Between collectivism and individualism
Thoughts on parashat Ki Teitzei
I visited Poland over the last few weeks to perform my dad’s funeral and to help my mother to find herself living in new circumstances, without him. Not having a car throughout most of my four weeks’ trip I was dependent on public transportation. One day I got on the bus in Przemyśl and I went to the driver to get a ticket. I had no change in my wallet, so the driver could not sell me the ticket because he wasn’t able to give me the rest of the money. When I was walking back to my seat in the bus, an older, probably retired woman gave me 5 zloty and said “please go and buy this ticket”. I went back to the driver, got the ticket, thanked the woman and gave her back the rest.
Another day I got my mom a small tv so she could watch it at the rehab center she is currently in. She shares the room with three other women. She was very happy when she got it but her first instinct was to share it with others: “Put it please the way so the other women could also watch it”. I was thinking for a moment and then I said: “Well, if I do that, you won’t be able to watch it, only them”. “I can just listen to it” – she replied – “place it this way, at least for now”.
I’m bringing these stories because they show healthy collective thinking and actions. But is collective thinking always good and healthy? Is it something always recommended by our ‘community oriented’ religion?
Our Torah portion for this week contains the greatest number of laws among all the parashot: 72 positive and negative commandments. Among them are those pointing out to collective responsibility for one another in the society:
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. (Deuteronomy 22:8)
Another great example of good collective thinking are the laws of returning the lost animal/item:
If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it. (Deuteronomy 22:1-4)
Another set of laws teaches us social responsibility for the poor and needy:
When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow—in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)
These laws are to teach us collective responsibility. I believe that most of them are to be internalized rather than enforced by the court due to the fact that situations of returning the lost item often do not involve more than one witness so their legal application is limited. But our parasha also contains commandments that definitely limit the scope of collective thinking and action:
Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime. (Deuteronomy 24:16)
It is yet another expression of individual moral responsibility which is at the core of the Jewish concept of justice: if you do good you will be rewarded, if you do evil, you will be punished; nobody else should be punished for your sins, nobody else should be blamed for them and no man should be your scapegoat. If that happens, the system you have created is flawed and unjust.
Although it is not easy to make such a general statement, I believe that our religion is neither individualist nor a purely collectivist in its nature. Both extremes, when applied exclusively, are harmful to society and human life. Radical individualism may cause indifference towards the needs and fate of others. Radical collectivism, not balanced by individual freedoms, brings forms group responsibility, which are never just and cause social conflicts as well as resentment, especially if mandated by force or the government. But most importantly, if something is ordained and enforced, it stops being voluntary. Thus, enforced collectivism often kills real, internalized, good collective thinking, together with empathy and compassion, which by its nature cannot be enforced by any law or system.
Collective thinking is always good when it’s voluntary. A good, healthy life has both aspects, a collective and an individual one. It incorporates both perspectives in our daily life and chooses between them depending on the case. The laws in the Torah were given to us to teach us this necessary balance between what is individual and what is collective. These laws, together with maturity and experience, help us to know what perspective is appropriate in a given situation.