Universalism and Particularism

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universal and particular cover page lesson plan

A suggested lesson plan outline for incorporating these resources into a 60-minute class.

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In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the themes of Universalism and Particularism in Jewish thought, and specifically the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.

There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.

Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).

These are the lyrics to the famous song Imagine by John Lennon.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

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Core Questions

  • What are the three things the song wishes would be no longer?
  • What does the song say will happen if they disappear?
  • Why does John Lennon choose these three? What do they have in common?
  • Why do you think these things have always been important to humans?
  • Do you think removing these three from the world will achieve the utopian vision the song describes?
  • Do you think these three things bring any positives to humanity?
  • Is there a way for humanity to keep them and also achieve a “Brotherhood of Man”?
  • What does Judaism say about these three things?
  • Does Judaism have a utopian vision of a “Brotherhood of Man”? What is it called?
  • How does Judaism say we can achieve it?

Read through the biblical and Talmudic verses listed, and then use the Core Questions in your discussions on what you have read.

Universalism and the Creation of Humanity

  • Bereishit 1:26-27
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Core Questions

  1. What does it mean to be created “in the image of God”?
  2. Who does this apply to?
  3. What can we learn about the world from that?

A Universal Covenant with all of Humanity

  • Bereishit 9:8-17
  • Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 56a (7 Noachide laws)
  • Talmud Bavli, 105a (moral Gentiles have a place in the world to come)
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Core Questions

  1. Why does God need a covenant with humanity after Noach?
  2. What is the basis of the covenant (i.e. what are the respective responsibilities contained in it)?
  3. Why is so much more demanded of the Jewish people in their covenant with God?

Identity without Universality: The Generation of the Flood

  • Bereishit 6:9-13

Universality without Identity: The Generation of the Dispersion (the Tower of Bavel)

  • Bereishit 11:1-9
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Core Questions

  1. How are these two stories opposites of each other?
  2. Why is identity and universality important for all human beings?
  3. What is your particular identity and your universality? Can you bring examples from your life?

For a rich exploration of these stories in this context see Not in God’s Name, Chapter 11 (The Universality of Justice, The Particularity of Love) and The Dignity of Difference, Chapter 3 (Exorcizing Plato’s Ghost)

A New Plan for Humanity: Universalism through Particularism and the birth of the Chosen people

  • Bereishit 12:1-3
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Core Questions

  1. What led God to choose one man to be the progenitor of one people as His chosen people?
  2. What does it mean that the world will be blessed through Avraham?
  3. Does Avraham represent universalism or particularism?

Other people, other covenants

  • Amos 9:7
  • Yeshayahu 19:19-25
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Core Questions

  1. How can other nations have covenants with God if we are His chosen people?
  2. What might their covenants be about?
  3. Do we all worship the same God?

The Universal and the Particular in the Torah

[T]he structure of the Hebrew Bible is unusual and significant. Its subject is the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Yet the Torah does not start with Abraham. It begins instead with universal archetypes of humanity as a whole. We read about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Babel and its builders. None of these is a Jew, a Hebrew, an Israelite. They are us in our universality: temptation and sin, sibling rivalry and violence, hubris and the desire for godlike powers. Only after this prologue does the Torah narrow its focus to one man, one family, eventually one nation and its highly specific destiny. The Torah is a particular text, but it begins with the universals of the human condition.

What is absolutely clear is that Genesis tells the story not of one covenant, but of two. The first, with Noah after the flood (Gen. 9), applies to all humanity. The second, with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17), does not. It is the covenant of one people, the people with whom God, many centuries later at Mount Sinai, makes a more highly articulated Covenant of Sinai with its 613 commands.

Judaism is built on a dual structure. It has a universal dimension and particularistic one, neither of which negates the other. God has a general relationship with all humanity and a particular relationship with the Children of Israel. Rabbi Akiva expressed this, simply and beautifully, in his statement in Ethics of the Fathers: ‘Beloved is humanity, for it was created in God’s image… Beloved are Israel for they are called God’s children.’ (Pirkei Avot 3:14)

Future Tense, pp. 211-212

The Hebrew Bible is a book whose strangeness is little understood. It tells the story of God who makes a covenant with an individual, Abraham, whose children become a family, then a tribe, then a collection of tribes, then a nation. It is the narrative of a particular people. Yet the Bible does not begin with this people. Instead it starts by telling a story about humanity as a whole. Its first eleven chapters are about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Babel and its tower - archetypes of humanity as a whole. This is not simply an etiological myth, a tale of origins. It is quite clearly intended to be more than that. The Bible is doing here what it does elsewhere, namely conveying a set of truths through narrative. But by any conventional standard, the order of these stories is precisely wrong. They begin with universal humanity and only then proceed to the particular: one man, Abraham, one woman, Sarah, and one people, their descendants. By reversing the normal order, and charting, instead, a journey from the universal to the particular, the Bible represents the great anti-Platonic narrative in Western civilisation.

