Zionism: A Model for the Integration of Jewish Particularism and Universalism

BY: Yitzhak Bronstein

What does it mean to be Jewish, part of the Jewish nation? What is the raison d’être of our existence? What is the mission of the Jewish People? The goal in raising these questions is not merely to philosophize about them abstractly, but to practically address the question of how a Jew should best contribute to the world. More importantly, the implications of these questions are not merely for the individual but for the Jewish nation as a whole. How should the Jewish People, or, in our day, the Jewish state, use its resources?

The approach of the Jewish particularist is to be content with limiting one’s influence to the Jewish world; to delve into matters outside of the Jewish community is not worthy of one’s time or efforts. The particularist will draw on verses and concepts in Tanakh that distinguish the Jewish people from the other nations. For example, a repeated theme in Deuteronomy that perhaps is most explicit in the following pasuk is that of the chosenness of the Jewish people: “For you are a holy people to Hashem, your God; Hashem, your God has chosen you to be for Him a treasured people above all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”[i] The particularist argues that contributing to the continuity of the Jewish People is the ultimate priority of the Jew.

For the Jewish universalist, this approach is far too narrow, and it is guilty of ignoring the universalistic elements of Tanakh. The God of the Jews, for this approach, is also the God of humanity and He is concerned with the well-being of all people. An integral part of the mission of the Jewish People is to serve as a “light unto the nations” and some pesukim suggest that this is perhaps the sole purpose of its covenant with God.[ii] The universalistic ideal is further illustrated with the eschatological visions of Tanakh that describe the unity of all humanity – “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”[iii] A Jewish People that is not actively contributing to the world at large is not fulfilling its mission.

Throughout Jewish history, one can see a shifting balance between these two models, and, with the rise of Zionism in the late 19th century, this question once again returned to the forefront. There was substantial divide among Jewish thinkers as to the relationship (if any) between a potential Jewish state and the mission of Jewish People.

Opposition to Zionism existed on both universalistic and particularistic fronts. In 1842 Frankfurt, the budding Reform movement saw the particularistic notions of a Jewish state as an affront to their universalistic ideals, causing them to write the following about a Jewish return to Israel: “[It] is neither expected nor desired by us; we know no fatherland except to that which we belong by birth or citizenship.”[iv] Even among leading Orthodox thinkers of the same time period, one can find strikingly similar language. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the mission of the Jew is to spread “pure humanity” among the nations, and he even viewed the conditions of Jewish exile as being beneficial to Judaism in this respect. This led him to oppose the Zionist activities of R. Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer and others, which he felt were not in congruence with his universalistic messages.[v] Others opposed Zionism on more particularistic grounds, stating that forming a Jewish state was essentially a substitute for authentic Yahadut (Judaism) and would simply constitute assimilation on a national level.

Even some of the strongest proponents of Zionism did not view the existence of a Jewish state as possessing inherent value to the Jewish People in their particularistic or universalistic mission. Theodor Herzl, the founder and leader of the political Zionist movement, saw a Jewish state solely as a means of solving the problem of European anti-Semitism. In The Jewish State, it is quite apparent that, although Herzl was interested in saving the Jews, he was not concerned with the fate of Judaism itself, and even listed the ability of Diaspora Jewry to more easily assimilate as one of the potential benefits of a Jewish state.[vi] Similarly, R. Isaac Jacob Reines, the founder of the Mizrachi Religious Zionist movement, viewed the state in purely pragmatic terms.[vii] Furthermore, much of the Religious Zionist movement viewed the Zionist movement only as a step in the right direction of the fulfillment of messianic prophecies and eschatological visions of the Torah, but not as an institution inherently valuable to Judaism in its own right. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik referred to the nascent Jewish state as a divine “knock on the door” and proclaimed that “the era of divine self-concealment is over.” However, while describing the value of the state of Israel at length, R. Soloveitchik makes no mention of a Jewish nation-state possessing intrinsic worth to Judaism or its mission.[viii]

One of the first people in the modern Zionist movement to recognize the Jewish state as inherently valuable to Judaism itself was Ahad Ha-am, the founder of Cultural Zionism. Ahad Ha-am saw the Zionist movement and the creation of a spiritual center in Israel as essential to the revival of an authentic Jewish culture. He wrote of his envisioned Jewish state: “…If you wish to see the genuine type of Jew, whether it be a Rabbi, or a scholar or a writer, a farmer or an artist or a businessman, then go to Palestine and you will see it.”[ix] Centuries earlier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote along similar lines that an autonomous Jewish state was required in order to cultivate authentic Jewish ideas: “I shall never believe I have heard the arguments of the Jews until they have a free state. Only then will we know what they have to say.”[x]

