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Are We Becoming Too Individualistic? #443

07/12/2016 07:11:12 PM


Are We Becoming Too Individualistic? #443

In 2013, I attended a lecture by Jewish-British writer, educator, and broadcaster Clive Lawton. 

"Judaism has changed in many countries during the past seventy years," he told us. "In Israel, Judaism has been nationalized. In the United States it's been privatized."
He's right, when you think about it.
Judaism, prior to the last century, focused primarily on communal life, common standards, and a fixed set of rules and regulations.
Since 1948, Israel has done its best to fly the flag of Torah over a nation where any Jew - or for that matter any Christian, Muslim, Baha'i or others - can worship in freedom.
And, in the United States, a nation founded on individuality and freedom of expression, it seems that every Jew can and does practice their faith according to what works for him or her. 

Rituals are written and rewritten every day. Some Jews consider themselves observant, others secular. Some observe rituals. Many do not
Judaism has become as individually focused as the American Dream itself.
A Google search of American rabbis in practice today reveals that, no matter what your beliefs, what your denomination, whom you wish to love or affiliate with, whether you are more spiritual than structured in your Jewish practice or vice versa, there is a religious leader available to help you actualize your beliefs.
As Clive Lawton said that day, Judaism is arguably more privatized in the United States than anywhere else in the world. In many ways, this is a good thing. But is it enough?
This week's Torah portion, Vayakhel ("And Moses Assembled the Community"), challenges us to examine the balance between individuality and community. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, Moses invites Israelites to participate in the construction of the community's sacred space.
To be sure, Judaism attaches tremendous significance to each individual. Each of us carries Tzelem Elohim, a spark of God, and every life is sacred, irreplaceable. This spark is what makes us unique.
But we're also cautioned that we risk isolation when we focus too exclusively on our own individuality, that we must balance this with the role we each play in humankind's universal and collective mission. We are here, say our Sages, to work with God to complete creation.
At the beginning of the Torah, after creating Adam, God comments that "It is not good for man to be alone." (Gen. 2:18) So, while we treasure the individuality in each of us, we acknowledge that the power of the collective is equally sacred in Judaism.
Retired British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once commented that Judaism "values the individual but does not endorse individualism." 

So, too, within the name of this week's Parashah (weekly portion), do we find three letters which have inspired the very nature of Jewish community.
The last few letters of the word Vayakhel, "KHEL," form the root of the word Kahal, otherwise known as Kehillah: community.
Whether your community centers around the synagogue, in a living room full of friends and loved ones, even at a restaurant, we, as Jews-and, for that matter, as human beings-are more powerful, more productive when we combine our sacred sparks.
Studies also show that we tend to adopt characteristics of those with whom we associate. Judaism understands this, and places its highest value on study and discussion, even telling us to prize, not avoid, argumentation and disagreement.
We can teach our children good values, Jewish tradition, and respect for our fellow human beings within the sanctity of our homes, but a child's ability to do good in the world exponentially increases when he or she learns and is inspired with-and by-peers, whether that be in a Hebrew school, a youth group, a secular club, or a Birthright trip to Israel.
This week's Parashah tells that, in the making of the travelling Temple which would house the Ten Commandments, every builder, craftsperson, and artist contributed what they could, until Moses said, "Stop. We have enough."

Recent studies examining the nature of religious communities assert that, within synagogues and churches, many attendees would not be considered "observant" by any strict definition. Within a group, however, they achieve and create tremendous spiritual joy by engaging in communal charitable acts.
You need not be a synagogue attendee to feel close to God. But our religion teaches that, working together, we possess the ability to accomplish more than we can as individuals. Together we are more than the sum of our parts.
With all that in mind, the word to remember this week is Kehillah: community.
In this world, the instinct to retreat, to protect our individuality, is more powerful than it has ever been. That instinct has its place. But community provides a focal point for us to become upstanders: it provides us the opportunity to join, and become something greater than ourselves.
Whether you believe or not, whether you are a builder, craftsperson, or artist, you can be like those sacred Torah workers, who offered their passion, their gifts, and their skills to the community-until an overwhelmed Moses declared "enough."
In spite of its spiritual and political imperfections, let us resist the impulse to retreat too far from community. Hillel asked us to ask ourselves, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" But that question begged his next: "If I am only for myself, what am I?"
The key to life, say our Sages, is achieving balance. Indeed, these days, out of necessity, each of us is becoming more skilled in looking out for ourselves. This is important, but we should all ask ourselves: Are we getting too good at it? 

We would all do well to recall our responsibility to humanity's collective mission, and to honestly consider whether we give enough of ourselves to the whole.
Being part of a community does not reduce our individuality. It enhances personal growth. It helps us understand who we are. Moses had it right three thousand years ago. Ours is a religion of community.
And, by becoming part of a sacred community, can raise our blessed spark to the heavens.
Let us embrace that spark within us. Let us never forget Kehillah.
Shabbat shalom, v'kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780