Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Universalism vs Particularism and the problem of membership: Matan Torah

Membership is one of the great defining lines of human ideologies. Nearly everyone – good people, bad people and average people from many different cultures in different parts of the world and different places – agrees on a common moral grammar of membership. On the one hand, we treat members of our family, group, team, tribe, nation as if they were us, on the other hand, we treat non-members as competitors, tools, threats.

For members of the team, we willingly sacrifice, not always even seeing it as a sacrifice: parents give to their children, patriots give to their country, teammates go all out for the team. Hobbes notwithstanding, life is not nasty, solitary or short (well, some of us are short, but that is another matter). Rather, solidarity is total: what is good for fellow members is good for ourselves.

The maternal instinct seems common to most of the larger mammals; humans universally have a variety of larger groups characterized by a loss of self. Inside the team, we cooperate.

In contrast, non-team members are competitors, at best mutually disinterested and at worst fundamentally hostile. To be sure, decent people in decent societies put limits on competition: in the market you may bargain hard, but you can’t deceive; in a competitive sport, you should try to beat the other side, but not by cheating.

Nonetheless, when the other guy gets more, that is a bad thing, not a good thing. More for them is less for us: this is, indeed, Hobbes’s world, in which all goods are reducible to power, and power is inherently a zero-sum game, even if the war of all against all is sometimes fought by highly restrictive rules of fair-play.

I want to claim that this dichotomy applies in every aspect of our lives, as a great universal of human culture, like the division of words into nouns and verbs, part of the deep structure with which we analyze reality.

That said, there are no firm rules about who is us and who is them, who is a member and who an outsider: these are things that shift depending on our focus of interest, that we battle about, that can change. Similarly, the degree of solidarity inside the group, or disinterest or hostility outside it. All languages have a word for blue, but the words differ (and so, sometimes do the exact wavelengths of colors at the edge of the spectrum of blues).

Many of the great political debates are simply debates about membership: nationalists see a sharp boundary at the edge of the nation or the state; pan-Europeans place their boundary wider; human rights activists wider still; and Peter Singer and the animal liberation front want even chickens on our side. Abortion rights activists and right to lifers argue about whether unwanted fetuses should be treated like members yet (nearly everyone agrees that wanted ones should be); capital punishment advocates and opponents have the same argument about convicts; civil rights and racists about minority groups; socialists and market-capitalists about workers; and so on.

The basic left-right distinction in political morality tracks, to a large degree, different views of who ought to be treated as a member, and how threatening non-members are. Leftists see more people as “us”, rightwingers see more “them” and the they they see is more hostile. For a leftist, when I make the poor better off, or save a redwood from being cut down, I am helping me, not just someone else. For a rightist, everything that makes the others stronger simply weakens me: in a war of all against all, we must focus on ourselves.

Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah – is one of the great epicenters of this conflict. Why does the one God, creator of all humanity, give the Torah just to a tiny group of his creations? Is the salient us “creation,” “humanity,” “Jews,” “Torah-observant Jews,” “Jews who interpret and observe the Torah just as I do,” members of my town, Jews who voted the same way as I did in the last contested election?

Our tradition and our holiday cycle begins with one of the great statements of universalism:

Braishit bara elohim ... In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. (Genesis 1).

One god created one earth and all its creatures. We all have a common ancestor and a common origin. A fundamental principle of equality and equal concern. Perhaps the earliest and still one of the most radical attacks on aristocracy and racism. Here is a Talmudic discussion:


How do they threaten witnesses in capital cases [to persuade them of the importance of truthful testimony]? ...

'In capital cases, his blood and the blood of all his descendants, until the end of the world, are dependent on it, as we found about Cain, who killed his brother, and it is said “the bloods of your brother cry out from the soil (adama)” (Gen 4:10). It doesn’t say “blood of his brother” but “bloods” [i.e., the Hebrew word for blood (dam) unexpectedly appears in the plural (damim), and this puzzling word choice is explained by:]-- his (Abel’s) blood and the blood of all his unborn descendants.'

Why was adam (Adam or humanity) was created single/alone? To teach that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture treats him as if he had destroyed an entire world. And anyone who saves the life of a single soul, Scripture treats him as if he had saved an entire world.

And because of the Peace of Creation, so that no person would say to his comrade, “My father was greater than your father.” And so that the heretics wouldn’t say “there are many powers in Heaven.”

And to tell the greatness of the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He, because when a human stamps many coins from one mold, each one is similar to the other. But when the king of Kings, stamped all humanity in the mold of the first human/adam, not one is similar to his comrades. Therefore each individual must say, “the world was created for me.”


Another explanation: because of the righteous and the wicked (rasha-im). So that the righteous wouldn’t say, “I am the child of a tzaddik”; and the evil say, I am the child of a rasha. Another explanation, because of families, so that families wouldn’t quarrel with one another.