The Dignity of Difference, pp. 50-51
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Core Questions

  1. Why is it important that the Torah begins with the “universals of the human condition”?
  2. What can non-Jews learn from the particular parts of the Torah?
  3. Why is the universal to the particular the reverse of the normal order? Why does the Torah reverse the order?

A particular people with a universal message

How do these various strands fit together? What have guarding sacred times and places, martyrdom, exemplary conduct and avoiding the appearance of wrongdoing to do with the role of God in history and His standing in the eyes of the world? At stake is the very nature of God and the definition of the Children of Israel as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.

The structure of Jewish spirituality is built on a difficult but sane and humane idea. The Hebrew Bible begins, not with the story of Israel, or even its prehistory in the days of the patriarchs and matriarchs, but with humanity as a whole. God makes the human person in His image but is repeatedly disappointed, first with Adam and Eve, then with Cain, then with the generation of the Flood. In grief (‘God regretted that He had made man on earth, and was pained to his very core’), He de-creates life on earth to begin again with a single righteous man, Noah. This time He resolves never to set the bar of virtues so high that humanity is bound to fail: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood’ (Gen. 8:21). God has not changed; neither has man. What have changed are the terms of their relationship…

God [now] makes a covenant with all humanity, based on the prohibition of murder (Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’). The Sages were eventually to identify seven ‘Noahide’ laws, but the principle is essentially the same. God no longer makes maximal demands: He makes minimal ones. This is what contemporary philosophers call a ‘thin’ morality, the basic requirements of human conduct as such.

God does not condemn humankind; he does not hold it guilty or incapable of good. Instead, he lowers his requirements to the level at which virtue is humanly achievable. Enough, he seems to say, that you honour the sanctity of life and the basic human decency. But that is not the end of the story… [Then He] makes a surprising move. God asks one individual – eventually a family, a tribe, a collection of tribes, a nation – to serve as an exemplary role model, to be as it were a living case-study in what it is to live closely and continuously in the presence of God. This is – as Jewish history testifies – a weighty and risk-laden responsibility.

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 64-65

The result is a combination, unique to the Hebrew Bible, of universality and particularity. The human condition is universal, but the expressions of that condition are particular. Each nation, each language, each culture has its distinctive character. One nation, that of Abraham and his descendants, is charged with the duty of embodying in its history and laws the sovereignty of God. As this idea became gradually clearer, I found myself putting it in the following proposition: God took one man, then one people, and summoned it to be different to teach all humanity the dignity of difference.

Only the combination of a particular faith and a universal God can yield this conclusion. If God is everywhere, and has set His image on everyone, then God exists outside the Abrahamic covenant as well as within. That is the only form of theology that can yield the God-given integrity of otherness, the dignity of the stranger. The alternatives are tribalism – many nations, many gods, or universalism – one God, one faith, and only one gate to salvation.

Future Tense, pp. 80-82

Moral truths are absolute but not universal. They are covenantal, meaning, we are called to live them out, not in the same way, but each culture and faith in its own way. God reaches out to us as Jews, asking us to be true to the covenant of Sinai, bringing the Divine presence into the world through the lives we lead, the relationships we form, the homes we build, the communities we create and the ideals we pass on to those we bring into the world. Ours is not the only way to live, but it is the Jewish way – the particular example that illustrates the general rule that you can be different and yet human, strangers and yet the beloved children of God. I know of no other faith that has taught this principle so clearly, so consistently, so courageously. The Jewish people in its very being constitutes a living protest against a world of hatred, violence and war.

Radical Then, Radical Now, pp. 94-95
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Core Questions

  1. Why can only a universal and a particular narrative teach the Dignity of Difference?
  2. What is the “universal message” of Judaism and the Jewish people?
  3. How does the Jewish people transmit this?

