Oy Bay!

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

Individual vs. The Community

Posted by lchaimlover on July 5, 2007


Early 20th century Jewish shtetl

A few weeks ago, I officially graduated from Santa Clara University. The commencement speaker was Pulitzer prize winner Dan Warmenhoven. As commencement speeches go, it was blissfully short and surprisingly insightful. He asked the SCU Class of ’07 to focus on three things: personal life, professional life, and community. It was his emphasis on community that made the speech standout.

He assured us that while the world may want Generation Y to be selfish and focus on ourselves, the world needs us to focus on our community. This is where he said the baby boomers failed. As this is a Jewish blog, I will re-phrase this in Jewish terms to show that the emphasis on community is an essential Jewish trademark.

Just a few days after commencement , the Lubavitchers of the world remembered the passing of their Rebbe, Menchem Mendel Schneerson. I spent a little bit of time surfing a web page devoted to him and found this, from his last farbrengen:

“In one of his talks, the Rebbe spoke about the Torah reading of the day, Vayakhel (Exodus 35-38), and that of the following week, Pikudei (Exodus 38-40). But why, asked the Rebbe, does Vayakhel, which means “community”, come before Pikudei, which expresses the concept of “individuality”? Don’t we first need to develop and perfect the individual, before hoping to making healthy communities out of them? But this, said the Rebbe, is the Torah’s very point: Make communities, even before you have perfect individuals. People are not Lego pieces or machine parts, which must be fully formed individually before they can be assembled together in a constructive way. People are souls, with the potential for perfection already implicit within them. And nothing brings out a soul’s potential as much as interacting and uniting with other souls. Imperfect individuals, brought together in love and fellowship, make perfect communities.”

We Jews have always highly valued community over the individual and in this time, a time when the world faces so much indecision and uncertainty, is when we should remember this value the most.

In a time when the world seems so small due to the internet and technology, without the personal touch of a real community, how can a person feel human? Our genereation’s failing is that we listened to closely to the generations before us, and stood by the yuppie motto of “me, me , me.” Luckily, we are still young enough to resolve this.


6 Responses to “Individual vs. The Community”

  1. Oyster said

    As I eagerly await the arrival of the Shekhina in Ir HaKoidesh, Jerusalem, I am reminded of how Shabbat & the necessity of having a minyan to greet Her encourages a close and tightly-knit community. This is a distinctly Jewish value that we can share in this post-modern age where there’s great dissatisfaction and isolation amongst our generation.

  2. squeedle said

    Thank you for posting this. This is a complaint I have long had about my parents’ generation. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that they were rebelling against what they saw as a mindless conformism – acceptance of status quo without seeking justice, peace and equality.

    While it’s not fair to force everyone into the same mold, to have a sense of community requires an identity, and identity is created from standards of behavior and lifestyle as well as from common culture.

    We are not islands. We affect each other in every act we take, and not to recognize this – and not to accept the responsibility to others that comes with this – is to deny that we are social creatures. It is not good for a person to be alone. This is an important message that Judaism brings to the conversation.

  3. Friar Yid said

    The challenge it seems, is to create communities in which individuals can feel comfortable, and actually want, to belong to. I think individualism and community as both being important values and do believe it is regrettable that contemporary Jews often seem to swing too far over to the individual side of the spectrum, in some ways personified by the many Jews, particularly in America, who are unaffiliated. By the same token, part of the reason for that shift is a perception, right or wrong, that the communities those Jews choose to avoid are anti-individuality and, as squeedle put it, mindless conformism.

    It is a misperception by unaffiliated Jews, including members of my own family, that Jewish communities are static or invulnerable to changes in the times- even the most “traditional” of congregations (be it traditional Orthodox, or traditional Reform) is only as powerful as the people who choose to belong to it and support it. New developments and innovations are constantly forcing Jewish communities to reassess who they are and how to continue their traditions, but tipping points do exist (the Reform movement’s shift within the past 150 years being an excellent example). A synagogue with no members is nothing but an empty building. Just as individuals need community, so too does the community need individuals to sustain it, materially but also philosophically and spiritually.

    While individual Jews may have some work to do in terms of overcoming their own obstacles to being “joiners”, it is too easy to place all the responsibility for the present situation at their feet. The communities bemoaning the lack of butts in the seats must also devote attention to figuring out not only how to reach out, but also why people are leaving in the first place. Individual teshuvah can only get people so far if they don’t like the options they’re “returning” to.

  4. Oyster said


    It’s my thought that most Jews are scared away from Jewish practice not because of their being freaked out by Federations or shuls, but from a complete lack of Jewish literacy. Not all Jewish practice has to take place in a big group, where one might feel uncomfortable with strangers. Lighting Shabbat candles, wrapping Tefilin, saying Havdalah, etc. are all rituals that one can do by themself, or in a small intimate setting. It’s the fact that these elements of Jewish life weren’t passed down from one generation to the next that leads one not to practice them. And even if they know a little, they don’t know enough to do so with confidence, or with conviction. The Jews who are very well-read Jewishly and know & understand the beauty of their tradition are very rarely completely devoid of ritual practice around the calendar year…

  5. Friar Yid said

    I don’t dispute your point, Oyster.

    I’d say there are basically two groups when it comes to the unaffiliated- people who are to some degree observant and Jewishly-literate, but for whatever reason avoid shuls, federations, etc (that is, observant, but not affiliated), versus people that are totally secular, alienated, and Jewishly-illiterate.

    Frankly, I’m not too concerned about the former. For them the issue is not a lack of knowledge or confidence, but of mere style or taste. I don’t see their identities as being in danger. The latter, however, has little to no attachment to any Jewish rituals, knowledge, or content, which, obviously, translates to it being relatively simple to make the next step of eventually stopping identifying as Jewish at all.

    The dilemma, IMO, is how to encourage or entice the latter group, the secular children or grandchildren of lchaimlover’s original “individualists” (my g.grandparents were Yiddish-speaking Communists) into being interested in Judaism, Jewish culture, history, practice, et al. (A sister problem is, again, dealing with issues of retaining people that have been Jewishly-educated but don’t seem to be finding a place for themselves in the community.)

    I think small, independent & organic groups like Moishe House, Mission Minyan, and to a certain degree Oy Bay itself, are all excellent starts, taking the edge off of Jewish interaction and opening alienated (or just uneducated) Jews towards the possibility of greater Jewish involvement, religious or otherwise. However I also think that with their resources, perhaps larger organizations such as shuls or federations might be well served by observing and applying this model, either through their own institutions or through supporting others.

  6. Oyster said

    Amen, Friar Yid! You’re definitely drinking the kosher Kool-Aid. :-p

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