A particular view for a universal act of violence

I’ve been to Shabbat services hundreds of times so I can envision exactly what the Pittsburgh congregants were doing when the murderer came for them. Although I’ve never been to Tree of Life I am intimately familiar with the setting, with the clothing worn, with the rhythm of Shabbat morning services, with the different areas of a synagogue one could race to in an emergency. And so this violence feels like — because it is — an explicit attack on my people, my community…on me.

But a friend wrote to me that he had conflicting feelings. He was much more upset about this attack than other mass shootings. And this bothers him. He believes that all lives are of equal value. “I do not feel like I should find this shooting to be any more sad or upsetting or worse than other ones,” he wrote. Can we resolve that conflict? Can we claim to value all lives equally, regardless of identity, while also feeling that the attack on this particular identity — ours, Jewish — is more powerfully emotional for us?

My friend is expressing and experiencing the tension between the universal and the particular. Our Jewish upbringing in 21st century America tell us that tikkun olam is the highest Jewish moral value and that it means caring for all of humanity. Our (or at least my) progressive political milieu tell us that everyone should be valued equally and that everyone’s life is of equal value to another. This value system suggests that we shouldn’t feel extra-especially awful if the dead are Jewish vs. non-Jewish. If all deaths are a tragedy, and we’re supposed to be good universalists, the we should be on the same emotional plane if the Pittsburgh attack had been at a church or a movie theater instead.

The particularist view is the one that says this attack feels much closer to home because we see ourselves and our families in it. It feels particularly Jewish because it was particularly Jewish, targeted at Jews for being Jews.

It’s only natural that we feel more affected by this shooting than others. These weren’t Jews killed because they happened to be in a movie theater along with everyone else (i.e. in a “universal” setting). They were specifically targeted (“particularist”) and so in that respect it really DOES feel like it could easily have been us. It was in a space we know intimately. We “know” the dead in a way that we just don’t have the same connection with other people. It’s dramatically more immediate. So of course it’s scarier and our emotions are going to be more intense. I think that’s a natural response.

Judaism suggests that there is a way to have the universalist value while engaging in a particularist way. For example: for Pittsburgh we say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. That doesn’t mean we think those Jewish lives are more valuable than others for whom we don’t say the prayer. But because they were Jewish we acknowledge that with a specifically-Jewish prayer. It’s a universal value (mourning those who have died) with a particularist Jewish ritual (Hebrew prayer).

Another example: Rabbi Reuven Hammer said, “To become indifferent to the world is to bring about the death of the soul.” We’re clearly not indifferent to the world: look at the outpouring of support to places like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which overwhelmingly supports non-Jewish immigrants. We have Jews (particularist) donating to a Jewish organization (particularist) that primarily helps non-Jews (universalist) who, like Jews in the past, are new immigrants in need of support (universalist). So what may seem like a contradiction doesn’t need to be, because we can both believe that every life is equally valuable while also feeling a specific connection to the Jewish people and acting on it (i.e. saying Kaddish or donating to HIAS).

Elie Wiesel said that the definition of a Jew is someone who links his or her destiny to the Jewish people. If that’s so, then of course we’re going to feel a deeper connection to, and hence a more intense emotion about, events that impact our people. It’s not about excluding others, it’s about connecting with our own community in times of great need.


This article appeared in the Times of Israel on November 1, 2018. You can read it on the TOI website here.