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Universalism: Can Loving More Mean Loving Less?

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

The opposite of Universalism is community, not sectarianism.

My mother-in-law, an 85-year-old widow, fainted in the plane while flying from Florida home to Los Angeles. Suddenly she had felt dizzy and had risen to tell the stewardess. The next thing she knew, she was lying on the floor of the first-class compartment being worked on by two doctors. The plane made an emergency landing in Austin, Texas. She was taken by ambulance to South Austin Hospital.

Three hours later she was still lying in a cubicle in the emergency department when we, calling frantically from Jerusalem, caught up with her. Mom kept insisting she was okay and wanted to go home. The doctor, however, explained that they were doing blood tests at 8-hour intervals to determine whether she had had a heart attack.

Our greatest worry was that she was totally alone. Neither we nor Mom knew a soul in Austin, Texas. Since she might be deemed well enough to go home the next day, it seemed premature for Jamie, my husband's younger brother in Los Angeles, to board a plane for Austin. Bob, my husband's older brother, was on vacation in Mexico and incommunicado until he got around to checking his email. What she needed -- of this I was sure -- was a sympathetic woman to sit by her bed and hold her hand.

"There must be a Bikur Cholim Society in Austin," I told my husband. Since it is a mitzvah to visit the sick, every traditional Jewish community has a group that makes hospital visits on request -- to friends or strangers.

It took three phone calls: One to a Jerusalem friend who grew up in Fort Worth. A second to his friend in Dallas. A third to Ofir and Elana Shavitt in Austin. Ofir, we were told, is the president of Austin's tiny Orthodox congregation.

Elana, an Israeli in her late 30s, answered the phone. My husband explained the situation. He apologized; he knew it was Friday morning in Texas, and she was surely busy preparing for Shabbat. But would she mind visiting his mother, and perhaps bringing her candles to light for Shabbat?

Elana replied that she would be happy to visit. A few hours later she crossed the threshold of Mom's hospital room like a sunburst. She brought two bags full of kosher food: grape juice to make Kiddush, challahs, a virtual smorgasbord of goodies, and -- this was Texas, after all -- a juicy, kosher steak.

Elana came back the next night, after Shabbat, before the angioplasty that installed five stents into Mom's two blocked arteries. She waved Mom off as the orderlies rolled her gurney out of the room for the procedure.

She came again on Sunday, even after Jamie arrived from Los Angeles. She called on Monday, when Bob flew in from Mexico. She visited again on Tuesday, with her husband and two of her children. She came for a farewell visit on Wednesday, before the procedure to install a pacemaker in Mom's chest. On Thursday, thanks be to God, Mom flew home to Los Angeles.

Every day when we phoned Mom, she enthused about how wonderful Elana was. "I wish I could take her home with me," Mom effused again and again. Judaism maintains that visits to the sick are therapeutic. Elana's certainly were. She was the next best thing to my being there.


On Wednesday of that worrisome week, a friend of a friend came to see me. Gail was born Jewish, but was practicing an Eastern spiritual path, as I myself had done for many years. We discussed the state of the New Age movement I had left 17 years ago in order to pursue the path of Judaism. We discussed my disillusionment with the movement after a series of sex scandals had discredited virtually every major guru and Zen roshi teaching in America. Gail had struggled with the same issue vis-à-vis her guru, now deceased.

"I'm a universalist!" she exclaimed. "I could never buy into a religion which is so sectarian as Judaism."

Then the topic moved to Judaism. When I described how fulfilled I felt in the Jewish path, Gail launched into a diatribe so vociferous it took my breath away. "I'm a universalist!" she exclaimed. "I could never buy into a religion which is so sectarian, so exclusionary, so tribal as Judaism."

As her volume and her pitch rose, she continued for 10 minutes to inveigh against the evils of sectarianism. "The Jews care only about other Jews. It makes me sick. I can't stand how limited, how clannish, how narrow-minded Judaism is! I believe in Universalism! I believe in loving everyone!"

Only after Gail left did I realize that without Judaism's "tribalism," Elana Shavit would not be visiting my mother-in-law in the South Austin Hospital that day. Only because we belong to the same group and subscribe to the same religious value system (After all, I volunteer to make hospital visits to "strangers" here in Jerusalem), did I feel free to call another observant woman and ask her to do me such a personal favor. Can you imagine me picking a stranger at random from the Austin telephone directory online, and calling to ask her to visit my mother-in-law in the hospital?

The particularism which defines a community is not its weakness, but its strength.

The opposite of Universalism is not sectarianism. The opposite of Universalism, I realized with a start, is community. Defining a group according to religion, nationality, or shared goals creates a community. And a community takes responsibility for helping one another.

A community, by definition, includes some and excludes most. Its shared creed, convictions, or interests create a powerful centripetal force which bonds its members to each other. The particularism which defines a community is not its weakness, but its strength.

If one of the "adult communities" mushrooming in America today rejected the application of a family with small children, would it be considered "prejudice"? If a Zen monastery refused membership to a couple with a wailing infant, would it be stigmatized as "narrow-minded"?

I grew up in Haddonfield, New Jersey, with the feeling that all Jews everywhere in the world were one family. Many Jews still feel that way; they are the ones who experience every news report of a terror attack in Israel like a knife to the heart -- and then go do something about it. Sadly, however, the more that traditional communities have given way to the consciousness of the Global Village, the more that deep feelings of love and empathy have given way to a sad shake of the head and on to the next item on the evening news.

