1937 Columbus Story: Universalism v Particularism | Parashat Behaalotcha

The rabbinic conference in Columbus, Ohio 1937 must have been fraught and tense – the Reform movement in the United States was on the edge of redefining its relationship to a personal God and to Israel – and some rabbis felt that the core values of Reform Judaism were on the chopping block.

When Rabbi Felix A. Levy brought down his gavel to close the convention, the Reform movement, for some, seemed to tilt further from Universalism to Particularism.  Rabbi Levy was the first Zionist to lead the North American Reform movement’s rabbinic conference, and the platform put much more weight on the side of Particularism than the platform passed in Pittsburgh some fifty-two years earlier.

At that conference, Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath of Holy Blossom Temple gave the Saturday morning sermon, titled “Retreat or Advance?” on this week’s parasha, B’ha’alotcha.  He laments, on that morning in 1937, how humanity and Jews around the world had entered into a wilderness of doubt “knowing not whether to move forward or back, to advance or to retreat.”

Eisendrath warns of a pull to return to the past and to tradition.  Just like Dor HaMidbar, the generation of the wilderness, we, too, often want to return to an imagined past when Jewish tradition held us secure.  But the only way is to continue marching, just as it was for our people in the desert. He exhorts us to “catch that subtle and precious secret of Israel’s uniqueness, of Israel’s age-long persistence, that secret which is to be found solely in the harmony, the blending, the synthesis of the Particular and the Universal.”

Even with a strong, seventy year old Jewish State, we are still a desert generation.  We feel the pull of tradition and of responsibility towards our people, and we feel the push of our commandments also to focus on the universal ethic. Because we are marching towards an ideal of a Promised Land together, as an international movement, we are able to overcome the pull in both directions and remain on our sacred path as a community.

In our world movement, Particularism is an inevitable core part of each community’s life.  Each of our communities holds together, because we care for each other and share the same traditions.  In England, no Pesach Seder would be complete without an egg in a bowl of salt-water.  In some communities in the American South, the same can be said for Matzah Balls with gravy.

What does your community eat for Shabbat?  Chicken, as is the tradition in our Ashkenazi homes, or fish like our friends in Morocco, or Minhag Anglia, which is cold fish with potatoes and trifle?

As we travel across our World Union, we find some communities where almost all women wear kippot, and some, where almost none of the men do.  The communities in Toronto almost all have daily minyanim, and other communities don’t meet every Shabbat and Holy Days.   Just as in Columbus in 1937, rabbis and lay leaders still have various opinions on politics in Israel.

Particularism and difference is an inevitable part of our life, which gives colour and identity to our communities.  And we need the Universal view for each of us to grow as individuals and as Jews – both a Jewish universalism, based on moral and ethical principles, and a universalistic and pluralistic approach to world Progressive Jewry.

Traveling and learning with the World Union of Progressive Judaism allows us to experience the wide range of textures, which exist in our movement, and gives us the strength to walk through the desert around us together.

The strength of the World Union is in how it allows us to find those others who are wandering through the desert to a promised land – how it allows a Rabbi from New Jersey to sit in Toronto with a Rabbi born in Belarus, who serves a British community.  As we reach out our hands in friendship, we enrich our communities and progress Judaism.


About the authors:

Rabbi Jordan Helfman is the assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Executive Board. He is a former youth worker for Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdom, and enjoys visiting our WUPJ congregations when he can with his wife and three children. You can reach him on: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/helfmanj or Twitter: @helfmanj

Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich is the Rabbi of Nottingham Liberal Synagogue. Rabbi Tanya was born in Minsk, Belarus. She is the former coordinator of community and education programmes for the World Union of Progressive Judaism in both Minsk and Moscow. When she gets time, Rabbi Tanya’s outside interests include the piano, reading, music, art, theatre and sporting activities with her son. You can email her at: @nottinghamliberalsynagogue.com