On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Jews and Others” From Daniel Nevins

Perhaps a good metaphor for the creative tension between Universalism and particularism in Jewish identity is the balance between the centripetal and centrifugal forces that are required to keep an object in orbit around its center point. If the former is too strong, then the object collapses to the center and ceases to move. If the latter force prevails, then the object flies off and loses contact with the core.

So too with Jewish identity. We need a creative balance between the forces that separate us from others, and the forces that allow us to identify with them. Examples of the former include kashrut, our festival calendar, Shabbat, the siddur, and our distinctive Jewish theology. Jews need to cultivate these particular features of our religious culture lest we lose our distinct Jewish identity and our ability to continue as covenantal partners with God. Without them, we will fly off in space, and the gravitational pull of our sacred center will weaken and become insignificant.

But if we only cultivate our sense of separation, then instead of being a light to the world, we will become a xenophobic tribe that has little to offer other people or God. We will be like the satellite that crashes down from orbit and ceases to function as a moving and vital force. I fear that such separatism leads to violence and destruction. Social ethics is a key corrective to this type of xenophobic separation.

Healthy Jewish identity requires both particularist ritual and Universalist ethics. Conservative Judaism is notable in cultivating both aspects of Jewish identity. While this balance is tense, it is also healthy, allowing us to remain in orbit, cycling the Torah year after year and sharing its light with the universe.

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” Jewish identity demands both inner- and outer-directed activity. The time to explore and express this dynamic tension is now.