The End of the Beginning

Judaism is uniquely universal and particular – and establishes this pattern in the Book of Genesis, as Rabbi Wein explains in this panoramic overview.

Judaism differs from all religions in that it is simultaneously universal and particular. Christianity and Islam, the other monotheistic religions, do not have any national base. They are ostensibly for everybody. In fact, in their pursuit of converts they have attempted to convert the whole world to their respective faiths.

Judaism, on the other hand, is particular in the sense that it deals with a particular people who have a particular set of rules that does not apply to other people and who are based in particular land. Yet, it has very dominant universalistic aspects along with its particularistic ones. This combination is something not found in any other faith.

In today’s Jewish world, for instance, there are people who are very interested in what they call Tikkun Olam, which means to fix the world. This is a universalistic concept. However, those who profess interest in Tikkun Olam are typically not very interested in Judaism, the Jewish people or the Jewish state. Their universalism precludes particularism.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to reach out to Jewish youth on college campuses. He related that when someone would come up to him and say he was a Roman Catholic he would believe him. When someone would say he was a Protestant he would believe him. When someone would say that he was a Muslim he would believe him. When someone would come to him and say, “I’m a human being,” then Rabbi Carlebach knew that he was a Jew. This is typical of the contemporary Jew accessing his universalistic instinct while eschewing his Jewish identity and his peoples’ dreams.

On the other hand, there are people who are very particular about their Judaism. Therefore, they do not look outside of their own society or even their own neighborhood. They have no concept how to deal with a world that is overwhelmingly not Jewish. They also have taken only part of the message of Judaism.

To be a Jew, one has to have a universal outlook – to see the whole world and be responsible for it as well – while at the same time be particular, i.e. possess a fidelity to the special set of rules, the 613 commandments, special observances, special loyalties and special holy days that are particular to Jews.

This combination is on display in the Book of Genesis.

The book begins on a very universal note. God creates the universe: “heaven and earth.” That pertains to everybody. Similarly, God creates original man[1] and the Talmud asks: “Why was only one man created?” Among the answers the rabbis advance is so that no one should say, “I am better than you.” The whole idea of racial bigotry, of a world in which some are superior and others are inferior,[2] is effectively trashed by this world view. In creation, everybody started out equal. That, too, is part of the universalism that makes up Genesis.

However, Genesis gradually proceeds from the universal to the particular before it reverts back again from particularism to universalism. All told, this is the essence of Judaism: to be able to see and embrace both aspects.

Universal Vices

The first incidents that are recorded in Genesis are not very promising. Adam and Eve disobey God and are driven out of the Garden of Eden.

As an aside, this episode establishes the principle of free will. A person can do whatever he wants. God does not interfere to a great extent. God allows evil to exist.

One of the great philosophical questions is how does evil exist if God is good? There were many theories advanced. In Jewish kabbalistic thought, there is a concept that God withdrew, so to speak. Since God is everything and everywhere He left empty space, so to speak, allowing things like free will and evil to operate. People can do whatever they want even knowing what God wants and hearing from Him explicitly not to do it.

People also operate from very base and selfish motives. That is the story of Cain and Abel. Why does Cain slay his brother Abel? He has virtually the entire world at his feet. The answer is that it is not what I have that bothers me but what you have that bothers me.

There is an anecdote of two people who own almost identical stores in essentially the same neighborhood and sell the same goods at the same prices. One store was wildly successful while the other store barely survived. The man who owned the unsuccessful store decided to visit the owner of the other store and ask, “Why are you so successful while I am not?”

“Simple,” the man answered. “I’m watching one store while you are watching two stores.”

Jealousy like Cain’s can become obsessive to such an extent that you can kill your brother. It is true of nations as well. The history of war pays ample homage that.

Genesis begins by setting out human nature, including freedom of will, jealousy, competition and murder, all of which have remained by part civilization throughout the ages.


Then, in a continuation of the theme of universalism, there is natural disaster. The Flood comes and destroys everything and everyone but Noah and his family. The rabbis posed the question: Noah was a righteous person who withstood the mockery of society who thought him a lunatic for building the ark, but was everyone who died evil? No.

The suffering of the innocent and righteous is a constant theme in human history. Why should it be that way?

An entire book of the Bible, the Book of Job, is dedicated to the topic. Job was a righteous man. He was charitable, generous, sensitive to others and recognized as the most righteous person in his generation – yet he had terrible afflictions visited upon him. But God allows it to happen. That is the metaphor of the book.

According to Jewish tradition, it was authored by Moses (Bava Basra 15a). Most of the book deals with Job’s complaints, which were legitimate. His friends came to comfort him. In times of difficulty, words of consolation are hard to find. According to Jewish tradition, the greatest consolation is silence. Sometimes one visits the house of a mourner and hears the most banal things expressed. You feel like saying, “Just keep quiet.” Job’s friends came and were not silent. They said all sorts of things. Maybe it is your fault. Maybe you are not such a pious person. Who knows what you do in private. Your whole faith is wrong; there is no God.

Job was not broken. He even said to God, “Even if You kill me I will still pray to you.” But he is angry. He believes in God but pushes Him into the corner, so to speak, and says, “Why?” The last few chapters represent God’s response. However, the response does not seem to answer the question: Do you understand how I created the universe? Do you understand how I created the world? You do not understand any of that, God tells Job.

