The balance between the individual and the group

The balance between the individual and the group

Bamidbar — Numbers 1:1-4:20

How much individualism should we encourage, and at what cost to society? How much do we favor society, and at what cost to individuals?

A host of liberal social-contract theorists, from England’s John Locke to our own Thomas Jefferson, warned against corporate wholes running roughshod over their individual members. Yet England’s Edmund Burke (horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution) admonished communities to protect rampant individualism from itself. Who was right?

Economically speaking, liberals today urge strong governmental oversight, while conservatives champion individual prerogatives. Again, who is right?

America is individualistic in the extreme: the frontier mentality — our “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Other cultures (Japan, for example) emphasize society. The Hofstede scale of cross-cultural differences gives America a score of 91 on its individualism. Japan scores 46! Is either one “right”?

A Jewish approach arises in our account of the wilderness, or desert (“midbar”). The wilderness purposely “induces humility,” says the Itturei Torah. Spend just one night in the desert’s endless sand, with billions of stars overhead, and you pretty easily conclude that your sense of individualistic self-importance is delusional.

But equally, we know, the desert demands detailed attention to self-protection: what water you bring, how much sun you get, where to walk, and where to sleep. The desert actually exaggerates our individualistic sense of self, even as it dismisses it.

Another piece of evidence is how God counts the Israelites as they undertake their wilderness journey. On the one hand, we have Rashi’s reminder that what God wants is an overall communal count: the number who enter the desert ought to be the number who leave it. On the other hand, God loves us as a mother loves her children: she takes all five of them swimming, say, and counts them as they pile into the car to come home: not just to get the right number, but to make sure that the right children are all there — four of them plus a stranger will not do!

Individual or community? It seems to be a standoff. Sometimes, all that matters is the individual: the single solitary wanderer who must not be allowed to perish in the desert, each individual child who must make it safely back home. But sometimes, it is the group that counts. The tribes, the family, the nation state, the people of Israel: these have their own raison d’etre.

Jewish wisdom does not resolve the problem because it is irresolvable. Instead, it restates it, by adding a third term: God. What God provides here is the ultimate guarantee of purpose. Whichever one we favor, at any time or place — the individual or the group — is to be decided according to a purpose that is higher than either and the ultimate justification for both.

All things being equal, individuals have a higher claim on us, because it is individuals, not groups, who are made in God’s image, so the default favors individuals; but favoring them should further the values that we call divine: things like kindness, justice, and learning; dignity, goodness, and love. When individual license will only increase unkindness, injustice, and ignorance; or disrespect, evil, and dissention, then we invoke group laws and customs to prevent individuals from impeding the purpose to which individuals and groups are alike held accountable.

The group too can overstep its bounds. Only individuals, remember, are made in God’s image. We dare not love humanity as a collective, but on the way to doing so, trash individual human beings who “get in our way.” The French revolution properly championed liberty, equality, and fraternity — but not by guillotining the opposition.

Individuals need groups; groups dissolve without individual members. Balancing the two is never easy, but at least (says Judaism) we can make the decision using the right criterion: our divinely rooted purpose. Scientifically, we may indeed be chance outcomes of the evolutionary process — but we are outcomes with the miracle of purpose.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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