Edgar Bronfman on Rabbi David Hartman on Particularism vs. Universalism in Jewish Thought

Hartman celebrates Judaism’s essential relationship with the wider world of learning, peoples, and cultures: “Being a Jew doesn’t mean that I have to close my eyes to what is beautiful in the world.  Nothing that’s human should be strange to a Jew.  That’s my deepest motto.  The Book of Genesis doesn’t begin with a God who is Jewish.  God is the creation of all life.  He becomes Jewish when he meets Abraham.  And, therefore, he moves from the universal to the particular.  But the particular and the universal always fundamentally were joined together.  I want the particular to enrich the universal, and I want the universal to enrich the particular.”

I asked, “But didn’t Torah originally mean us to be separate and to be different?”


“Only if the world is corrupt,” Hartman said.   “If the world is pagan and idolatrous, then we have to be ‘other’.  But it is not necessarily a mitzvah just to be separate.  It’s a mitzvah to separate yourself from idolatry.  It’s a mitzvah to separate yourself from pagan brutality.  It’s a mitzvah to separate yourself from a culture that gives their children for Moloch worship.  It’s that you say not to.  It’s not just for the sake of being different.”

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 58-59.