I grew up with an epic clash of narratives, as did so many of my Jewish-American peers. On the one hand, we were told that everyone is equal, and therefore we should judge people on their actions and individual character, not based on their ethnicity, religion, or socioeconomic status.
Yet at the same time, I was told to only marry Jewish.
Why was it, I wondered, that discrimination got a dispensation, just for this one aspect of life? It seemed hypocritical at the time, and I was only 11 when I first noticed my rabbi and parents telling me who I should marry.
I’ve come to see how the disconnect between “everyone is equal” versus “only marry Jewish” is part of a larger and longer-term clash of narratives: universalism versus Jewish particularism, or "chosenness." Apparently, it’s something the Rabbis have struggled with for millennia, and is relevant to consider this eve of Shavuot when we mark the anniversary of being “chosen” to accept the Torah and covenant.
We grapple with this tension even today; most recently around some of the questions the ADL used to determine that there are a billion anti-Semites on the planet.
New Jersey Jewish News editor Andrew Silow-Carroll points out that several of the ADL survey questions, “even if they are markers for anti-Semitic attitudes, also mirror uncomfortable debates within the Jewish community itself.” The agree/disagree statement “Jews think they are better than other people” gets at the crux of Jewish particularism, as “the concept of the ‘chosen people’ has been a stumbling block for as long as Jews have confronted modernity.”
Do Jews think we’re better than other people? Of course we do! We're "chosen." But here’s the punch line: That’s also what makes us just like everybody else! Because everybody thinks they’re better than everybody else.
The Japanese believe their emperor is a direct descendant from the sun goddess. Not all Japanese believe that literally, but as a people don’t they struggle with a superiority/inferiority complex like most others on the planet? The British once ruled a quarter of the globe. They don’t anymore but aren’t they still the center of their own universe, both gratingly superior yet endearingly self-deprecating at the same time? China is “the Middle Kingdom” because it is the center of the world, and on and on from people to people around the planet. It doesn’t mean Jews aren’t special; we are. But so is everybody else.
I pointed this out to filmmaker Joshua Gippen, whose Kickstarter campaign to shoot a film called “The Chosen People? A Documentary on Jewish Identity” was successfully funded thanks primarily to my financial backing (Full disclosure: $25). In the video-plea-to-make-a-video on Kickstarter.com, Joshua explains, “I am extremely uncomfortable with the doctrine that Jews are God’s chosen people; that as a people we are somehow different from all other peoples on earth, and somehow special….this is completely elitist and runs headlong into my core ethical belief in equality.”
His film promises to look at chosenness from “a broad spectrum of views on this hotly contested topic. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews will all weigh in. We’ll also interview a diverse group of non-Jews, whose feelings toward Jews range from love and admiration to envy and hatred.”
But only looking at chosenness through a Jewish lens (whether they love us or hate us) is the exact trap the organized Jewish community falls into repeatedly, without placing our issues into the larger, universal context. Other people have unique stories too, and guard their uniqueness with as much fierceness.
The opposite of Jewish particularism is not Christian particularism or Chinese particularism, it’s universalism, the belief that humanity needs to get over claiming any one people is better than all others. What if the organized Jewish community recognized that Jewish identity exists along this broader, underlying spectrum from particular to universal, rather than the dichotomies we’ve previously fixated on like observant/non-observant, affiliated/unaffiliated and in-married/intermarried? If we did, I think we’d share a much more nuanced understanding about American Jewry, particularly around the issue of intermarriage.
A recent book attempting to define Jewish Peoplehood claims, “Many intermarried individuals who care about Judaism understand that their personal choices — while clear to them — do not make sense on a communal level and are destructive to the peoplehood equation. They understand that if every couple made the same decision that they did, it would dilute Judaism beyond recognition within only a few generations.”
That is the consummate example of insider thinking, which sees all decisions as either good or bad for the Jews. What about good for people? There is another argument to be made, a universal argument, one that I believe resonates with many more intermarried couples, which suggests that intermarriage can actually be a good thing, and good not just for “their personal choices” but for the world.
A college student named Benjy Cannon recently made just such an argument in a Ha’aretz piece, “The Upside of Intermarriage,” in which he suggests, “Interfaith families bring an entirely new perspective to the table. They actively live co-existence in their day-to-day lives. They tear down the walls between Jews, Christians, Muslims, pagans, atheists and people of all spiritual stripes. Their children may not keep the Sabbath, pray daily or even belong to a synagogue; but they understand and practice coexistence firsthand in a way that other Jews do not.”
It would be a breath of fresh air if the organized Jewish community occasionally acknowledged this widely-held viewpoint. Instead of defining what’s so special about Jews, we can shift the focus to what’s so great about Judaism and Jewish culture. If the content of Jewish life provides meaning and value to people (Jews and non-Jews), then focusing on it, sharing it and growing it is what will guarantee Judaism’s continued relevance — and give meaning to the word “peoplehood” beyond a prettied-up name for tribalism. Many Jewish values can align with universal values, but when Jewish communal leaders put themselves in opposition to the positive universal values that American Jews already hold, it’s the Jewish community that loses.
Paul Golin is associate executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org).