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Home » B'Ha'alotcha, Politics

B’haalotcha: The Individualized Collective

Submitted by on June 16, 2019 – 12:14 amNo Comment | 319 views

An individualized collective is a collective that doesn’t require its members to surrender their individuality before joining the collective. On the surface, this sounds patently obvious; everyone ought to agree with it, right? Wrong. In real life it is very difficult to find the balance between the two. The great political experiments of the last two centuries and their resultant upheavals bear this out.

The great political experiment of the eighteenth century was democracy. After the renaissance, people began to wonder why they don’t have a say in their own government and why the many are beholden to the whims and politics of the few. This resulted in the great revolutions of America and France, each seeking to empower the individual in their own way.

The nineteenth century saw a tremendous pushback against the liberalism and individualism of democracy. Political scholars recognized that if people are allowed unrestrained freedom, they will exercise it to improve their lot. The drawback of individualism argued scholars, is that it leads to decadence and national weakness. A nation, whose strongest members are concerned with hedonism, grows fat, weak, and vulnerable.

These sentiments led to the dual political experiments of fascism and communism. Both sought to subsume the individual within the State. Communism was the ultimate collectivization of the individual—all worked and benefitted equally. Fascism was the ultimate dissolution of the individual, demanding totalitarian submission of the individual’s ideas, preferences, and interests. A Fascist State sought to permeate the individual completely, demanding that citizens bend their will, energy, and ideas, to the State and become organs of State.

Of the two, democracy proved more durable. Communism and socialism have largely fallen by the wayside. Democracy survives, but not without problems. Democracies fail to speak with one voice or with consistency. Its voters often prove fickle and change governments at every turn. One election they vote in a political party that emphasizes individual freedoms, the next election they vote in a party that emphasizes the collective good. The continual equivocation weakens the country. Yet, they are often so obsessed with their freedoms and pleasurable pursuits that they fail to notice their own weakness.

The collective movements have failed. The individualistic movements have problems. It would seem that the best alternative is the individualized collective, a collective movement that demands the adherence of the individual yet respects individual freedom and rights. Yet, the world has yet to develop a workable model for the individualized collective. Or has it? Where does Judaism sit on this question?

The Individualized Collective
The Jewish people are a collective; we worship together, we have a strong social net for the weak, and we have a collective national homeland. Yet, we are also highly individualistic. This duality was expressed in the nature of the sacrificial offerings.

In the Temple, there were collective offerings and individual offerings. Collective offerings were purchased with communal funds to which every individual was required to donate a half shekel annually. Donations were compulsory and had to be made with a complete heart i.e. donors were not permitted to reserve their share of the offering for themselves. Also, a single collective offering sufficed for the entire nation. The offerings were consumed in their entirety on the fires of the Altar. And they were brought at set times even if that set time fell on Shabbat, when slaughtering is otherwise forbidden.

Individual offerings were purchased with private funds, each individual brought a separate offering, a portion of which was eaten by the individual, and the offerings were brought at times convenient to the individual. Yet, because the timetable was flexible, it never overrode the restrictions of Shabbat. There was no reason to bring the offering on Shabbat, when it could easily be brought the next day.

The Paschal Lamb was the exception. It had characteristics of the individual offering in that it was purchased with private funds, each group brought its own offering, and ate it. And it had characteristics of the communal offering in that it was brought at a set time—the eve of Passover—all Jews brought their lambs to the Temple to be slaughtered communally, and it could not be offered and eaten by an individual—only by a group.

Which Is Primary?
This was a perfect example of the individualized collective. Yet, it proved to be less than simple. One year, the eve of Passover fell on Shabbat and the sages were unsure whether the Paschal lamb should be brought on Shabbat. Since it had elements of both a collective and an individual offering, the question was which was primary. Is it a collective individual offering or an individual collective offering?

The sages finally determined that the collective element is primary and that it should be brought on Shabbat. This leads us to wonder. If it is a collective offering, why does it have shades of individualism?

The Paschal offering was our nation’s first offering, introduced on the eve of the Exodus; our national birthday. Thus, it expresses our essential nature. Jews are not a pure collective like communism or fascism neither are Jews individualistic like democracies. Jews are an individualized collective.

Both Are Primary
We are a collective, which is why the Paschal Lamb is brought on Shabbat, but our cohesion doesn’t come at the price of our individuality, which is why it has shades of individualism. When individuals join a collective, they can be asked to park their thoughts at the door and follow the collective blindly. Or they can be permitted to think, ask, ponder, analyze, and personalize the ideas of the collective.

This is Judaism in a nutshell. We all follow the same Torah, but there are seventy faces to the Torah. There is a rock-solid framework for determining Jewish law, but the debates that precede the law’s formulation, are robust. This is why there is such variety of custom and communal practice despite the uniformity of the Torah and its 613 Mitzvot. This is expressed by the famous saying of Hillel, the sage who ruled that the Paschal Lamb is a collective, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?”[1]

Once the collective has spoken, once Jewish law has been formulated and codified on an issue, the debates on that matter cease and the individual conforms to the collective. This gives us strength of unified purpose and vitality of streamlined cohesion. Through the collective, the individual transcends his/her limitations, thus the collective trumps the individual. Yet the collective’s power is born of the individual’s unique Divinely ordained strengths, thus the collective can never erase the individual.

Jewish law mandates that should a community of Jews be encircled by heathens, who demand that they surrender a single member of their group or suffer collective annihilation, the group must submit to death rather than surrender the individual.[2]

The very collective that overrules the individual’s opinion will never save itself at the cost of the individual. Because in the end, we are not a mere collective. We are an individualized collective.[3]

[1] Ethics of our Fathers, 1:14.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah. 5:5.

[3] This essay is culled from Likutei Sichos:18 pp.104-107, 112-114.

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