10/27/2010 09:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Necessity of Jewish Values in the Contemporary World

At the dawn of the 21st century, the liberal, universalistic ethic is being challenged by many thoughtful people. The contemporary world has been shocked by the sudden surge of radical Islamic fundamentalism which sees Western, liberal democracy as an evil, surpassed only by the evil of Zionism, Israel and the Jewish people. All are regarded as infidel forces that need to be eliminated by any means possible. Nor is this the only threat to the values and ideals that Judaism brought into the world. Increasingly, it is obvious that secular American culture is not the neutral setting it was thought to be a century ago, a setting that would allow for a multiplicity of faiths and ethnic groups to coexist, leading to a rich cultural mosaic in a tolerant and pluralist America. This country's affluence and its love affair with consumerism has created a culture that is at odds with Judaism's emphasis on justice and holiness.

For several generations, many American Jews were convinced that American values were more or less the same as Jewish values. The logical extension of that assumption was that it was not worth the time to learn the language of Jewish values since America provided much the same set of values. It was a license for Jewish illiteracy. It went without saying that Jewish holy apartness was not only chauvinistic and exclusivist but also un-American. Why should Jews hold themselves apart from an America that gave them unparalleled freedom and economic opportunity? We should drink deeply and fully from the cup of American society.

It was these assumptions that lay behind Mordecai Kaplan's (the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism) rejection of the idea of chosenness. Hoping for a world in which all religions might undergo the same kind of reconstruction that he was proposing for Judaism, Kaplan envisioned a world parliament of religions at which the people who brought the idea of chosenness into the world -- the Jews -- would voluntarily relinquish that claim. In return, all the other religions of the world, which had created their own versions of tribal chauvinism, would also voluntarily relinquish their claims on exclusive truth.

World events of recent years have been hard on Kaplan's brand of liberal universalism. Though we might continue to admire the sentiments that he set forth, most of the Western world has been rudely awakened to a global struggle in which democracy, freedom and pluralism are identified by adherents of radical Islam as a scourge that must be eradicated from the world. Judaism, of course, does not escape indictment by these same extremist elements.

Now it seems clear that Judaism has some wisdom that is in short supply, both in the world as well as in America. Increasing numbers of Jews, and a not insignificant number of non-Jews, are coming to see that within Jewish texts, there are truths and insights that are badly needed in the world. It is also clear that, throughout history, Jews have had some measure of success in making these values operative in their communities. Ironically, at the dawn of the 21st century, it seems that we have not traveled so far down the road from our ancestors who understood that Judaism was "counterculture," offering a way of thinking and living that was embraced by few others in the world. Whereas once the cultural norm from which Judaism dissented was paganism, today it might be religious fanaticism, hedonism or secularism.

From this perspective, the idea of holy apartness has newfound appeal. There may well be no other way for the values and ideals envisioned by Judaism to be expressed and carried forward in the world, even if those ideals are not yet embraced by the society at large. For much of Jewish history, the biblical expression am levado yishkon (Num. 23:9), Israel as "a nation that dwells apart," was descriptive. Today it has become prescriptive.

Unless the Jewish people succeeds in holding onto some parts of the values and ideals of justice and holiness, over and against societies and cultures that have either rejected or ignored those ideals, there is no way for those principles to endure. It can only be done by reclaiming the importance and value of the Jewish people being holy and apart.

Editor's note: This column is excerpted from Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights).