The circumstances that surrounded the Jews for most of the past 2000 years provided a context where a particularistic focus on their own existence as a people was not only legitimate (other communities behaved in the same way), but also the only relevant approach (no other community helped them).
The Jewish people’s ethical beliefs were directed towards their internal affairs, which were the only affairs they had any control over. With modernity and post-modernity, however, new possibilities and opportunities raised new questions, such as: To whom should an individual Jew or a Jewish community be more committed – to their own family, town and community members or to all people, all communities, the world community?
Modernity thus created a whole new context for the Jews, both in terms of their ability to have some control of their own fate, and in terms of their involvement in universal movements and struggles. The latter appealed to the Jews from an ethical perspective (i.e., they felt it a Jewish imperative to care about all people).
Furthermore, as they gained emancipation they felt indebted to the universalistic ideologies that gave them new freedoms. It is no wonder then that Jews found themselves at the forefront of many of the social movements and social justice struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Some struggles demanded loyalty to the entire human race or to certain social classes, and thus, created a conflict with sole loyalty to the Jewish people. In many cases, Jews opted to replace their loyalty to the Jewish collective with that to the universal cause.
“Charity Begins At Home” versus “Tikkun Olam”
The contemporary tension between particularistic and universalistic values, and their application to the Jewish people, finds expression in the debate around communal priorities and responsibilities.
The particularist claim is the more traditional approach that argues for giving primary attention to sustaining the Jewish people as a people. Its central ethical texts are the principle of “Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze La’Zeh” (“all Israel are responsible for each other” – which assumes a responsibility to Jews first) and the halakhic (Jewish law) imperative that “your own town’s poor come first” (aniyei ircha kodmim) when there are competing needs.
A milder version of this position agrees with commitment to global causes as long as they are second in priority to Jewish needs.
On the other hand, the universalist claim is that, as ethical human beings we should assist others based on need and urgency, and not because they belong to a certain people. This position challenges the ethical legitimacy of an approach that prioritizes a priori a certain group of people.
It is based on the Jewish value of “Tikkun Olam b’Malchut Shaddai” (“Repair the World for the honor of God’s Kingship”), which focuses on the world rather than a particular Jewish community. A milder articulation of the same approach demands that we develop a more balanced approach to philanthropy that integrates traditional Jewish priorities with our universal commitments.