I thought my friend Lynn would be thrilled to get the email. She wasn’t.

It started out with a routine “fan mail” to Aish.com, forwarded to the staff. I skimmed it until something made me do a double take:

I love your website!!! It covers every subject. I love learning the history of our holidays, the spiritual part, the Rabbi's message, etc.

I ran into someone recently who I went to high school with who is a 'free range' minister without a church. He began to immediately try to convert me telling me about messianic Jews and then told me how many Jewish people are converting to become Messianic Jews. I felt attacked. These are my people. I told him I would never abandon my people and convert. He smirked at me and said, "you've been had.” I argued with him vociferously.

In the end, he realized that he chose the wrong person to ever try to convert. I thank my family, my beautiful and beloved Hebrew school teacher, Mrs. Bulko…

Mrs. Bulko? Did she mean Lynn’s mother, who died 25 years ago? Lynn’s mother used to teach Hebrew school. Wouldn’t it be amazing if this Aish.com reader was referring to the mother of my childhood best friend Lynn?

I was titillated with the prospect that 25 years after Mrs. Bulko’s death, one of her Hebrew school students is still remembering her with appreciation. I quickly forwarded the email to Lynn with the note, “Is she talking about your mother?”

Lynn’s response stunned me:

Probably. She mentions that she’s from our area. I think my mother, however, would have been softer and more understanding that people have different beliefs.

Was he entitled to champion the cause of Jews only by first forwarding a video about blacks?

Different beliefs? The letter-writer was angry because a Christian missionary was trying to convert her, which she considered a betrayal of her “people.” Must we Jews be soft and understanding when confronting people who want to convert all Jews to Christianity? The Mrs. Bulko I knew was a proud Jew who would have been just as defiant as the letter writer in the face of Christian missionaries. What was her daughter thinking?

Just the week before, my husband had had his own email shock. He had forwarded to his personal mailing list a YouTube video decrying the perversion of justice in the case of a Jew who has been sentenced to 28 years in prison for bank fraud. Bruce, my husband’s best friend as a teenager, sent this scathing email in reply:

This kind of thing has been visited upon American blacks since "all men are created equal." Where was your outrage before a Jew was targeted? Your selective sensitivity is revealing, to say the least.

My husband felt slapped in the face. Was he entitled to champion the cause of a fellow Jew only if he first forwarded videos about injustices to blacks? What’s wrong with “selective sensitivity” to one’s own family, people, or nation?

When Balance Becomes Betrayal

Daniel Gordis, one of the most articulate voices in the Jewish world, became embroiled in a dispute during the recent Gaza war. With his two sons serving in the IDF and poised on the border of Gaza for an imminent invasion (that never took place), Gordis was deeply troubled by a missive written by Rabbi Sharon Brous to her congregation, which Gordis considered “even-handed” to the point of “betrayal.” Writing in The Times of Israel, he declared:

Universalism, Cynthia Ozick once noted, has become the particularism of the Jews. Increasingly, our most fundamental belief about ourselves is that we dare not care about ourselves any more than we can about others...

This inability to distinguish ourselves from the mass of humanity, this inability to celebrate our own origins, our own People and our own homeland, I argue in my latest book, The Promise of Israel, is dysfunctional. Do we not care about our own children more than we care about other people’s children? And shouldn’t we? Are our own parents not our responsibility in a way that other people’s parents are not?…

That an utterly universalized Judaism is almost entirely divorced from the richness of Jewish heritage and the worldview of our classic texts is bad enough. But on weeks like this, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis sleeping in bomb shelters and many millions more unspeakably frightened, it’s become clear that this universalized Judaism has rendered not only platitudinous Jews, but something worse. It bequeaths us a new Jew utterly incapable of feeling loyalty.

The need for balance is so pervasive that even an expression of gut-level love for Israelis more than for their enemies is impossible. Balance has now bequeathed betrayal.

As I read Rabbi Brous’s missive, I couldn’t stop thinking about my two sons, both in the army, each doing his share to save the Jewish state from this latest onslaught. What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?

Concentric Circles

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, offered a paradigm that solves the universalist versus particularist conundrum. The paradigm describes concentric circles.

In the center of the circle is oneself. It is a psychological truism that the person who cannot love herself cannot love anyone.

It’s easier to love the nameless, faceless victims of African famine than to love the parent who tells you how to run your life.

The next circle out is one’s own family. A man I knew claimed to love all of humanity, but he didn’t speak to his own father for 12 years and boycotted his father’s funeral. It’s easier to love the nameless, faceless victims of African famine than to love the parent who tells you how to run your life, the sibling who borrows money from you and doesn’t repay it, the spouse who is always maddeningly late (or maddeningly punctual), and the son or daughter whose teenage rebellion starts at age 11 and continues till 23.

Love of your own family takes precedence once you understand what love really is. Love is not a feeling; it’s a skill, like playing the cello or pole vaulting. Proclamations of love not borne out in action are like claiming to play Tchaikovsky’s Cello Concerto in B Minor with your bow resting in your lap.

Nor can you play that virtuoso piece until you have spent hundreds of hours practicing bowing and fingering exercises. Family life provides the exercises necessary to master the skill of love. If you can’t give up your Sunday golf game to spend time with your wife, if you yell at your child for breaking an expensive object, if you are too busy to call your mother on her birthday, then how can you possibly claim to love the thousands of victims of the Japanese tsunami?

The Jewish People

The next concentric circle is your people or group. For Jews this means the Jewish People. According to Kabbalah, all Jews share one group soul. In the not-so-distant past, all of us intuited this truth. Someone told me how, when he was a teenager in the late 1940s, he and his friends would ride in the back of a pick-up truck around Brooklyn. They would stop at every corner and make an appeal for funds to buy arms for the nascent Jewish state, two of them holding an Israeli flag like a sheet to receive the donations. “I never saw anything like it,” he recounted. “People would empty their pockets. They threw in everything they had, without even looking at how much it was.”

This same instinctive loyalty to the Jewish People manifested as tears and trauma every time Jews in Israel were killed by a terrorist attack. It also manifested as embarrassment whenever a high-profile Jew was convicted of a crime. Who of us didn’t cringe over Bernard Madoff? Or feel pride when Elie Weisel won the Nobel Peace Prize? And none of us felt ashamed by that pride.

Assimilation has replaced “members of the tribe” with “citizens of the world.”

Assimilation, however, has replaced “members of the tribe” with “citizens of the world.” The difference between “members of the tribe” and “citizens of the world” is like the difference between having friends and having Facebook friends. What is gained in breadth is sacrificed in depth.

When I spent my junior year of college in India in the pre-Internet era, my friend Julie and I decided to go to Calcutta for Rosh Hashanah. After a 24-hour, third-class train ride from Varanasi, we arrived – grimy, disheveled, clad in jeans and Punjabi shirts – at Calcutta’s last remaining synagogue as sunset ushered in Rosh Hashanah. The elderly congregants were the remnant of the Jewish community that had come to India from Iraq three centuries before.

What did we, two Jewish girls from Philadelphia, have in common with these Iraqi-Indian Jews who had never heard of lox and bagels? Yet they received us warmly and immediately set us up with accommodations and meals for the duration of our stay in Calcutta. What is remarkable is not that they took care of us, but rather that both we and they assumed that of course they would, because we belonged to the same mishpacha (family).

Jewish travelers to remote places throughout the centuries were always received by their fellow Jews with the same open arms. The poet Robert Frost famously wrote: “Home is where, when you go there, they have to let you in.” If so, then the itinerant Jew, even in the most distant and foreign locales, always found a home when he presented his calling card as a member of the tribe.

Abnegating that particular religious/ethnic distinctiveness reduces us all to what Village Voice writer Paul Cowan lamentingly labeled, “orphans in history.” Orphans are individuals without family, without roots, without a sense of their historical identity. This well describes the assimilated Jew, enamored of everyone, belonging to no one.

Is it possible to replace severed roots? Paul Cowan did. Raised by a father so intent on extirpating his Jewish identity that he changed the family name from “Cohen” to “Cowan,” and did not allow his own devout father to ever see his grandson, Paul reclaimed his Jewish heritage when in his late thirties. He spent time with fellow Jews on the Lower East Side, sought out rabbis, studied Jewish texts, and adopted Jewish practices. Born as “an orphan in history,” Paul Cowan died as a strongly identified Jew.

The Outer Circles

The next concentric circle, moving outward, is all of humanity. Feeding starving children in Africa takes priority over saving the whales. Bequeathing your fortune to make a home for cats when homeless people are sleeping outside in the cold is a distortion of true compassion.

The next circle out includes animals. Causing pain to animals is forbidden by the Torah. Experimenting on animals in order to develop a new cosmetics line is cruel. To kill a trespassing deer because he is eating your cherished petunias is wrong, very wrong.

The last concentric circle is every living creature. The sages prescribed painting the trunk of a diseased tree so that passersby would know to pray for its healing. But the person who lavishes more love on her prize orchid than on her elderly aunt has her priorities grossly distorted.

Asking if you can identify as a Jew and still love all humanity is like asking if you can love your mother and still love your pet poodle. Of course you can, as long as you love your mother more.

The sage Hillel, 2,000 years ago, proclaimed: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Read: prioritize your love according to concentric circles. Hillel continued: “But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Read: Don’t get stuck in the inner circles. The truth is that real love, like light, radiates outward. The more you truly love yourself, your family, and your people, the more you will love all the outside circles.

Particularism is not the opposite of universalism, but rather its training ground.

And the converse can be menacingly true. During World War II, the Germans painstakingly provided animal shelters for the pets of the Jews they had deported and murdered.

A person who skips the inner circles in favor of the outer circles does so at the peril of his own morality.

An aspiring pole-vaulter cannot start with a six-meter leap. He starts with leaping a couple meters, and, through practice, gradually works his way up. Love – a much more difficult skill than pole-vaulting, because it requires overcoming the gravitational pull of innate selfishness – is likewise a skill that must be practiced and gradually mastered.

A Jew who masters loving herself, her family, and the entire Jewish People is ready to go on to loving all humanity and beyond. Particularism is not the opposite of universalism, but rather its training ground.