This week, an excellent Forward story by Paul Berger presents an ultra-Orthodox charity called Renewal — which works to find kidney donors for people who desperately need them — and a surgeon who hopes to replicate its success in his Black church.
Renewal is successful. According to Berger’s calculation, the group facilitated as many as 17% of the live kidney donations to strangers in the United States in 2014. This, despite the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews make up only 0.2% of the American population. The average wait time to receive a kidney from Renewal is years shorter than the national average.
Just one catch: Renewal’s donors are, pretty much, only giving to Jewish recipients. As Berger puts it, “Renewal’s ultra-Orthodox donors are willing to give a kidney to the young and the old, to men and women. In most cases, the only criterion is that the recipient be Jewish.”
Only one of the dozens of the transplants that Renewal has facilitated went to a non-Jew.
How should we feel about this situation, these people? On the one hand, we’re talking about folks who are donating their kidneys to strangers. On the other hand, is there something a bit discomforting about the fact that they are giving only to Jews?
I would argue that this charity and its praiseworthy donors have much to teach us about the value of particularism, and the limits of universalism.
Montesquieu wrote that “a truly virtuous man would come to the aid of the most distant stranger as quickly as to his own friend. If men were perfectly virtuous, they wouldn’t have friends.”
But realistically, that’s not how people work. Nor should it be.
Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel once commented on Montesquieu’s approach, saying: “…it’s difficult to imagine a world in which persons were so virtuous that they had no friends….such a world would be difficult to recognize as a human world. The love of humanity is a noble sentiment, but…. we learn to love humanity, not in general, but through its particular expression.”
It’s not just that it seems to go against human nature to forego particular allegiances; it’s only through those allegiances that we can learn to love humanity at all. We would never learn to help anyone unless we first learn to love those closest to us. We start with our innermost circle, then extend outward.
A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews is giving up their kidneys to other people, just because they are Jewish. There’s no shame in that. There’s much to be proud of. These are people who are helping others in dire need. And it appears that their model can help serve other communities in need. If everyone loved the distant members of their own communities as much as the ultra-Orthodox donors in Renewal love their fellow Jews, there would be no kidney shortage in America.
It’s not as if there are throngs of people — universalists or others — who are giving up their kidneys to strangers. Berger says that only 218 people gave up their kidneys to strangers in America in 2014, including the 38 donations made by ultra-Orthodox Jews through Renewal. I doubt that teaching people to love all of humanity will bring many more people to donate kidneys anytime soon. But it seems that at least one group of particularists — those who have learned to love even members of their community they have never met — is making a difference.
Of course, concentric circles of allegiance and love can turn into tightly knit boundaries of intolerance and hate. Jews have suffered for centuries on the wrong side of those boundaries. So it makes sense that our first instinct is to tear down those boundaries and forget those allegiances. But — not so fast.
There is a balance we have to maintain. Let’s learn to love those who are close to us, and use that as a model to extend beyond our smaller allegiances.
I have nothing but respect for the Renewal charity and the people who donated their kidneys to save other Jews.