Individual or community?

Judaism’s Worldview Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

As the Roman Emperor Hadrian travelled along the roads of Tiberias, he saw an elderly man digging holes to plant fruit trees.

Hadrian called out, “Old man, old man, how old are you today?” He replied, “I am 100 years old.” Hadrian exclaimed, “You, 100 years old, are standing and digging holes in order to plant trees. Do you believe that you will eat of them?”

He replied, “If I merit, I will eat. If not, just as my ancestors toiled on my behalf, so I will toil on behalf of my children.”

Such personal commitment to the greater community is becoming increasingly rare.

First documented in Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking study Bowling Alone, Americans’ community-mindedness — measured through in-person civic involvement, service, social club attendance, religious engagement, and social connectedness — declined from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Yet those original statistics, historian Anton Cebalo warns, “are eclipsed by the accelerated declines” since then.

For example, Americans’ membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque dropped from 70% in 1999 to 47% today.

The birth rate has also declined, plummeting 50% since 1950 to an all-time low today of 12 births per 1,000 people, well below the replacement level.

Meanwhile, singlehood among adults ages 25-54 is up sharply since 1990, from 29% to roughly 40% today. Polling indicates that at least half “are happily single,” “enjoy time to focus on passions, growth, and career,” “don’t long for companionship,” and “like being able to come and go as I please and not have to accommodate somebody else.”

Instead of heeding Putnam’s early warnings, individualism has increased exponentially.

These modern trends are not reflected in the traditional Jewish worldview. Rather, Judaism seeks a fundamental balance between the individual and the community, expressed in a famous aphorism by the rabbinic sage Hillel: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I?”

The Talmud establishes this same notion as a core Jewish value: “All Israel is responsible for one another,” that is, all Jews as a community have an obligation to ensure the well-being of individual Jews and vice versa.

The individual and the community also populate key Torah texts. For example, the entire nation of Israel, ha’am, heard the Revelation at Sinai as a communal experience.

And yet, the Hebrew ha’am also implies individuals. Therefore, the rabbis of the Talmud explain that the Divine Voice was also directly heard by every person — man, woman, and child — each according to their capability.

Similarly, Jewish worship is a communal experience, requiring a minyan (quorum) of 10 and featuring prayers — even personal ones — in plural form.

At the same time, the Hebrew letters for tzibbur, prayer community, are an acronym for tzadikim (righteous), beinonim (average), and resha’im (wicked), the individuals who choose to form the prayer community.

Countless examples from Jewish text, tradition, and storytelling highlight the importance of both the individual and the community.

Prison ransom. In the mid-13th century, Rabbi Meir ben Baruch was considered Europe’s leading authority on Talmud and Jewish law. Communities in France, Italy, and Germany spoke of him with affection and sought his advice on myriad religious and legal matters.

As Jewish persecution increased, however, Rabbi Meir left Germany for Israel, where he hoped to continue his work on their behalf. Along the way, however, he was recognized, repatriated, imprisoned, and held for ransom.

The Jewish community quickly raised the exorbitant ransom sum of 20,000 marks, but Rabbi Meir forbade payment. If ransom was paid for him, every notable rabbi would suffer the same fate, and the Jews would be bankrupted or worse. Rabbi Meir remained in prison for seven years, until he died.

Underground railroad. A widow at 26 and heiress to a significant fortune, the converso Beatrice de Luna Mendez fled Portugal for Antwerp to avoid the expanding Inquisition.

There she joined her brother-in-law in the family’s expanding trade and banking business, made extensive business contacts, and created a secret network of escape routes for conversos throughout Europe.

When her brother-in-law died, Beatrice took her increased fortunes to Italy, adopted the Jewish name Gracia Nasi, continued to maintain the “underground railroad,” and helped underwrite the printing of Spanish translations of Hebrew books, including the Bible.

She eventually settled in Istanbul, where she could openly support Jewish causes: redeeming Jewish slaves seized by pirates, establishing a soup kitchen, and supporting synagogues and schools. She even secured permission to resettle Jews in Tiberias, turning it into a thriving city that she never had the chance to visit.

Avinu Malkeinu. Prior to the 2020 High Holy Days, Nina Shapiro posted a family video of her 6-year-old son Bibi singing Avinu Malkeinu, the iconic prayer of repentance. The spirited rendition by the Black South African child (now living in Australia) went viral, eventually making its way to New York City’s Central Synagogue where Bibi was invited to sing via livestream on Yom Kippur.

“Our community just got to hear you sing and I think our hearts are all just opened up,” Senior Rabbi Angela Buchdahl told the Perth boy. “Connecting with…you (and your mother) today — it feels like that’s what reminds us that we are a huge Jewish family.”

In a Torah scroll, each letter is surrounded by space, each an individual Divine image, but without meaning. However, when letters join to make a word, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, and words combine into sentences, and sentences connect into paragraphs, and paragraphs link together, the letters eventually tell a story. How can we live our lives like a letter in the scroll?


Literature to share

Under the Rockets’ Glow: Shira’s Journey to Courage by Roman Sandler. Faced with the challenge of explaining the events of Oct. 7 and beyond to his young daughter, Roman Sandler discovered there were no appropriate resources. This book is his answer. Set in the land of Israel, a father tells stories of bravery and heroism from Jewish history to help his youngster find courage and imagine a peaceful world. Heartfelt and inspiring, the simple story offers a valuable model for dealing with challenging topics.

Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times by Jonathan Sacks. The writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are universally worthwhile, and this Jewish Book Council 2020 Jewish Book of the Year is no exception. The last book Sacks authored before his untimely death, Morality identifies the source of today’s overarching world crises to be in part “the elevation of self interest over the common good.” In the final chapter, Sacks asks, “Can we restore what has been lost?” He then offers his prescription for the future.

To read the complete April 2024 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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