Another explanation, because of robbers and extorters. (Mishnah Sanhedrin Ch 4, Mishnah 5; T.B. Sanhedrin 37a)

Why was Adam created alone? So that no person can say “my father is greater than yours.” No hereditary yihus (prestige, standing, aristocratic or meritocratic privilege), and no overbearing pride, for we are all children of Adam, created out of the earth, from dust we came and to dust we shall return.

Indeed, although it isn’t often noted in the tradition, the story is even more radical. Genesis is often considered to be extremely anthropocentric – humans are created on the Sixth Day, the penultimate pinnacle of a hierarchy culminating inShabbat, then commanded to fill the earth and subdue it. But there is another strand here as well:

These are the begettings of the heavens and the earth: their being created. At the time of Adonai God’s making of earth and heaven, no bush of the field was yet on earth, no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for Adonai God had not made it rain upon the earth and there was no adam to till the adama (soil). ... And Adonai God formed the adam of dust from the adama (soil), and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the adam became a living being (nefesh haya). ...

Now Adonai God said, It is not good for the adam to be alone. I will make him a helper corresponding to him. So Adoni God formed from the adama (soil) every living-thing (haya) of the field and every fowl of the heavens, and brought each to the adam to see what he would call it and whatever the adam called it as a living being that became its name. The adam called out names for every herd animal and the fowl of the heavens and for every living-thing of the field, but for the adam there could be found no helper corresponding to him. Genesis 2:4-7; 2:18-20

When God decides that Adam needs a mate, he sees the differences between man and animal as so minimal that is plausible that any one of the animals might be an appropriate spouse for Adam. They too are creatures of God; the differences are outweighed in the eyes of God, if not Adam, by similarities. We are all part of the same club.

Rosh HaShana -- the New Year, the anniversary of creation -- then, is an affirmation of a truly broad membership: we are all members of one club, the creations of one God, adam formed from the same adama. No yichus, or at least no hereditary yichus, is the message of our creation myth.

Then we have a different take on universalism at Passover:

Do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt.

This and its variants are the most commonly repeated refrain in Torah, the basic commandment on which all others are based.

You were slaves; you know the nefesh (spirit) of the oppressed.

Passover is less idealistic than Rosh HaShana:

The third of the great pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot -- the Festival of Weeks on which we read the Book of Ruth -- is most ambiguous of all. Ruth is “them,” a foreigner, yet she is “us,” the mother of David, our greatest king. She is a stranger who becomes a member. But Shavuot is also the holiday of the giving of the law, Matan Torah.

The puzzle of Matan Torah is dramatic: Why would our universal God, creator of all the universe, give his Torah to only one people? We are all creatures of God, but they don’t get Torah, only we do: we are the most exclusive club of all and they are just goyim – others, strangers, perhaps not to be oppressed, but certainly not to be members.

Here are two attempts to explain. First, from an early collection of midrash, Sifre Deuteronomy, probably dating from the Mishnaic period shortly after the destruction of the Temple. You may have heard a joke based on this; it circulates in more or less offensive forms on the internet.

And he said: "The Lord came from Sinai." When God revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed Himself not only to Israel but to all the nations.

He went first to the children of Esau [=Rome?] and asked them, "Will you accept the Torah?" They replied, "What is written in it?" He said to them, "Thou shalt not murder" (Exod. 20:13). They replied that this is the very essence of these people, and that their forefather was a murderer, as it is said, "But the hands are the hands of Esau" (Gen. 27:22), and, "By thy sword shall thou live" (Gen. 27:30).

He then went to the Ammonites and the Moabites and asked them, "Will you accept the Torah?" They replied, "What is written in it?" He said, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Exod. 20:13). They replied that adultery is their very essence, as it is said, "Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father" (Gen. 19:36).

He went next to the Ishmaelites and asked them, "Will you accept the Torah?" They replied, "What is written in it?" He said, "Thou shalt not steal" (Exod. 20:13). They replied that theft is their very essence and that their forefather was a thief, as it is said, "And he shall be a wild ass of a man" (Gen. 16:12).

And thus it was with every other nation--He asked them all, "Will you accept the Torah?" as it is said, "All the kings of the earth shall give Thee thanks, O Lord, for they have heard the words of Thy mouth" (Ps. 138:4). One might think (from this verse) that they heard and accepted (His offer); therefore Scripture states elsewhere, "And I will execute vengeance in anger and fury upon the nations, because they hearkened not" (Mic. 5:14).

[In the internet version, He then comes to the Jews, who ask, “how much do they cost?” On being told “nothing”, the Jews say, “Great, we’ll take the bunch”]

It was not enough for them that they did not hearken--they were not even able to observe the seven commandments that the children of Noah had accepted upon themselves, and they cast them off. When the Holy One, blessed be He, saw that, He surrendered them to Israel.