God is Universal, Religion is Particular

The radical transcendence of God in the Hebrew Bible means that the Infinite lies beyond our finite understanding. God communicates in human language, but there are dimensions of the divine that must forever elude us. As Jews we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures and faiths finding their own relationship with God within the shared frame of the Noahide laws. These laws constitute, as it were, the depth grammar of the human experience of the divine: of what it is to see the world as God's work, and humanity as God's image. God is God of all humanity, but between Babel and the end of days no single faith is the faith of all humanity. Such a narrative would lead us to respect the search for God in people of other faiths and reconcile the particularity of cultures with the universality of the human condition.

This means that though God makes absolute demands of the Jewish people, other than the Noahide laws these demands are not universal. There is a difference, all too often ignored, between absoluteness and universality. I have an absolute obligation to my child, but it is not a universal one. Indeed it is precisely this non-universality, this particularity, that constitutes parenthood – the ability to feel a bond with this child, not to all children indiscriminately. That is what makes love, love: not a generalized affection for persons of such-and-such a type, but a particular attachment to this person in his or her uniqueness. This ability to form an absolute bond of loyalty and obligation to someone in particular as opposed to persons-in-general goes to the very core of what we mean by being human… The essential irreplaceability of persons is what gives love its vulnerability, its openness to loss and grief, its fragility and pathos. It is what separates science (the search for universals) from poetry (the love of particulars). It is also what distinguishes the God of the philosophers from the God of the Hebrew Bible.

The Dignity of Difference, pp. 55-56

How then do we avoid the violence that comes when different groups meet and clash? The answer proposed by the Bible is that something transcends our differences. That something is God, and he has set his image on each of us. That is why every life is sacred and each life is like a universe. The unity of God asks us to respect the stranger, the outsider, the alien, because even though he or she is not in our image – their ethnicity, faith or culture are not ours – nonetheless they are in God’s image.

So God is universal. But our relationship with him is particular. The Hebrew Bible expresses this in the two primary words by which it refers to God: Elokim (E) and Hashem (called by Bible scholars J). Elokim is God in his universality. In Genesis, Elokim speaks to Abimelech, king of Gerar (Gen. 20:3). Joseph, declining the advances of Potiphar’s wife, says, ‘Should I sin against Elokim?’ (Gen. 39:9). Pharaoh, appointing Joseph, says, ‘Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of Elokim?’ (Gen. 41:38). Morality in general is described as ‘fear of Elokim’ (Gen. 20:11). Elokim is a purely universal term that applies to people’s relationship with God, whether they are inside or outside the covenant with Abraham.

Hashem, by contrast, is particular. It is what God is called in the context of the Abrahamic and later Mosaic covenant. It is a proper name, not a generic noun. It is the language of intimacy and relationship. When the Bible wants to describe what Martin Buber called an I–Thou relationship, it uses the word Hashem.

That is why Genesis describes two covenants, the first with Noah and all humankind, the second with Abraham and his children, who are not all humankind, just one particular people within it. The covenant with Noah (Gen. 9) uses the word Elokim throughout, while the covenant with Abraham uses the word Hashem (Gen. 15:18; Gen. 17:1–2). The Noah covenant expresses the unity of God and the shared dignity and responsibility of humankind. The Abrahamic covenant expresses the particularity of our relationship with God, which has to do with our specific identity, history, language and literature. The result is that in the Bible there is both a morality that applies to everyone, insider and outsider alike, and an ethic, that is, a specific code of conduct that frames relationships within the group. To use the language of contemporary philosophy, morality is thin (abstract, general) while ethics is thick (full of local texture and specificity).

Not in God’s Name, pp. 194-195

‘Because that which connects human thought and feeling with the infinite and all-surpassing Divine light must [be refracted into] a multiplicity of colours, therefore every people and society must have a different spiritual way of life.’ So said Rabbi Abraham Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel. ‘The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come,’ said the rabbis in the second century. Rabbi Akiva, the sage of the late first century, said, ‘Beloved is every human person for he or she is in the image of God. Beloved is Israel (i.e. each Jew), for each of us is one of the children of God.’ That is how Jews defined themselves in the past and do today. We feel ourselves close to God but we equally believe that God has a relationship with all humanity as defined in the Noahide code…

That is what the dual structure of Hebrew spirituality does. It accepts the inevitability of identity in the here-and-now. We are not all the same. There is an Us and Them. But God is universal as well as particular, which means that he can be found among Them as well as among Us. God transcends our particularities. That is why he often appears where we least expect him. Sometimes he speaks in the voice of a stranger, the man who wrestled with Jacob at night, or the one who found Joseph wandering in a field, or even the pagan prophet Balaam. The unique dialectic in the Hebrew Bible – so rarely understood, so often reviled – between universality and particularity is precisely what is necessary if we are to have identity without violence.