A recent bestseller, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell contends that when a group becomes too large, the bonds between its members break down. Gladwell found, for example, that successful companies operate in units not exceeding 150 people. Up to that number, there is a sense of mutual helping and teamwork, which dissipates when the group becomes larger.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, bigger does not mean better; bigger means more anonymous.

Universalism delivers less love to more people, while community delivers more love to less people.

This is precisely the fatal flaw in Universalism. Universalism claims to foster more love than sectarian groups. In fact, Universalism delivers less love to more people, while community delivers more love to less people.

Gail railed that to subscribe to Judaism would be limiting. Yes, Judaism is as limiting as marriage. When one marries, one is in effect rejecting the possibility of forming an intimate relationship with everyone else in the world save this spouse. In a deeper sense, however, nothing is as expanding as marriage, which fosters a level of mutual caring and responsibility unattainable in any other same-generation relationship.

The day after Gail's visit, I sat down by my telephone to what I thought would be a daunting task: getting neighbors to cook for a family in our community whose mother is afflicted with a chronic illness. In our Old City community, as in every religious neighborhood in Israel, it is standard practice to supply meals to mothers for a week after childbirth and to mourners for the week of shiva. But this time, I had to ask women to commit to cooking a meal for a family of six every week or every second week...indefinitely.

Eleven calls later, the cooking schedule was complete. Every woman I asked, including those who barely know the family, said, "Yes," with the exception of one woman whose daughter is about to give birth. That woman asked me to please call back in a month, and in the meantime, she'd be happy to go to the needy family a few times a week to fold laundry.

That's how community works. How does Universalism work? After all the rhetoric and lofty ideals, how many meals are delivered? How much laundry folded?

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Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) developed a paradigm for love in terms of concentric circles. He wrote that first a Jew must love himself, the center of the circle. The next step is to focus on loving one's family. The next concentric circle outward is love for the Jewish people. Beyond that, one should strive to love all human beings. The outermost circle is love for all living creatures.

Success with the inner circles impacts one's success with the outer circles. A person who hates himself will have great difficulty loving others. A person who does not love his own siblings or cousins often bears only a specious love for all Israel. How can a Jew claim to love all humanity but hate his own people? A person who is devoted to saving the whales but couldn't care less about saving starving Africans suffers from a glaring myopia.

Judaism considers the entire creation worthy of love (for, after all, who created it?), but prioritizes according to an inner logic. Thus, the Mishna lists "loving all humanity" as one of the prerequisites for acquiring Torah (Ethics of the Fathers 6:6) and Torah law forbids causing unnecessary pain to animals. No circle is skipped, but the more genuine the love, the more it will radiate from the center out.

During my first months studying Judaism in Jerusalem, I came nose-to-nose with Rabbi Kook's paradigm. I was a devoted Universalist when I arrived in Israel. Frankly, Judaism's emphasis on "loving your fellow Jew" rankled me. Why not love everyone with equal priority, I wondered querulously?

One day I was riding on a Jerusalem bus. The bus was full, with several passengers standing. Now, if you've never ridden on an Israeli bus, you've missed a great rodeo ride, with sudden stops, starts, and turns that slam everyone sideways.

At one stop, a pregnant woman boarded the bus. I expected a young religious man sitting in the aisle seat of the second row to get up and give the pregnant woman his seat, but he didn't. As one minute passed, then another, I became outraged by this man's incivility. (Of course, it didn't occur to me to relinquish my own seat; after all, I was 37 years old and had a pile of packages on my lap!) "What a hypocrite!" I seethed. Finally (a minute later), a middle-aged woman sitting behind this man yelled at him something nasty in Hebrew. He got up and the pregnant woman sat down.

For the rest of the bus ride, I contemplated my feelings of contempt for that man, as well as my own hypocrisy in being lenient on myself while I was so harsh toward him. While subscribing to a doctrine of universal love, I had so easily slipped into hatred not only for that one Jew, but for the entire group he represented. A few minutes before, "Love your fellow Jew," had seemed too narrow, too small an order. Now it seemed like a gargantuan order -- far beyond the meager capacities of my heart. To love all my fellow Jews meant loving the obnoxious ones, the loud ones, the superficial ones, from the smelly beggars to the intellectual imposters. And -— I realized with dawning discomfort -— if I couldn't manage to love the 13,000,000 Jews in the world, how could I presume to love the other billions of people on the planet?

Verbal love is virtual love; real love is doing.

The claim to "love everyone," often fizzles into the reality of loving almost no one. Of course, there are a few individuals who have actually scaled all the concentric circles and arrived at a true, grounded love for all humanity. Elie Wiesel comes to mind. In addition to (not instead of) standing up for Jews wherever they are under attack, Elie Wiesel went to (not just commiserated with) the Cambodian refugees fleeing the killing fields of Pol Pot.

Verbal love is virtual love; real love is doing. Maimonides defines the commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself," to mean caring for your neighbor's physical needs, showing him honor, and speaking well of him to others. "Love" which remains in the heart rots in the heart.

For those who aspire to universal love, a good place to begin would be visiting your mother. The next surefire step would be visiting someone else's mother -- especially if she's in the hospital.

In loving memory of
Sam Horberg


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