Torah Study > Chapter 5: Self and Community

Managing the relationship between the self (“me”) and community (“you” or perhaps “them”) is a complicated affair. Negotiating a balance between the demands of self and community is a defining element of every culture. It is also one of those areas in which Jewish tradition and American culture seem to be most at odds. As we read in the first chapter, the United States was founded on the basic premise that societies are created to assist individuals in the conduct of their rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Judaism, on the other hand, believes that humans were created to tend to the needs of the world. Judaism’s development of this idea is actually a bit more nuanced. On the one hand, Judaism teaches us, “For me the world was created” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). On the other hand, we are told: “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Mishna Avot 2:5). Judaism clearly stresses the obligation of the individual to society. But the paradox is that it does so in part because it believes that this is the best means to achieve individual fulfillment.

“The traditional Jew is no detached, rugged individual. Nor is his reality, his essence, completely absorbed in some monstrous collectivity which alone can claim rights and significance. He is an individual but one whose essence is determined by the fact that he is a brother, a fellow Jew... This consciousness does not reduce but rather enhances and accentuates the dignity and power of the individual.”

Milton Konvitz, Judaism and the American Idea
(Cornell University Press. 1978, p. 143, 150)

As Jews, how are we to balance these competing claims? And what
value system are we to use when answering this question?

In this section we will explore some of the tensions between the
competing claims of the individual and community.

TEXT 1: What’s in a Name? (Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat VaYakhel 1)
introduces the idea that a person carries three names, reflecting different
aspects of one’s identity and the way in which individual identity intersects
with the wider community.

TEXT 2: Community Tax (Maimonides “Laws of the Gifts to the Poor,” 9:12) describes the financial responsibilities of an individual to the community in
which one lives and outlines a clear obligation to contribute to the needy.

TEXTS 3 and 4: Guarantors (Babylonian Talmud, Shavuot 39a)
develops the idea that all Jews are responsible for each other. There is a
binding connection between Jews and they are linked in a larger, international community of Jews.

TEXT 5: If I Am Not for Myself (Mishna, Pirkei Avot 1:14)
highlights the tension between the centrality of the individual and the need
for a person to look beyond oneself.

TEXT 6: The Infinite Value of the Individual (Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5)
gives strong voice to the notion that an individual human being is infinitely
valuable and that all people are equal in their humanity while each is also
unique and distinct.


Make a list of all the different communities or groups to which you feel connected (your family, basketball team, sorority, etc.). Rank the list in order of
their importance to you. Now rank the list according to which groups make the
most demands of you.

> How did you become part of these communities?

> What kind of relationships do you have with them?

> Are they based on shared interests, values, beliefs, or obligations?

> What do they add to your life?

Consider the first sentence of this chapter:
Managing the relationship between the self and community is a complicated
affair.

> Do you agree that this relationship between self and community is complicated?

> Why is the “other” sometimes a “you” and sometimes a “them?” What do you think are the differences in these two designations of “other?”

> Have you found this to be true in your own experience? Think of examples when your own self-interest was in conflict with that of a community of which you are a part.

Consider the following information:
Americans’ circle of close friends has shrunk drastically in recent years,
and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled. Sociologists suggest that
this shrinking web of friendship is bad for our society because it reduces
the size of our individual safety nets and decreases the likelihood of civic
engagement and local political action.

Average number of close friends: 1985: 2.94 2004: 2.08
Share of people with no close friends: 1985: 9% 2004: 15%
Percentage who confide only to
family members:
1985: 20% 2004: 43%
The Baltimore Sun, 7/9/06, p. F1  


>
How did your relationships with your close friends develop?
What kinds of experiences strengthened these relationships?

> Do the statistics cited above surprise you? Do you find it hard to make and keep close friendships?

> What impact do you think this trend might have on society?

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Hillel

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