For though God is our God, he is also the God of all, accessible to all: the God who blesses Ishmael, who tells the children of Jacob not to hate the descendants of Esau, who listens to the prayers of strangers and whose messengers appear as strangers. Only a faith that recognises both types of covenant – the universal and the particular – is capable of understanding that God’s image may be present in the one whose faith is not mine and whose relationship with God is different from mine.

Not in God’s Name, pp. 204-205
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Core Questions

  1. Where do we see the universal and particular aspects of religion and God in the Torah?
  2. If God is universal, why are there so many ways to worship Him?
  3. Why does Judaism need to teach about Brit Noach as well as Brit Avraham?

Universalism as a Threat to the Dignity of Difference

Today we are inclined to see resurgent tribalism as the great danger of our fragmenting world. It is, but it is not the only danger. The paradox is that the very thing we take to be the antithesis of tribalism - universalism - can also be deeply threatening, and may be equally inadequate as an account of the human situation. A global culture is a universal culture, and universal cultures, though they have brought about great good, have also done immense harm. They see as the basis of our humanity the fact that we are all ultimately the same. We are vulnerable. We are embodied creatures. We feel hunger, thirst, fear, pain. We reason, hope, dream, aspire. These things are all true and important. But we are also different. Each landscape, language, culture, community is unique. Our very dignity as persons is rooted in the fact that none of us - not even genetically identical twins - is exactly like any other. Therefore none of us is replaceable, substitutable, a mere instance of a type. That is what makes us persons, not merely organisms or machines. If our commonalities are all that ultimately matter, then our differences are distractions to be overcome.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 47

We can now state what Judaism represents in the history of Western thought. The story of the covenantal people begins with two journeys: Abraham and Sarah's from Mesopotamia, and Moses and the Israelites' from Egypt. Mesopotamia in the days of Abraham and Egypt in the age of Moses were the supreme economic and political powers of their time. Judaism has historically been a living alternative to empires, because imperialism and its latter-day successors, totalitarianism and fundamentalism, are attempts to impose a single regime on a plural world, to reduce men to Man, cultures to a single culture, to eliminate diversity in the name of a single sociopolitical order.

The faith of Israel declares the oneness of God and the plurality of man. It moves beyond both tribalism and its antithesis, universalism. Tribalism and its modern counterpart, nationalism, assumes there is one god (or 'spirit' or 'race' or 'character') for each nation. Universalism contends that there is one God – and therefore one truth, one way, one creed - for all humanity. Neither does justice to the human other, the stranger who is not in my image but is nevertheless in God's image. Tribalism denies rights to the outsider. Universalism grants rights if and only if the outsider converts, conforms, assimilates, and thus ceases to be an outsider. Tribalism turns the concept of a chosen people into that of a master-race. Universalism turns the truth of a single culture into the measure of humanity. The results are often tragic and always an affront to human dignity.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 47
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Core Questions

  1. What are the benefits of a universal culture? What are the dangers?
  2. What are the dangers of particularism and how does the Torah mitigate them?
  3. How is the Torah a story of the delicate balance between universalism and particularism?

Particular and universal knowledge – Torah and Chochmah

So we have a dual ontology, two modes of being. But Judaism also recognises a dual epistemology. There are two ways of knowing. One is called chokhma, ‘wisdom’, the other is Torah, ‘teaching, instruction, law, guidance’. The difference was stated clearly by the Sages: ‘If you are told that there is wisdom among the nations believe it. If you are told there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it.’ (Midrash Rabbah Eichah 17)

Future Tense, p. 219

We can now state the difference between the two modes of knowledge. Chochmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chochmah is the universal heritage of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chochmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chochmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chochmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be. Chochmah is about facts; Torah is about commands. Chochmah yields descriptive, scientific laws; Torah yields prescriptive, behavioural laws. Chochmah is about creation; Torah is about revelation…

…We can now state the following. Chochmah has an honourable place within the Jewish worldview. It has religious dignity. It is the gift of God. It is available to everyone, because everyone is in the image of God. We can also hazard the following definition: chochmah is what allows us to understand the world as God’s work (science) and the human person as his image (the humanities).

