by Rabbi Kenneth Hahn
Even those of us who are members of the Jewish Universalist movement often wonder exactly what the phrase means. I’ve been thinking about the concept of Jewish Universalism quite a bit lately, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Jewish Universalism has everything to do with making Judaism more accessible to anyone who would want to embrace it. This can, in practice, be a challenging proposition though, because of the tribal nature of Judaism.
It is critical to remember that Judaism was originally a tribal religion, and the religion was an integral part of the Israelite tribal culture. In this way, Judaism is much more like the Navajo religion than say Christianity or Buddhism, which are clearly based on universal principles, love in the case of Christianity and the Four Noble Truths in that of Buddhism. In fact, we Jews often refer to someone we suspect or know to be Jewish as a, “member of the tribe.” For this reason, converting to Judaism has never been a simple or straightforward proposition because it not only entails learning about and embracing a new religion, but it also means becoming part of a tribe into which you weren’t born. Can a Hopi become a Navajo? Yes, but it’s not as simple as, for example, saying you accept the teachings of Jesus and being baptized.
In addition, Judaism has its own language of ritual, two actually. As blessings in the standard liturgy of the various movements are written in both Hebrew and Aramaic. So, in addition to everything else, to become Jewish often means learning Hebrew, or at least enough to make some sense out of the sanctuary experience in most synagogues.
Becoming part of a tribe and learning a new language are huge obstacles to participation and engagement. Sadly, these obstacles don’t apply only to non-Jews but to many, many people “born into the tribe” today who are unfamiliar with Hebrew and don’t understand Jewish liturgy, and for whom all of it feels quite devoid of meaning. This is surely a partial explanation for why the affiliation rate of American Jews is now somewhere around 35%, and it is continuing to drop each year.
Rather than thinking of Judaism in tribal terms, we could locate it in the great panoply of world religions that we think of as Wisdom Traditions. If all these wisdom traditions were saying the same thing, that would be one possible conceptualization of universalism, i.e. all the world’s religions are fundamentally teaching the same things, so if we start with Judaism, we’ll arrive at universal truths, just through a Jewish lens. Maybe this is accurate, for there are certainly many teachings among the world’s religions that are similar. But I don’t think this is actually descriptive of the true nature of things. Instead, I believe Rev Zalman’s z”l notion of the world’s religions is more apt. He imagined them as different organs of the body, none better than another, in the same way a heart isn’t better than a liver. They just do different things and have different purposes. Of great importance to note, just as the body cannot survive without either organ, it could likewise be argued that the world needs the wisdom of every religion for its survival, and now more than ever.
So, let’s return to the concept of Jewish Universalism. Judaism has its own special wisdom to offer the world, a wisdom born of a people who over the course of 3000 years put great thought on how to live in relationship with the land and how to create a stable and just community in that context. That is a particular kind of wisdom that needs to be promulgated universally. Because of Judaism’s tribal nature, however, not only is this great wisdom lost on non-Jews; today it is virtually lost on many Jews, as well.
As Jewish Universalists, we strive to make Judaism accessible to all because we recognize that there is no value in excluding anyone for any reason. Instead, we seek to engage people where they are, without judgment, and encourage them to pursue a greater understanding of and engagement with Judaism, if that’s their desire. In practice, this means being open to anyone who comes to us with a genuine wish to add some aspect of Judaism to how they live, how they observe the rituals in their lives and how they want to understand the world around them.
More than this, if we truly believe that Judaism has something special and particular to offer the world, something the world may in fact need more than ever right now, then why would we want to keep that wisdom to ourselves? Why not spread it around, not with the intention of promoting Jewish tribalism or creating more Jews (proselytizing and conversion), but rather with the most honorable intention of all, repairing the world.