All of us recognize that a universal vision is integral to Judaism. But from where did it come? Was it in the time of the ancient prophets, like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, that Judaism first developed a moral commitment to a just world, to become "a light unto the nations"? (Isaiah 49:6)
In this week's parashah, Lech L'cha, we find the answer, and it may surprise us. Here, in God's first charge to Abraham (called Abram in this portion of the story), are the seeds of universalism: "And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you." (Genesis 12:3) Our people's journey had just begun, but this "mission statement," so beautifully enunciated at its outset, powerfully articulates the Jewish dream that embraces all peoples.
Abraham is quick to implement the humanitarian role that God has ordained for him. His plea for the innocent people of Sodom, a scene we might have expected to find in the prophetic literature hundreds of years later, is a superb example of universalism at the starting point of Judaism's development. Abraham's concern extends far beyond the narrow responsibility of his own family. In this dramatic confrontation with God, he argues for people with whom he has no connection other than that they are fellow human beings, and he pleads that if good people could be found among them, they must be saved. (Genesis 18:22-32) As Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes, Abraham's "horizon is not limited by tribal considerations. His is a universal concept of justice ... He is a man for all men." (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: UAHC Press, 1981, p. 133)
There can be no question about Abraham's role here as advocate for all humanity. It is significant that God reveals Sodom's impending destruction to Abraham because "all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him." (Genesis 18:17-18) Rashi underscores this point in his commentary on the above passage by asking: Just as Abraham is the "father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:5), are not the people of Sodom his children, too?
Although Judaism richly develops the biblical message of universalism, that vision is always rooted in the experiences of our people. Enduring social values are an inherent part of the people who gave birth to them. Particularism and universalism join hands in the story of the Exodus and its message of human freedom; in Moses' Ten Commandments and their universal ethical principles; and in Isaiah's call to his own people to renew their faith and at the same time proclaim God's house "a house of prayer for all peoples." (Isaiah 56:7)
Sometimes people criticize the often intense concern of Judaism, especially Reform Judaism, with the problems in our society―with economic injustice, racism, and the erosion of civil liberties―as expressions of a particular political philosophy and not authentic Jewish principles. They regard these concerns as latter-day additions to the "fundamentals" of study, worship, and Jewish survival. When we reread God's initial command to Abraham and recognize Abraham's own moral courage, we put social action in its proper perspective in the Jewish faith. The story of Abraham is a mandate for action from its very beginning.
For Further Reading
Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time , Al Vorspan and David Saperstein, New York: UAHC Press, 1998.
At the time of this wriiting in 1999, Jerome K. Davidson was serving as the rabbi of Temple Beth El, Great Neck, NY.