Future Tense, pp. 221-222
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Core Questions

  1. What is universal knowledge and where can we find it?
  2. What is particular knowledge and where can we find it?
  3. Why do we need both?

"Judaism embodies a unique paradox that has distinguished it from polytheism on the one hand and the great universal monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, on the other. Its God is universal: the creator of the universe, author and sovereign of all human life. But its covenant is particular: one people set among the nations, whose vocation is not to convert the world to its cause, but to be true to itself and to God. That juxtaposition of universality and particularity was to cause a tension between Israel and others, and within Israel itself, that has lasted to this day.”

Crisis and Covenant, p. 250

“Judaism is the particular case that exemplifies the universal rule that the world exists under the sovereignty of God, and that every person is the image of God.”

Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 87

“Judaism is structurally unique – the only world religion ever to believe in a universal God, the God of all peoples, times and places, and at the same time to believe in a particular way of life that not all people have to follow, because just as there is more than one way to be a leader, so there is more than one way to find God.”

Radical Then, Radical Now, pp. 87-88

“We are particular and universal, the same and different”

The Dignity of Difference, p. 56

“The Universality of moral concern is not something we learn by being universal but by being particular. Because we know what it is to be a parent, loving our children, not children in general, we understand what it is for someone else, somewhere else, to be a parent, loving his or her children, not ours.”

The Dignity of Difference, p. 58

Faith belongs to particular covenants with a universal God. There are universal requirements of morality, but beyond this minimum our moral and spiritual lives are as plural as languages, neither private nor universal but bound by the rules preserved by faith-communities in their dialectic between revelation and interpretation. Each of us carries the inescapable burden of duality, of being true to our faith while recognising the image of God in, and being a blessing to, those who are unlike us.

Crisis and Covenant, p. 277

“Judaism is a particularist faith that recognises the universality of the human condition.”

To Heal a Fractured World, p. 106

“Judaism is both particularist and universalist... Judaism is unique yet has a message for all humankind.”

Future Tense, p. 118

“Without negating the universal, Judaism is a celebration of particularity.”

Future Tense, p. 213

“Philosophy aimed at universality – at propositions that were true in all places, at all times. But meaning is expressed in particularity.”

The Great Partnership, p. 84
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Core Questions

  1. How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the concepts of universalism and particularism?
  2. How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
  3. Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch

The Torah calls Israel a treasured nation. However, this does not imply, as some have mistakenly assumed, that Israel has a monopoly on God's love and favor. On the contrary, Israel's most cherished ideal is that of the universal brotherhood of mankind.

Hirsch, S.R., Nineteen Letters of Ben Uzziel, tr. Bernard Drachman [New York, 1942], p.15.

Judaism does not say, "There is no salvation outside of me." Although disparaged because of its alleged particularism, the Jewish religion actually teaches that the upright of all peoples are headed toward the highest goal.

In particular, they have been at pains to stress that, while in other respects their views and ways of life may differ from those of Judaism, the peoples in whose midst the Jews are now living have accepted the Jewish Bible of the Old Testament as a book of Divine revelation. They profess their belief in the God of heaven and earth as proclaimed in the bible and they acknowledge the sovereignty of Divine Providence in both this life and the next. Their acceptance of the practical duties incumbent upon all men by the Will of God distinguishes these nations from the heathen and idolatrous nations of the Talmudic era.

S. R. Hirsch, Principles of Education, "Talmudic Judaism and Society,” pp. 225-7

Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill

Do Jews and Christians worship the same God? Most sources would say that we do. Certainly, universalists like Rabbi Lipschutz, and inclusivists like Halevi, Kook, Hirsch, Gikkitila, Seforno and Emden, would say yes. But even an exclusivist like Maharal would give a qualified yes because we share God as the first cause of philosophy, even if we differ over revelation and redemption. It is quite possible, though, that Rashi and Luria would argue that we do not, while exclusivist dualists like Zevi Yehudah would explicitly say that we do not.

