By Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem/New York, 1995
Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph. D.
The Universal Jew tells of Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen's struggle to resolve the basic conflict between the universal world view that his progressive parents had given him, and the particularistic attitude of many Orthodox Jews which focused on the needs and concerns of the Jewish people. Yosef found that this tension seemed to exist within the tradition itself, since there are sources which stress involvement and love for all people and also sources which emphasize the uniqueness of the Jewish people.
Yosef's father, Seymour Oboler, was active in the labor movement, civil rights organizations, and other causes on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. His mother organized people to help meet the needs of the sick and elderly in their community, and Yosef and his sister often participated.
When Yosef started showing an interest in traditional Judaism at a young age, his father feared that he would abandon the struggle for social justice, that he would become intolerant of other people's beliefs and practices, including those of his parents, and that he would even become prejudiced against Gentiles. Although his father's fears were alleviated, Yosef struggled with these issues for most of his adult life. Fortunately, throughout his life, he found dedicated Orthodox teachers who guided him to classical sources which stressed Judaism's message for humanity. Yosef found a statement by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch in The Nineteen Letters that inspired him to try to resolve this tension: ''Judaism, if properly understood and properly presented,unites all living things with a bond of love and justice.''
The author also explores with his father a number of ancient rabbinic stories (midrashim) which indicate that the people of Israel were destined to be a microcosm of the world's people. Using these traditional sources, he demonstrates that the ''Jewish story'' is in some way ''the human story.'' He writes:
For through Divine Providence humanity evolved into a ''rainbow'' of diverse peoples. Therefore, if the Torah is to tell a story of relevance to all humanity, it needs a ''people'' to act out this story. It's as if the world is a ''theater,'' and G-d, the ''director'' chose the Jews for a central role. But they were to be more than just another national group; they were to become a ''rainbow'' people - one which could represent all the groups in the ''audience.''
According to a midrash (rabbinic parable), Avraham, the first Jew, ''stood on one side of the river, while the rest of the world stood on the other side.'' Therefore, the author reminds us that the foundation for our universal contribution is our ability to maintain our values and our separate identity so that we, as a people, can serve as an example to others. And Yosef points out that there were a number of Jewish radicals in both his generation and his father's generation who, in their own way, sensed that the Jewish people have a unique mission. For example, he cites the following quote of Jewish radical activist Abbie Hoffman: ''I see Judaism as a way of life. Sticking up for the underdog. Being an outsider. A critic of society. The kid on the corner who says the emperor has no clothes on. The Prophet.''
Yosef indicates that our universal concern must also include animals. He points out that Judaism teaches that "all of God's creatures are entitled to our compassion and concern". He retells the midrash stating that Moses was judged as one who was suitable to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he showed compassion to a thirsty lamb, and also the midrash that tells us that Noah and his family were constantly involved in taking care of the needs of the animals on the ark. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the Torah applies the word tzaddil (righteous person) to only two individuals, Noah and Joseph, and both provided food for both people and animals in a time of crisis. Yosef also discusses Judaism's message of esponsibility to the environment, that we are to be stewards of the earth, "to till it and to guard it" (Genesis 2:15).
The Universal Jew helps both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews to go beyond the stereotyped views that each group has of the other. And it demonstrates through an explanation of classical Torah sources that there is a universal vision which can unite us. I hope that this book will be widely read and discussed, and that many more people will join Yosef in relating Judaism's powerful universal message. The detailed study guide at the end gives many sources that will be very helpful in this effort.
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