Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 14 February 2009 / 20 Shevat 5769


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Rabih Sarieddine in Switzerland
Dear Rabbi,

It seems to me that universality is one of the main topics in Judaism. However, in Judaism, conversion is a long process that needs human validation. Now take someone who really wishes to become Jewish. It happens that he takes a voyage on the sea and the boat sinks. He survives but ends up on a deserted island and is condemned to remain there all his life. Does this mean that he can never become a Jew? If this is the case, what is Judaism about? And if it is not true, what is universality about? Thank you.

Dear Rabih,

It is true that Judaism describes G-d as the King of the Universe. His relationship with, and interest in, the world is in fact universal. G-d’s message to all mankind is also universal: Believe in Me as the One Creator of everything and live ethical lives. However, the fact that G-d and His message are universal doesn’t mean the details are the same for all people and that all people have to be the same. G-d recognizes and celebrates the variety and significance of the individual as well.

This means that the details of what G-d expects and demands of people vary literally from group to group and individual to individual. Within the Jewish people, the teachings and obligations of the Torah apply differently according to factors such as age, gender, physical constitution, family lineage and more. G-d’s recognition of the individual does not detract from His universal message.

Similarly, while generally applicable to all, the Torah applies differently to Jews than to non-Jews. G-d’s expectations from, and demands of, Jews are more detailed and rigorous. But that does not mean that He is only the G-d of the Jews. He is everyone’s Father in Heaven who shares a unique relationship with all.

The bottom line of all this is that universality does not mean homogeneity but is rather more about the harmonious co-existence and celebration of difference. Other than the basic LCD of ethical monotheism revealed by G-d in the Torah, people are valid as they are, and can earn spiritual reward in the World to Come. Judaism does not believe that everyone has to be Jewish, but rather everyone has to be righteous in their own right according to G-d’s will for each individual.

So, to relate these ideas to the scenario you describe, a person may have good intentions in wanting to become Jewish, which is an option for everyone (albeit an unnecessary one). However, G-d rules the world and may decide that despite the person’s good will, his potential would be more fully realized or his contribution would ultimately be greater as a non-Jew. Sometimes G-d even has to resort to drastic measures to save a person from himself. But G-d helps, G-d saves and G-d wants us to survive. Sometimes, to prevent us from drowning in the sea of conformity and uniformity, he places us on an isolated island. But this is order to teach us that just as the universal G-d appreciates and celebrates our individuality, so should we.

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