It was not necessarily a comforting answer. But it expresses the Jewish idea that life, after all is said and done, remains mysterious and beyond our ability to comprehend in its entirety. When Moses wanted to know why the righteous suffered the Talmud tells us that God would not reveal it to him. Even Moses, the greatest prophet, the person with the truest and purest perception of God, could not fully answer why bad things happen to good people.

Judaism may not deal with the why, but Genesis wants to let us know that the suffering of the righteous is a fact of life. Brace yourselves for it and move on.

Enforced Universalism

After the Flood, we see more universalism – but now it is enforced universalism: the Tower of Babel. Nimrod declares that everyone has to speak his language and subscribe to his ideas; he is Big Brother! All dictators from the beginning of time from the Roman Caesars to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao until today are the same in that they attempted to enforce universalism (albeit their unique brand of universalism, which, of course, made it something less than universal).

Conformity is a terrible danger because it limits us in myriad ways. The rabbis say that the main crime of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were the symbol of evil in the ancient world, was their insistence on conformity. In Sodom and Gomorrah, the rabbis say, they had a bed. If a person was too long they chopped off his legs. If he was too short they stretched him. The rabbis meant by that that it was an absolute conformist society. A person had to fit. If he didn’t fit, they made him fit.

The Talmud teaches that just as the physical features of no two people are the same, so too no two minds are the same. We do not see the world alike. We have different views. Therefore, just as we shouldn’t kill a person because he has different color eyes than us, we should not kill a person because he has different views than us.

Enforced universalism is actually a symbol of insecurity, the rabbis say. A person cannot tolerate something different because he is insecure in what he believes. Therefore, the secret of human success is somehow to be psychologically and spiritually secure in one’s self. This is not easy to accomplish. We all have sensitivities. But, basically, that is the universal lesson here in Genesis.

The Beginnings of Particularism

Out of this universalism came the first particularism: Abraham. The rabbis ask why was he called “Abraham the Hebrew” (Ivri)? The word “Ivri” includes in it the word that means, “You are on the opposite side.” Abraham was called the Hebrew because he was on one side and the whole world, a world immersed in paganism, was on the other.

Paganism is the enemy of universalism. Each pagan sect had its own particular god that was supposedly superior to any other. Abraham’s world was deeply immersed in paganism. Abraham introduced the idea of monotheism, of one God for everyone. At the same time that he spreads this universalistic message, he engages in particularism by founding a family that will become a people who will be different and be treated differently from all other people. It will have a special role in history – and not always a comfortable one.

Abraham established the right of the individual. One person can make a difference. Therefore, in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham makes a deal with God. If there are 10 righteous living there He should let the cities be spared. But there weren’t. Therefore, the cities were destroyed not because there were a million bad people, but because there weren’t enough good people.

What is the value of a good person? Who can measure it? On Friday night, around the Sabbath table, Jews recite the chapter from Proverbs by King Solomon: “A great woman, who can estimate her value?” One person can make a great difference. Therefore, we have the message of the power of the individual as well as the challenge to the individual to stand up and somehow make a difference.

What made Abraham different is that he did something about it. Others may have thought about it, but he did something about it.

From Individual to Family

From Abraham, Genesis passes from the individual to the family. The concept of family in Judaism is central.

Family is very difficult to achieve. The saying goes, “How does God take revenge on children? By making them parents.”

In the house of Abraham grows Ishmael, who runs around stealing, killing and raping. No one has a contract how their children and grandchildren will end up. There are no guarantees. Nevertheless, Abraham constructs a family with Sarah, who gives birth to Isaac.

Yet, even he was almost killed on the altar and among the lessons that teaches is how elusive and uncertain life is. Ever a person who has miracles performed for him might in the end still not turn out the way he wanted it to turn out.

The concept of family is difficult and many times unbalanced. Every family, whether we like it or not, has some sort of casualty. The perfect family, like the perfect person, does not exist. People are unique and we cannot control that, as painful as that is to accept.

Isaac and Rebecca run into the same problem. They try to have a family. She is barren for many years. Finally, when God grants her to conceive she has twins, one of whom is the arch-criminal, Esau. Out of the same womb came Esau and Jacob.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a great insight. He writes that part of the problem was that Isaac and Rebecca gave both of their children the same education; they sent them to the same school. However, what was great for Jacob was a disaster for Esau. That is what King Solomon said (Proverbs): “Educate your child according to his way.” According to his way, not according to your way.

Of course, that is very hard to do. It requires a level that almost no one can achieve.

Particularism and Universalism

From particularism, Genesis returns toward the end to universalism through the story of Joseph.

Joseph becomes the viceroy of Egypt. His concern is universalistic. The entire region is starving, not just his family. He organizes an entire system that will feed all who need to be fed. And he does not limit it to Egypt either. The entire Middle East came to Egypt to buy food from the granaries that Joseph set up.

From particularism, Genesis advances to a type of universalism; how to see everyone in the picture, not just me, my family, my faith or my nation.

This combination characterizes the book. It portrays human nature, universal historical events… as well as the beginnings of the Jewish people, who are inextricably part of it all and destined to play a central role.

Genesis describes itself as, “The book of humankind.” It reflects all of the human condition, for good or for better. It emphasizes the power of the individual and the power of a particular people, and the mission that all of us have to really try to make our world a little better.

[1] There have been many studies that now theorize that everybody today descend from one woman who lived in the Africa.

[2] This was the basis on 19th century imperialism and colonialism, which morphed into Social Darwinism and ended up in the form of Nazism, who felt they had the right to destroy those they thought were inferior.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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