It is worth restating one of the underlying assumptions of all the sources quoted above, a principle that is crucial to reaching the conclusion of commonality: God is real! All Jewish theological positions assume we pray to a living God. Conversely, God is not just a concept, so different languages or conceptions applied to God are not creating different deities. They are at most disputing aspects of God; more likely, they are pointing to different perceptions of a Unity that is too great to be contained by any one observer. This theological premise differs from the academic premise, where one can distinguish between the God of the Zohar and the God of Maimonides – a distinction that in real life both the philosopher and the kabbalist would reject

Alan Brill, Judaism and Other Religions: An Orthodox perspective

Rabbi A. Y. Kook

Humanity has a surviving inheritance in Knesset Yisrael (Ecclesia Israel), in whose inner orbit the divine sympathy is found. Feeling attests and understanding clarifies that the one and only God of the universe is the absolute good, the life, the light, the all, exalted beyond all and exalted beyond exaltedness, better than good, good to all and merciful to all His creations,3 sustaining and preserving all, providing salvation to all. This universal sympathy penetrates this nation not only individually but precisely collectively. If it should happen that the nation forget its soul, the source of its life, it had the gift of prophecy to remind it, and the exiles were designed to straighten her crookedness until eventually the sympathy of the absolute good would win out in her midst.

Rav Kook, 2015 (originally published in 1920), Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, p. 182

The Temple is the foundation of the ancient religious cultus, which will forever be new, which dealt a deathblow to idolatry and all its abominations, and gave humanity a sublime, pure basis for its spiritual life, from which went out light and freedom that increasingly develop in human history, slackening their pace to the degree that they become distant from their source, but which will in the future grow stronger inasmuch as they will return to their source. Healthy humanity, which recognizes the majesty of godliness, will remain opposite it as a child to its mother. Humanity will forget as a result of its height, light and strength, all of its slick sophistication, and esteem its natural feeling that wisens it more than any science, when it is built upon the solid foundation of its psychic nature and adorned with the crown of consciousness, which forever ascends and will forever remain hidden, attracting to it every soul and eternally sending its rays to uplift all to its mighty height. Mankind will bring into its soul the divine beauty and glory; the longing for relation and actual proximity will grow stronger, and all the foundations of knowledge and ethics will illumine this cherished feeling. In one place on all of earth it is worthwhile that humanity view itself in the innocence of its childhood, in the strength of adolescence, and in the radiance of the universal ascendance of the soul, stamped with the seal of this ancient wonderpeople, old Israel. There is no end to the joy of the song that will break out in all the world as it awakens to this exalted sight: the renewal of the original antiquity of the source of divine song that is in Israel at its mightiest. Only an unfeeling fool, whose voice cannot be heard at the time of the enlightenment, would want to apply the makeup of modern civilization – which suffers both deficiencies and excesses, envy, competition, and every sickness and malady – on these living, healthy, ancient sea-waves, which reach up to the heights of heaven. All will rejoice in this enlightened, natural spectacle, precisely as it is, with all the innocence of its antiquity. Only then does it reveal its full spectrum of colors, spreading them in Israel and to greater humanity.

Rav Kook, 2015 (originally published in 1920), Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, pp. 199-200

Particularism and Universalism; Land and Exile

The two aspects of Jewish existence: particularism and universalism. In exile, the universalist side gains prominence; in Erets Yisrael the universalism is expressed through the medium of particularism. Exile is a cleansing of the particularist phenomenon. Jewish history, which began on a universalist note, comes full circle.

Independent Israelite creation, in thought and in life and action, is possible only in the Land of Israel. In everything produced by Israel in the Land, the universal form is subsumed under the unique form of Israel, and this is a boon for Israel and the world. The sins that cause exile are the very ones that muddy the essential spring, and the source emits impure issues. The Tabernacle of the Lord he defiled. When the independent, particularist source is destroyed, originality rises to the supernal portion that Israel has in mankind. This is drawn upon in exile, and the Land is laid waste and desolate, and her destruction atones for her. The spring stops flowing and is filtered; manifestations of life and thought are emitted through the general conduit, which is spread throughout the globe. As the four winds of heaven I have scattered you. Until the impure particularist issues stop and the source is restored to its purity. Then exile is detested and superfluous, and the universal light reverts to flowing from the independent, particularist fount with full force. The Light of Messiah who ingathers exiles begins to appear, and the sound of the bitter crying of Rachel mourning her children is softened by this consolation: Stop your voice from crying and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your effort, says the Lord, and they shall return from an enemy land. There is hope toward your end, says the Lord, the children will return to their borders. Creation of distinctive life with all its light and particularity, drenched in the dew of the universal wealth of the great man among giants, the blessing of Abraham, reappears through precisely this return. “Be a blessing – with you they conclude.”

