Georg Friedrich Hegel was to modern thought what Plato was to Greek philosophy. Most of the ideological movements of the 19th and 20th century see themselves as his heirs: from Marxists to nationalists and from existentialists to psychoanalysts, they all imbibed Hegel’s philosophy and methodology, especially the “dialectic”: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
But we Jews were, as usual, a thorn in Hegel’s side.
Hegel developed, among many other things, a neat model of the life cycle of peoples. A group–say, the ancient Greeks–will develop its particular spirit (volkgeist) until they make their unique contribution to the universal spirit (weltgeist). Then they will fall into decadence, fade into history, and disappear. Jews, mused Hegel, had made their unique contribution, monotheism, but they stubbornly refuse to disappear.
Hegel’s theory is a valuable prompt for considering the difficult relationship between the identity of a group–particularism–and the group’s place in the world–universalism. But in the case of Judaism, his theory is wrong; it doesn’t consider the idiosyncrasies of the Yiddishe kop.
What Hegel misunderstood is one of the most essential characteristics of Judaism. Judaism breaks free from Hegel’s cycle because it never sought to make one particular contribution to the universal, but lives in a permanent dialogue between the universal and the particular. Our history is a permanent interaction between us and the world. In Hegel’s dialectic there is a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. But after proclaiming both the thesis of universalism and the antithesis of particularism, Judaism never gets to any synthesis–or, at least, not the kind that Hegel’s life-cycle of nations implies, the synthesis that means assimilation. We live not in a harmonious synthesis, but in a permanent tension, between universalism and particularism.
This is particularly relevant now, around the time of Rosh Hashana. Our New Year marks a symbolic anniversary of the creation of the world. In contrast to Christianity and Islam, we count the years not from the advent of our own central prophet but starting from a universal event.
But here’s the catch: we actually have a double calendar. We count the years from Rosh Hashana but we count the months from Passover, our origin as a people. (Quirky as we are, we make our years start on the first day of the seventh month.) So our calendar is both universalistic and particularistic. Moreover, our months are lunar–each month is a cycle of the moon–but our years are solar–we add an extra month every few years to make sure that we are in sync with the cycle of the sun and with the seasons experienced by all the world. One is particular, the other universal.
That duality is present in our liturgy as well. Every Shabbat, for example, we chant the Kiddush to invoke two foundational moments: our beginning as humans (zecher lema’ase bereshit) and our beginning as a people (zecher l’itzihat Mitzraim).
I think there’s a profound message here–one that Hegel wouldn’t have liked. You can actually be both universal and particular. You can be in the world without losing sight of your particular identity; you can be global and local; you can care about every human and equally care about your own.
The capacity of knowing who we are while also being integrated into the world is what gave Judaism its astonishing creative power. It gave us the flexibility to stay relevant and it gave the world a never-ending source of innovation and meaning. Thus, we gave the world not just monotheism but the Prophets, the Talmud, Maimonides, Freud, and Einstein. Maybe the art of living the tension constitutes, in itself, our biggest contribution to humanity.
The knowledge of how to balance the universal and the particular is today more important than ever. Today, the world sees tribalism and globalism as two irreconcilable positions. On the one hand, the forces of globalization seek to unite the world by erasing differences like national, ethnic, and religious identities; on the other, the violent resurgence of tribalism, nativism, and religious and nationalistic intolerance seeks to close us off to the “other,” to put barbed wire between us and the rest of the world. And although they seem like opposites, extreme globalism and extreme tribalism feed each other. The more the world globalizes without considering and respecting particular cultures, the more violent the tribal re-vindication becomes; meanwhile, the more hateful expressions of tribalism wreak havoc, the more the globalists think of particular identities as negative and seek to suppress them.
Unsurprisingly, the dual position of the Jews makes us unpopular with the extremists on both sides of this dichotomy. For arch-universalists, our attachment to our particular identity is a sin. We refuse to quietly become a historical heritage instead of a living cultural identity; we refuse to let multiculturalism become a euphemism for assimilation; we remain attached to Zionism, our national movement; for them we are exclusionary, atavistic, and even racist. For arch-tribalists, our sin is equally grave, but it’s the inverse one: our globalism, our universalism, is unforgivable. We are apatride; we have dual loyalties; we are never nationalistic enough. It’s not surprising that a publication like Breitbart uses the term “globalists” to refer, derisively, to a set of people who are nearly all Jews. (Ironically, the far right now treads paths first laid by the far left; Stalin’s campaign against the Jews was dubbed “a struggle against cosmopolitanism”.)
Extreme nationalism of the right wants to erect barriers and bring us back to a mythical particular past that never was; extreme universalism of the left wants to take us to a homogenized utopia that will never be. But Judaism has a third way to propose: a path in which the universal and the particular can coexist as they do in our calendar; a way in which our uniqueness is a blessing to ourselves and to others; a world in which being ourselves is the platform for respecting and living with others.
Every human being can make a unique contribution to others precisely by being herself. To echo Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, being created in the image of God means being unique as God is, being invested with an inalienable dignity that can never be drowned in a sea of uniformity. Our differences are sacred, for they are reflections of divinity.
And what’s true for individuals is true for peoples; by living our particularity we can bring a unique voice to the conversation of humanity. The Jewish message is that when we are true to ourselves we can be a blessing to the world. When we are what we uniquely are, we give the world what only we can give. When we see that we can make a unique contribution, we understand that each and everyone has their unique contribution to make. Hegel may not like it and the fanatics will hate it, but it’s a truth we have held sacred for almost 4,000 years–one that may well be the key to our survival.
Rosh Hashana reminds us of our particular responsibility towards the universal. The day of the world’s creation is also the day of judgement; whatever the verdict, it will impact us all. Rosh Hashana reminds us that we are all sharing this blue spaceship that floats in eternity. That world today seems dangerous and messy, but we are commanded to heal and transform it–precisely by being who we are, for the benefit of all.
Our very calendar urges us to reject the comfort of the extremes, to understand that blind dogmatism always ends in bloodbath, that differences are a source of richness, and that the difficult road can be the most rewarding. It shows us that love isn’t a zero sum game, that respect has multiplying force, that goodness always starts a chain reaction.
Above all, Rosh Hashana tells us that we must be passionate in our moderation, that we can repair a broken world with the force of our uniqueness and the fire of our kindness. It tells us that we are all connected in an inextricable web of mutuality and that our diversity, both within the Jewish people and in all humanity, is nothing less than the way in which we see the many faces of God.
May this year be a blessing for us, and for the entire world.
Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO
Jewish Funders Network