Individualism and social responsibility

One of the great social revolutions in the history of Humanity was, without a doubt, what we call in Jewish history the Emancipation, and corresponds in general history to the period between the end of the XVIII and beginning of the XIX Century when the old bonds between Feudal lord and Serf were severed; a time in which the connections between the individual, community, nation and God were forver changed.

The bonds of community were transformed from a legal obligation under the Feudal system to a choice. Each person could now choose what community (of Faith, of creativity, of knowledge) he or she wanted to be a part of. It was the time when being a Jew changed from a innate condition you could only shake by renouncing you people and your community to a choice we make to associate with other Jews to sustain our culture, our heritage, our beliefs. Community changed, and not just for Jews, from a pre-determined and legally defined status to a free association by individual choice.

In the "Old Regime" each individual owed to his/her community his/her welbeing and security. It was through the community that the individual had access to protection by the powers to be, and it was the community that look after the individual. Individuals could not exist in a full social sense, outside their community of belonging. The new world born of Modernity gives the individual the choice to belong to more than one community, and each of those associations becomes an element in the individual's hierarchy of belonging, making individual's identity a lot more complex than it was before. Each community to which the individual belongs plays a different role in defining the individual's identity (Being a lawyer, a Jew, a volunteer, a member of a political party, a citizen, etc). The resulting identity is a lot richer than before - but it is also more conditional.

In the old world, our main community of belonging was legally defined and everything else we did (or did not do) was regulated by our place in that primary group of belonging. The new world offered options that did not exist before, including the choice to renounce part of our personal Identity while not changing who we are. Many German Jews (some estimate over 200,000) chose to convert to Christianity in the XIX Century because their "Jewish" Identity was experienced as a burden in their quest to strengthen their other connections to the society around them. The needs of the individual were elevated while the need for a single, fundamental collective to belong to, was diminished. Other collectives could now fill the void. While this was not per se a bad thing, it forced a fundamental change in social relations.

The ideals of Modernity became enshrined in the US Constitution and that made America a magnet for many Europeans "yearning to be free". But ideas are not set in stone; in many ways they are alive, they evolve. In our society, the idea of individual rights have certainly evolved... in some ways expanding to include more individuals in that definition of Rights... in other ways, liberating the individual of responsibility for a specific community. While supporting, in any way, your community of belonging was an obligation in the old world - it became a choice in the new; and even that choice became conditioned because you can choose which of your communities of belonging deserve your suppport. Taken to an extreme, the individual can decide that he will choose how and when to support each of his groups of belonging. The individual becomes not only the highest value, but it also becomes independent from whichever group(s) they belong to. The individual is freed from the responsibility to his/her community.

In our days (bizarre as they are) this new reality manifest itself in different ways. Take the COVID regulations. The use of a face mask, while not obligatory, is recommended. Why? Not to protect ourselves, but to protect others. The use of a face mask does not make us less likely to be infected; it makes us less likely to infect others. But as individuals, there are those who choose not to believe what the government says; so they make a choice not to wear a mask. There are those who just think that since it is not to protect them, there is no need; oblivious to the fact that they could be putting others at risk.

Freedom and individualism are a great thing. But where are individualism's limits? The Bible is not, today, the most popular of books - yet it does talk about the boundaries of freedom in surprisingly modern ways. If we look at the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, there are things we can learn. Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit and are "expelled" from Eden. God pronounces that Adam "will earn his bread with his labor". Some believe that pronouncement to be a curse; yet I will propose that it is a logical consequence. By accessing the knowledge of Good and Evil, these allegoric first humans gained the freedom to choose. What God is saying, in my opinion, is that with the freedom to choose comes responsibility. As individuals, we all go through this the moment we decide to abandon the parental nest. We are forced to learn how to fend for ourselves.

And responsibility also extends to those around us. Our relationships with the people around us defines us; determine who we are. It therefore follows we have a responsibility to them BECAUSE we are free individuals. The balancing act between individual freedom and collective responsibility is precarious, but is needed. Go for too much freedom and you have anarchy; go for too much enforcement of responsibility and you have a dictatorship.

In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav - the world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid. Let us not be afraid of freedom, but also let us not be afraid of assuming responsibility. 



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