Judaism vs. American Individualism

A nation built on the concept of individual freedoms contrasts starkly with the Jewish valuing of life and communal health

Lately there has been a great deal of discussion in rabbinical circles on how to deal with the upcoming High Holy Days during the COVID-19 pandemic.  As you can imagine, we rabbis are torn about what to do, whether to go virtual or not, and when to start making those decisions. During one fruitful conversation on the matter, a rabbinical colleague of mine said something that I haven’t been able to shake. He said that when we decide these guidelines and regulations, we will most likely see a struggle from inside our membership. He defined that struggle as “the tension between the American values of individualism and liberty, and the Jewish values of communal responsibility.”

I’ve sat for what seems like hours contemplating this and trying to figure out how I never saw this most obvious tension before. This issue is uniquely American in nature, as  Andrea Campbell, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology states, “It’s always been the orientation of America on balance, compared to other countries, to put a priority on individual freedom and liberty.” While this can have certain benefits to a society, we are unfortunately seeing the negative consequences of such self-focus, in the form of those who refuse to wear protective masks, those violating stay-at-home orders, or even those refusing to listen to scientists and experts and deciding to make up their own minds about COVID-19 and its dangers. This “it’s about me” attitude shares little in common with traditional Jewish ethics and values, which cherish, above all, communal responsibility.

We are told in Deuteronomy 16:20 not to pursue individual liberty but “Justice, Justice.”  Judaism knows nothing of “charity,” the idea of the individual to give from your heart, but rather the concept of “tzedakah” which obligates each citizen to create and maintain a just and equal society. We are commanded over and over in our Torah not to love ourselves, but to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We see these messages over and over again in the teachings of our sages. Pirkei Avot 2:5 tells us “Do not separate yourself from the community,” meaning that we cannot value our individualism over the values of the community.  More clearly, the Talmud Shevuot 39a, tells us that “All Jews are responsible for one another.”  And then there’s this Midrash:

“With justice, a king sustains the earth, but a fraudulent (terumot) person destroys it.” (Proverbs 29) What does this verse mean?] With the justice that the king does, he sustains the earth, but the fraudulent person destroys it. If one makes oneself like terumah (portion of produce that is set aside as an offering), set aside in the corner of the house, and says, “Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],” this person destroys the world. This is the meaning of “the fraudulent person destroys [the world].”

What could be more different from the American ideal of individualism and self-focus?  Whether it be the commandments to leave the corners of our field, to never neglect the orphan or the widow, the ideals of Judaism teach us again and again to focus our attention on the group, the kahal, the kehillah k’dosha, the nation of Israel.  So herein lies the tension we are seeing when discussing how to move forward with our synagogues, with our worship, our learning, our acts of social justice in the wake of a dangerous pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands.

We are now seeing the problematic aftershocks of a nation built on the concept of individual freedoms trying to merge with a 5,000-year-old collective Jewish memory of valuing life and the health of a community above all.  It is why so many rabbinical associations and governing bodies have had to create so many statements emphasizing to follow the words of the experts in medicine and science and continue to practice social-distancing, stay-at-home orders, and wearing masks despite what governing officials say.  True, we Jews have always been grateful to the autonomy given to American citizens to build their own destiny, but just as Reform Jews recoil at the anti-vax movement, or those who refuse to even engage in conversations about gun control, we recoil at those yelling about constitutional freedom to live (and most likely die) at their choosing.  We do so because we still hear the words of our Talmud, Bava Kama 46a, which teaches:

  1. Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a vicious dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text [Deuteronomy 24:8], “You shall bring not blood upon your house.”

In other words, individual freedoms, whether to own a vicious dog, an unsecured gun, to refuse to vaccinate or wear a protective mask, cease when those freedoms will inflict direct, preventable harm on another.  Among those protesting regulations meant to safeguard us all, we have seen too many signs that read, “My freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins.”  No, it doesn’t, but in Judaism, your freedom DOES end when danger to me begins.  And that, dear friends, is the balance we must find between American values and Jewish values.

We do, and should, enjoy and celebrate the individual freedoms we have in this country, and have enjoyed for centuries.  And while other Americans may believe that those freedoms go unrestricted, even when they endanger their neighbors, we as Jews cannot afford to know that kind of apathy towards our fellow.  On the contrary, we know that if there is a risk that we will endanger, or possibly cause the death of another, we cannot go forward.  As Pirkei Avot tells us, “For if one destroys one soul it is as if one destroys an entire world,” or as our Midrash earlier told us, one who says “Why should I trouble myself for the community?” is one who destroys an entire world.  And, in Judaism, nothing is worth the risk of destroying an entire world.

As we begin the book of Bamidbar, we find ourselves in the wilderness.  Today, we wander through the wilderness of COVID-19, but, like our ancestors in the midbar, we will wander together. And, as we do so, I would urge us all to give thought to the wellness and health of the entire Jewish people, not just our own individual needs.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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