Rav Kook, 2015 (originally published in 1920), Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, pp. 115-116

In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilisational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous . . . Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington (in Not in God’s Name, p. 189)

There have been three major attempts in history to escape from identity but that none succeeded. Christianity and Islam both said, in effect: one God, therefore one ultimate identity. That is why they clashed in the Middle Ages, and it is why they clash today in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia. The principle of one God, one truth, one way does not make for peace in a world in which other people have other ways. Perhaps one day we will all see the world, ourselves and God the same way. That is the prophetic vision. But not now, not yet.

The second great attempt, as we saw, was the Enlightenment, the secular European substitute for Christianity, based on the universality not of God but of reason. Science and philosophy would, people thought, succeed where religion and revelation had failed. They would unite humankind in what Kant called ‘perpetual peace’. The reaction to this, a century later, was the emergence of nationalism, racism and communism, two world wars, the Holocaust and the Gulag. It was the return of the repressed.

The third attempt – by the West today – has been to dethrone the group in favour of the individual. The result has been the atomisation of society, the collapse of the traditional family, the erosion of community and the loss of national identity, leading to the counter-reaction of religious extremism among those who still seek identity and community. Try as the West may, the tribes keep coming back, angrier each time.

The Three Periods of Universalism in History (Not in God’s Name, pp. 190-191)

Western civilization has known five universalist cultures: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval Christianity and Islam, and the Enlightenment. Three were secular, two religious. They brought inestimable gifts to the world, but they also brought great suffering, most notably though not exclusively to Jews. Like a tidal wave they swept away local customs, ancient traditions and different ways of doing things. They were to cultural diversity what industrialisation is to biodiversity. They extinguished weaker forms of life. They diminished difference.

Today we are living through the sixth universal order: global capitalism. It is the first to be driven not by a set of ideas but by a series of institutions, among them the market, the media, multinational corporations and the Internet. But its effect is no less profound. It threatens all things local, traditional and particular. September 11 happened when two universalist cultures, global capitalism and an extremist form of Islam, each profoundly threatening to the other, met and clashed.

The five universalist cultures in western civilization (The Dignity of Difference, p. 20)

In the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican hangs one of the supreme artistic achievements of the Renaissance: Raphael's vast canvas, the School at Athens. Framing the scene and dominating the upper half of the painting are the magnificent columns, statues and arches of the academy through one of which, in the far distance, can be seen a blue and lightly clouded sky. Occupying the centre and foreground are the members of the academy in small groups, speaking, listening, arguing, gesticulating and disputing. In the front, one solitary thinker sits on the steps wrapped in thought, head on hand like Rodin's Penseur. Our eyes are drawn, however, to the two figures in the middle, the two giants of Greek thought. On the left is Plato, his hair and beard white with age, and next to him a younger man, Aristotle, who will become his most famous disciple and whose influence will at times outshine that of the master himself. Aristotle's left hand is turned downward, but Plato's right hand is raised in an upward-pointing gesture.

We need no caption to tell us what Plato is saying:

'If you seek truth, Aristotle, do not look down to this world that surrounds us, empirical reality with all its messy and chaotic particulars. Look up to heaven and the world of forms, for it is there that you will find the true essence and nature of things. There, in place of particularity and conflict, you will find unity and harmony.'

In the world of ideas, difference is resolved into sameness. Particulars give way to universals. The world we see, in which we move and live, he argued in The Republic in the famous parable of the cave, is a mere play of shadows. The true essence of things is not matter but form, ideas, not their concrete embodiment in the world of the senses. That is where trees become Treeness, where men become Man and apparent truths coalesce into Truth.

It is a wondrous dream, that of Plato, and one that has never ceased to appeal to his philosophical and religious heirs: the dream of reason, a world of order set against the chaos of life, an eternity beyond the here and now. Its single most powerful idea is that truth - reality, the essence of things - is universal. How could it be otherwise? What is true is true for everyone at all times, and so the more universal a culture is, the closer to truth it comes. Is that not, after all, how we grow to maturity as individuals? We begin, in childhood, by being attached to our immediate family. Then, as our exposure to the world widens, we come successively to embrace friends, neighbours, the community, society and eventually all mankind. So it is with civilisation itself. The history of homo sapiens is precisely the move from small, roving bands to tribes, city-states, nations and ultimately, if not yet, global governance. Particularity - the world of the senses and the passions - is the source of conflict, prejudice, error and war. Universality is the realm of truth, harmony and peace. The move from primitive to sophisticated, parochial to cosmopolitan, local to global, is the journey from particular attachments to universal reason

