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An Approach to Cosmopolitanism

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


            We cannot discuss the nature and status of the Jewish people without relating, albeit briefly, to an additional facet of our uniqueness as a nation.  We will deal with this issue here, as it reflects an ideological struggle which has plagued the Jew in every age.


            In our discussion until this point, the question of universalism versus particularism centered around religious concepts.  In the modern world, despite the fact that interfaith arguments continue at full force, additional, secular forms of debate have evolved.  Many voices, Jewish and Gentile alike, accuse those who would champion the cause of Jewish uniqueness in the modern world of sustaining an idea whose time has passed; now, at "the apex" of history, it would seem that all national and social boundaries have effectively dissolved.  This claim is an abstract one, but, it is easily rephrased and placed in the mouth of a typical teenager as the plea: "Don't treat me as a Jew; treat me as person!"


            In order to respond to this request, let us backtrack a bit.




            The Nobel Prize was established approximately one hundred years ago.  In creating this prize, Alfred Nobel sought to atone for his sin against humanity, the invention of dynamite.  He set about this task this by establishing a prestigious prize to be distributed annually by the academies of Sweden and Norway.  Although more pressing issues demand our attention, we will attempt a brief intellectual exercise: how would we choose the winning candidates for the prize?  What tests ought we to employ?


            The awards can be easily divided into two or three different categories which are separated by a basic, essential factor.  The prizes for medicine, chemistry, physics, and the like, form one such group.  For pioneers in these fields, the whole world constitutes one enormous common market.  We find it relatively easy to descry the scientific discovery or invention that made history.  However, the Nobel Prizes contain an award for literary accomplishments as well.  How should this prize be awarded?  What criteria should be employed?  A scientific discovery is universal in character, can be translated from one language to another with ease, is able in fact to traverse any border.  These criteria cannot help us distinguish the literary giant from the mediocre hack.  The same tests do not apply.


            How, then, must we proceed?  A quantitative measure will not answer.  Should we distribute the Nobel prize based on the size of the audience a given author enjoys or do we intuitively sense the yawning gap between the popular bestseller and the literary work that truly made history?  Clearly, an entirely new definition is needed.  The prize must be awarded to a person whose creativity is expressed within the framework of a particular language and literary style.  The popularity of the language employed is irrelevant.  (An Icelandic writer, for example, stands as good a chance of winning the prize as an American one.)  The deciding factor is simply whether the author presents a probing expression of the human condition, coupled with an impressive command of the range and possibilities inherent in his chosen language.  Beyond the very specific expression of a particular language, a literary creation must also give voice to its national culture.  This represents one aspect of the multifaceted human personality; paradoxically, linguistic and literary particularism constitutes a means of expressing a universal dimension which expands beyond the narrow confines of particularism.


            This example succinctly describes the essence of human existence.  On the one hand, it contains numerous natural and universal dimensions which come to the fore in the sciences and in civilization as a whole.  The struggle to improve human society, which finds expression in the Nobel Peace Prize, is a significant element of this aspect of the human condition.  However, parallel to these realities we find other, particular planes of experience, the antithesis of the universal qualities.  These particular aspects are necessary as well, for they express another facet of the human personality which completes the picture.  Thus, for example, the world of symbols that comes alive in literature constitutes an aspect of the particular quality of human experience.  Not all the springwaters of human existence can be drawn with a universal bucket.


            Incidentally, the list of Nobel Prizes teaches us much about the Jewish contribution to civilization and culture.  The large percentage of Jewish prize winners is particularly interesting.  On the other hand, it is only in recent years that we have won prizes for works of a uniquely Jewish character.  Among these are the Nobel Prizes for Literature awarded in 1966 to Samuel Joseph Agnon and Nelly Sachs and the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to Menachem Begin, former Prime minister of Israel.  We may add to this list the name of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose accomplishments are, in essence, a complete chapter in the history of Yiddish literature.


            We will now return to the initial plea "Do not treat me as a Jew; treat me as a person."  It is patently absurd to pit Jewish existence and human existence against one another.  Such an attitude is comparable to a person who displays an object and claims that it is not green, but simply "colored."  No object in the world is merely colored with no particular shade of its own.  Humanity is not composed of individuals of cosmopolitan character who speak Esperanto and use neutral symbols.  Every person belongs to some specific, distinct unit, with its own array of symbols.  If he abandons his own unique essence, he will immediately take on a foreign identity.


            Allow me to illustrate this concept with the aid of a simple parable.  Do you remember the high school physics experiment in which we filtered white light through a prism, and discovered that it was actually composed of a myriad of colors?  This experiment became the basis for the science of spectography.


            Now let us recall the second half of the experiment.  Taking those same colors that we received, we then passed them through a second prism and beheld a new white light.  However, were we to block one of the colors on its journey from one prism to the next, we would find that the white light had disappeared, leaving only the remaining colors.


            The white light symbolizes universalism.  It is the composition, the blending of the colors, the sum total of particularism.  If one hides or denies the existence of any particular entity, inspired perhaps by a mistaken universalism, the paradoxical result would be the damage of universalism.  The white light would disappear.


            The Jew is but one the various colors of the human spectrum.  It is through his battle to maintain his uniqueness that he contributes to universalism, to the lucidity and power of the white light.  The converse is true as well, for the Jew who abandons his Jewishness in the name of his battle against particularism causes irrevocable damage not only to his own nation, but to all of humanity as well.  Far from being a chauvinistic and self-interested act, the battle to maintain our national uniqueness is instead a means for the speedy development of all of humanity.


             Until this point we have addressed the expressions of religious and cultural particularism.  To complete the picture, we must add a third dimension: the struggle to maintain a Jewish national identity.  I call this ethnic particularism.  Emil Fackenheim, a contemporary Jewish thinker, expressed this with his injunction that in a post Holocaust era we must add one more commandment to the six hundred and thirteen: Thou shalt not allow the Nazis a posthumous victory.  They attempted to obliterate the Jewish nation, constructing an exceedingly systematic and detailed plan to achieve this satanic scheme.  Thank God, all their plans ultimately met with failure.  Yet today, we in the free world face a different phenomenon which seems to be achieving the same grievous results.  Assimilation threatens to continue where the Nazis left off, not through the physical annihilation of individual Jews, but by the destruction of Judaism and of all things Jewish.


            Our mission is to combat this current threat, to save our people from collective annihilation.  The threat may not take the tragic form of Nazi brutality, but it is nonetheless a "kiss of death" to the Jewish community.


            Thus we discover that at times continued biological existence in itself possesses cultural and religious significance.  Of course each and every person possesses a drive for survival.  We call this energy the survival instinct.  However, sometimes a man who fights for his survival discovers the full force of his humanity in this struggle.  A man fighting for his life against a serious disease can teach us much about the power of human potential, a power that may even overcome the angel of death.  A man who battles against natural calamities and builds a civilization upon the ruins expresses human supremacy over nature's cruel whims.  Similarly, the very biological and ethnic existence of the Jew is symbolically significant.  It is based neither upon vast numbers nor upon military power.  It expresses a nation's struggle to swim against the tides of history which seek so persistently to overwhelm it.  Thus, through its very survival, is written one of the glorious pages of world history.  The struggle for continued existence is a protest against the cruel powers and ideologies that attempt to control history through violence and physical superiority.  In this environment, mere biological survival holds tremendous significance for humanity, both culturally and morally.  The Torah teaches us that it has religious significance as well; our national survival is indeed a holy endeavor.


(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


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