R. Eliezer Berkovits was unique among Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century in arguing for a Jewish state based not on pragmatism or messianism but on a conception of Judaism itself. He viewed Judaism as a human attempt to relate life in its entirety to God and His moral code, and the creation of a Jewish state was essential for the Jewish People to fulfill its historic mission of educating the world about such values. For Berkovits, nothing had been more detrimental to the Jewish People than living in exile and having been forced to live under conditions without sovereignty, thereby distorting the implementation of Judaism’s ideals in the world. It was absolutely impossible for the Jewish People to fulfill its designated role of being an am kadosh (holy nation) without life in its own sovereign, autonomous state. Berkovits writes that a Jewish state “is the sine qua non for the regeneration of Jewish religion and culture. Without it, further development of Judaism is impossible; without it Judaism can hardly be saved in the present circumstances.”[xi] Berkovits writes further in God, Man and History: “A people in control of its own life, capable of implementing Judaism by applying it to the whole of life, is a people in its own land. Judaism, as a religion of the deed, requires a people in its land.”[xii] He passionately rejects the notion that a Jewish state, although particularistic in nature, would create conflict with, or impede, the implementation of Judaism’s universal ideals. In fact, Berkovits claims that, when properly understood, they logically flow from one into the other. The am kadosh that the particularist seeks is a not a end unto itself but a means towards an end, namely a universal goal.

Over the course of Jewish history, certain Jewish communities have placed their emphasis on particularistic concerns while others have stressed the universalistic values of Judaism, but there is always a balance to be found. A simple reading of Tanakh reveals both particularistic and universalistic elements, and the most sensible conclusion one can draw is that a Jew has a dual set of obligations. At present, it would appear that the purest forms of Jewish particularism and universalism involve ensuring the growth and development of the state of Israel as a Jewish state. This claim is founded on the recognition of what the State of Israel has accomplished for the Jewish People over the last century, and of what the Jewish people have been able to contribute to humanity as a whole through the means of the Jewish state.

For particularists who are interested in creating and strengthening a strong Jewish community, there is no opportunity such as that which exists in the modern State of Israel. We once again can determine what it means to live as Jews and can unabashedly connect our rich Jewish tradition with current Israeli policy – what a prospect! We have been faced with the task of defining what it means to have a Jewish economy, a Jewish judicial system, a Jewish educational system, a Jewish press, a Jewish government, a Jewish army, a Jewish police, a Jewish immigration policy, a Jewish prison system, a Jewish tax code, etc. Could there be any higher priority for the Jewish People than to immerse itself in its sources and tradition and bring about the realization of an authentically Jewish society?

For universalists, the Jewish state has provided an opportunity that did not exist in exile. We have once again returned to the pages of history as a people. What better way to express our values and ideals that we believe are worthy of the adherence of the entire world than to have a functioning society built around those values? As a country, Israel has to deal with issues and problems with which all other countries must involve themselves, but which the Jewish People had avoided for millennia. For a nation whose goal it is to spread light over the four corners of the world, the ability to once again confront these issues can only be viewed as a tremendous improvement over life in exile. Rousseau was correct 250 years ago when he stated that an autonomous Jewish state was necessary to hear the true arguments and views of the Jews. Now that we have a state, and, moreover, a state that is under the magnifying glass of the worldwide media, how will we use this unprecedented opportunity in world history to portray what it means to be an am kadosh?

Contributing to the State of Israel is no simple task and can easily be met with pessimism and despair. How should we respond to the skeptic inside of ourselves who is doubtful of our ability to make a significant impact to the Jewish People and the State of Israel, or to the naysayer who claims that the utopian Jewish state will not come to be? Are the personal sacrifices one must endure to make aliyyah or any similar commitment justified? To answer these questions, we can only turn to the timeless words of R. Tarfon: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.[xiii]

Yitzhak Bronstein is a junior at YC majoring in Philosophy and he is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Deuteronomy 7:6.

[ii] Isaiah 42:6.

[iii] Isaiah 56:7.

[iv] W. Gunther Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism (New York: World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1963), p. 50.

[v] Samson Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters, transl. by B. Drachman (New York: Feldheim, 1942), Letter 16.

[vi] Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, transl. by Jacob M. Alkow (New York: Dover, 1988), p. 80.

[vii] Issac Jacob Reines, Gates of Lights and Happiness (Vilna, 1899; Hebrew), pp. 12-13. In contrast to Herzl, Reines viewed the Jewish state as a means of preserving Judaism and fighting worldwide assimilation.

[viii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny: From the Holocaust to the State of Israel (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 2000), chapter entitled “Six Knocks.”

[ix] Ahad Ha-am, Ten Essays on Judaism and Zionism, transl. by Leon Simon (New York: Arno Press, 1973), p. 155.

[x] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: Or, On Education, transl. by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), p. 304.

[xi] Eliezer Berkovits, Towards Historic Judaism (Oxford: East and West Library, 1943), p. 37.

[xii] Eliezer Berkovits, God, Man and History (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2004), pp. 139-140.

[xiii] Avot 2:16.