These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Social Justice – Universalism and Humanism

Posted on January 3, 2012 by Eliyahu B.

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Here is a dvar tzedek I wrote and gave to my Social Justice class today on our last day of class:


Shalom classmates. I am here before you today to share with you my views on humanism and universalism, two topics which have been prominent in my way of thinking for many years, at least since I began really thinking for myself in college. I feel a bit like I imagine Levi Lauer did when he spoke to us not too long ago, because this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart and I acknowledge that I will be held accountable for everything I say here today. With that said, I will move on.

What does it mean to love another human being? What does it mean to love yourself? And most of all, what does it mean when Rabbi Akiva says it is a major principle of the Torah that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”? To answer these questions, let’s first look at what humanism and universalism is. defines humanism as any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values and dignity predominate. It defines universalism as the doctrine that emphasizes the universal fatherhood of G-d and the final salvation of all souls. It is also important to note that in philosophy, humanism is an ethical theory that often rejects the importance of a belief in G-d and puts the emphasis on human fulfillment in the natural world through scientific inquiry and reason.

So now that we know what they mean, we are left to ask ourselves: How do these two concepts fit into loving one another as we do ourselves? The answer to this question can be found in the book Pahad Yitzhak, written by Rav Yitzhak Hutner. In his section on the festival of Shavuot he writes that “the basic fact upon which everything is established is that ‘the person was created as an individual’.” He goes on to write that “from this foundational fact emerges two alternative voices,” the first of which declares that “all of us are the children of a single father, [and] our family tree can be traced to a single human being.”

What Hutner means by way of this first voice is that “each of us are nothing more than pieces of a single wholeness… [which] is a faithful source of the unity of humankind.” By his very own words, humanity is unified by way of a single Father, who in my estimation has imbued characteristics upon us that we all share. This is universalism at its core.

Hutner then goes on to describe the second voice that emerges from this foundational fact of who we are, which declares: “The nature of the father is in the child.” He further explains that “since the head of our family tree is a single human being, as a matter of course each one of us is imprinted with an aspect of the uniqueness of our origin.” What I take this to mean is that our humanity is emphasized through the very natural fact that we come from a specific someone who imbues us with their own attributes, in addition to our ancestral Father. This emphasizes our individuality because each of us have our own parents who we originate from, gain our values from, and even pick up characteristics, qualities and ethics from. This in a nutshell is the essence of humanism.

So now our question is: How do we reconcile and combine these two seemingly disparate worldviews, and again, where does loving one another as we do ourselves come into play? Well, I would argue that we love one another dafka (precisely) for and because of our differences. It is our differences that make us the unique individuals that we are, so in acceptance of this fact what’s not to love? We are all unique, that is G-d’s blessing to us! I firmly believe it is our imperative to celebrate these differences and, by way of visual metaphor, see them all as freckles on the face of G-d. Because that’s what they are! Not only do they indicate our individuality, but they express our common humanity as one People with a single Father.

This is what Rabbi Akiva means when he says you shall love your neighbor as yourself. You’re all unique, but that’s great! That’s exactly why you can love your neighbor as yourself! This brings me to one last point, which I believe is the most important point of all and one that I constantly reflect on. Loving your neighbor as yourself implies that you love yourself first, and sometimes this can be the hardest task to accomplish. It requires seeing yourself not only as a unique individual with your own history, traits and flaws… but also as a child of G-d, of a single Father. He loves you no matter how many times you screw up, all he is waiting for is your teshuva. This fact is what gives me hope. Hope for myself, and hope for humanity. May we all have the strength to return to our Father in love, and by way of this return love others as well. Thank you.