jewish particularity, jewish universalism.

by tobybee

There’s a wonderful article by Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin called “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity.” I first read it a few years ago, and I returned to it on the weekend with slightly different ideas. I still love the article, but it’s now a bit too reliant on biblical origins and thoughts for my taste. Basically, in this article the Boyarins juxtapose the thoughts of Paul – who described a universalism of all people – and the thoughts of the Rabbis, who described peoples based on particularity and difference. (that’s a very shorthand way of describing some very complex arguments…)

It’s quite a complex article, with many different streams of thought running through it. But the crux of it lies in its analysis of difference and identity. On what are (Jewish) identities based? The Boyarins argue that Jewish identities are most profound and ethical when they are based on what they call ‘generation’ – that a Jewish identity can be most usefully thought of as passed through the body, through common ancestry/genealogy, rather than through a connection with land. They explain that this accounts for people who convert to Judaism as well, for when they are given a Hebrew name it is either ‘bas Avraham’ or ‘bar Avraham’ – daughter or son of Abraham, the first convert. As such, they are located within a genealogical tradition.

They argue that in the diaspora, historically, Jews have tended toward particularity, creating organisations which look after each other, not after non-Jews. This they claim is fine, in the diaspora, when power is not being exercised over others (I don’t particularly agree with this – at least in Melbourne today, the particularity is sometimes rather insular, problematic and frustrating). It becomes a problem when this means – as it does in Israel – that money is prioritised for Jewish organisations and peoples, and others are made to suffer. The problem comes when ‘power over’ is being exerted (“Capturing Judaism in a state transforms entirely the meanings of its social practices. Practices that in Diaspora have one meaning – for example, caring for the feeding and housing of Jews and not ‘others’ – have entirely different meanings under political hegemony”). But universalism is also a problem – they explain this through an analysis of Christian missionary work. If everyone is meant to be the same, then conditions are brought about which violently work to make everyone the same. As they explain, “If particularism plus power tends toward fascism, then universalism plus power produces imperialism and cultural annihilation as well as, all too often, actual genocide of those who refuse to conform… The genius of Christianity is its concern for all the peoples of the world; the genius of Judaism is its ability to leave other people alone. And the evils of the two systems are the precise obverse of these genii. The genies all too easily become demons.”

Basically, they are arguing for an embracing of difference – an ability for peoples to live together, acknowledging and accepting difference and also being changed by interacting with others. Sharing space with others is essential to their ideas: “What we wish to struggle for, theoretically, is a notion of identity in which there are only slaves but no masters, that is, an alternative to the model of self-determination, which is, after all, in itself a Western, imperialist imposition on the rest of the world.”

There’s a lot more subtlety to their argument, and a lot more I could write about it. I’m not totally satisfied with how they go about making their point, but I like the overall point. The other night Ghassan Hage spoke of something similar, talking about the importance of relationships, of thinking in terms of how we relate to others and being prepared to be uncertain, to change, to not know.

* if you want to read the whole article, which I highly recommend you do, it’s available from Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, no. 4 (Summer 1993): 693-725.