth, but most civilized and upright human beings enjoy prosperity, even without converting to Judaism. We are the only religion that 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 G-d, and acknowledging Jews as His moral and religious representatives.
Don’t let the haters of the world turn us into haters. It is bad enough that they murdered our people. Do not allow them to murder our Jewish universalist identity as well.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin 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 master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.