Plato (universal) vs Aristotle (particular) (in The Dignity of Difference, pp. 48-49)

The three-letter words of the genetic code are the same in every creature. CGA means arginine and GCG means alanine - in bats, in beetles, in bacteria. They even mean the same in the misleadingly named archaebacteria living at boiling temperatures in sulphurous springs thousands of feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean or in those microscopic capsules of deviousness called viruses. Wherever you go in the world, whatever animal, plant, bug or blob you look at, if it is alive, it will use the same dictionary and know the same code. All life is one. The genetic code, bar a few tiny local aberrations, mostly for unexplained reasons in the ciliate protozoa, is the same in every creature. We all use exactly the same language. This means - and religious people might find this a useful argument - that there was only one creation, one single event when life was born.

DNA = life has a single origin - Ridley, Matt (1999), Genome. London: Fourth Estate (quoted in The Dignity of Difference p. 53)

Societies are necessarily particular because they have members and memories, members with memories not only of their own but also of their common life. Humanity, by contrast, has members but no memory, and so it has no history and no culture, no customary practices, no familiar life-ways, no festivals, no shared understanding of social goods. It is human to have such things, but there is no singular human way of having them. At the same time, the members of all the different societies, because they are human, can acknowledge each other's different ways, respond to each other's cries for help, learn from each other, and march (sometimes) in each other's parades.

'Thick' or context-laden moralities are more fundamental than 'thin' or universal ones - Walzer, Michael (1994), Thick and Thin. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. (quoted in The Dignity of Difference, pp. 57-58)

Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals and groups ( or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth ... It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: and that others cannot be right if they disagree. This makes one certain that there is one goal and only one for one's nation or church or the whole of humanity, and that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only the goal is attained - 'through an ocean of blood to the Kingdom of Love' (or something like this) said Robespierre: and Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and I daresay leaders in the religious wars of Christian v. Muslim or Catholics v. Protestants sincerely believed this: the belief that there is one and only one true answer to the central questions which have agonized mankind and that one has it oneself - or one's Leader has it - was responsible for the oceans of blood: But no Kingdom of Love sprang from it - or could…

Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002,(quoted in The Dignity of Difference, p. 63)

The themes of universalism and particularism it can be argued underpin the philosophy and world outlook of Rabbi Sacks. They therefore are ubiquitous themes in many of his books, especially the books that address contemporary society. The following books and specific chapters within those books are recommended to gain an insight to how Rabbi Sacks saw society through the prism of universalism and particularism.

The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (2002), especially the following chapters:

  • Chapter 2: Globalisation and its Discontents
  • Chapter 3: The Dignity of Difference: Exorcising Plato’s Ghost

Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (2015), especially:

  • Chapter 11: The Universality of Justice, the Particularity of Love

The Politics of Hope (1997)

  • Chapter 6: The Liberal Revolution
  • Chapter 9: The Assault on the Particular

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (2005), especially:

  • Chapter 5: Sanctifying the Name

Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (2020), especially:

  • Chapter 9: Identity Politics
  • Chapter 20: Which Morality

Suggested Lesson Plan

The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on one particular idea within the thought of Rabbi Sacks. There are many other themes found in this unit which would take more classroom time to explore with your students.

universal and particular cover page lesson plan

Title: Universalism and Particularism

Download our 60-minute class for high-school age classes

Bet Nidrash on Universalism and particularism

Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.

This unit is a perfect preparation for a program of interfaith/inter-cultural dialogue. Arrange for your students to have the opportunity to meet and share experiences and ideas with those from different faith communities.

The aim of this programme would be to reflect and discuss what it is that makes us the same, and to celebrate and honour what it is that makes us different. This could be through one or more of the following ideas:

  • Invite peers from other faith schools to visit your school. Ask your students to prepare a short presentation of Judaism and Jewish culture, and plan a tour of your campus to show the visiting group what a Jewish school is like, and how it functions.
  • Plan a return/reciprocal visit to a local different faith school for your students.
  • Arrange a conference of several religions / faith communities, either in your school or in a local “neutral” venue.
  • Invite faith leaders from local communities to speak in your school
  • Side-by-side: Rabbi Sacks believed in (and often spoke of) the power of people of different faiths to come together not only for interfaith dialogue, but side-by-side action. Connect with a group of students from a different faith, and plan a mitzvah project for the two groups to undertake together.