Compatible Impulses

by Administrator

By David Bernstein

We all love to cite the great sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

I doubt there’s a quote in the Jewish cannon that better captures the essence of Jewish community relations.

The first statement perfectly captures the particularistic impulse. Jews should help other Jews.

The second quote summarizes the universalistic impulse. Jews should endeavor to make the world a better place.

While most of us seek out a balance between these two impulses, one probably resides more strongly in us than the other. Some of us wake up in the morning more animated by Tikkun Olam, and others more motivated to do good by other Jews.

It’s healthy, I think, to have such disparate impulses in the Jewish body politic and the Jewish community relations movement. Left to their own devices, the particularists will fight for Israel and against anti-Semitism, but won’t be able to build alliances. And left to theirs, the universalists will try to make the world a better place but forget to look out for themselves. One will do only for others and the other only for oneself.

I’ve come to appreciate that the tension between these two inclinations (as Hillel did centuries before) brings about the best results. In doing both, both become better, and we become better.

There are, however, people in the Jewish world who want to resolve the tension in a way that fully satisfies their own impulses. Some particularistic Jews think universalism is “pie in the sky” and a waste of communal resources, and some universalistic Jews think advocating for one’s self is selfish and morally problematic.

Our job is to navigate, not resolve, this tension, recognizing, no matter our personal impulses, that we thrive on both.   

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