A parable: A man took his ass and his dog to the threshing floor and loaded the ass with a letek (of grain) and the dog with three se'ah. The ass went along (easily), but the dog began to pant, so the man took off a se'ah and put it on the ass, and so too with the second and third se'ah. So also Israel accepted the Torah, with all of its explanations and details, as well as the seven commandments which the children of Noah had not been able to observe and had cast off. Therefore it is said, "...the Lord came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them." (I Walzer 1:10: Sifre Deuteronomy 343)

The Sifre explanation teaches a simple lesson: God is just, but we needn’t be! God offered the nations Torah, as a just God should on the universal view. They became strangers, others, by their own refusal. So we, our God and our mythology, are acquitted of particularism and the offense of (self-appointed) chosen-ness is displaced onto the others.

Like President Bush’s division of the world into good and evil people – this story seeks to give permission to the good people to act like the bad ones. The Good and Evil division teaches that because "they" are evil, we must do anything -- even torture and murder -- to prevail. Uiversal rules of decent human behavior such as the Geneva Convention no longer apply to restrain us; because we are good we can act bad. The Sifre story works similarly: we are good universalists, like our God. THEY aren’t, so perhaps we needn’t take much concern for them. In any event, we get to tell nasty jokes about them.

But you can’t escape universalism that easily.

As other stories point out, the Jews refused Torah too.

"...and they took their places tahat ha-har (lit: under the mountain)" (Ex. 19:17): R. Avdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said, "This teaches that the Holy One placed the mountain over them like an [overturned] tub and told them: 'If you accept the Torah--well and fine; otherwise, you will be buried right there.'"

R. Aha b. Jacob said: "This furnishes a powerful disclaimer regarding the [acceptance of the] Torah." [Rashi explains: So if He takes them to court, demanding `Why have you failed to observe that which you accepted?', they can respond that the acceptance was coerced.] (BT Shabbat 89a)

This midrash puzzles over a strange word in Torah. Ex 19 describes the giving of Torah, and says that the Israelites were waiting tachat ha-har. Tachat is the Hebrew form of “tuchus” (bottom, in both senses) and can also mean "under." So presumably the intent is “[at] the tachat/tuchus/butt of the mountain,” or in better English, at the foot of the mountain, but the literal meaning is “under the mountain.” The midrash uses the literal meaning to teach a lesson: the Jews didn’t agree to Torah until they were forced to. This means, of course, that our agreement isn’t worth much; as R. Aha says, if God challenges you on why you broke your promise, you can deny the validity of the promise in the first place. If Torah is obligatory, it isn’t because of anything that happened at Sinai.

And, contrary to Sifre, in this story the Jews received the Torah through no merit of their own. If the law is good, and we are all children of Adam, why didn’t God coerce the nations to accept the Law as He coerced us?

By not being chosen, "they" became the strangers of Pesach, different, others. A havdalah, a separation, was made, like the Havdalah prayer we say at the end of Shabbat or a holiday:

Hamavdil ben or l hoshek, ben Israel l amim, ben yom hashvii le sheshet yamai ha maaseh, barukh .... ben khodesh l’hol.

Listen to the images of the prayer: on the one hand, us: Israel, light, Shabbat and holy. On the other: them, the peoples, darkness, the days of creation and secular. This is the particularist view.

Let me end, though, with a view from one of the great Orthodox students of Maimonidies in our day, Yeshayahu Leibowitz. What is it to be “light, shabbat, holy,” as the Havdalah prayer calls us?

[God gave no holiness to the Jewish people but only provided us with a route to holiness, by the mitzvot. The view that the people are holy is Korah’s, who declared that “all the congregation is holy” (Num 16:3). But] the holiness of the Jewish people is not a fact, but an end or goal. Holiness is dependent on the doing of “all my commandments” – a condition that clashes with human nature...

The Judaism of Moses is arduous. It means knowing that we are not a holy people. The Judaism of Korah is very comforting. It allows every Jew to be proud and boast that he is a member of the holy people, which is holy by its very nature. The obligates him to nothing. There is no greater opposition than that between the conception of am segulah (chosen people) implying subjection to an obligation and am segulah as purely a privilege. He who empties the concept of the Jewish people of its religious content ... and still describes it as am segulah turns this concept into an expression of racist chauvinism. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, 80-86

Leibowitz gives an answer that to my ears returns to Passover, and thus will be familiar to many of you, perhaps in a secular version. Chosen means obligated, not privileged. The chosenness of the Jews is that "you know the spirit of the oppressed" and therefore have a special obligation to work to end all forms of oppression.

We were rescued from Egypt and its modern analogues; we were slaves and poor, now we are free and rich. To be a chosen people is to accept the obligation implicit in Torah – to see, hard as it is, the broadest possible us, even as we recognize and accept their differences and separateness, so that they are not strangers, so that we do know their nefesh, so that when we give of ourselves to others, their gain is ours as well, but remain as essential as creation is to all of us.

-- Shavuot 5764 (2004)