Responsibilities First, Individualism Second

Rabbi Amitai Adler
November 29, 2013
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Our Torah– both Written and Oral– is constructed around mitzvot not only concerning oneself and one’s personal obligations to God, but concerning every person’s obligation to every other, so that we may collectively create a society worthy of being God’s covenant partner, and fit to be an example to other nations.

It’s easy to quote v’ahavta l’reyecha kamocha (You shall love your fellow person as yourself) and its use by Hillel and other great Rabbis. But let’s not leave out some other key mitzvot: lo ta’amod al dam reyecha (“Do not stand upon the blood of your fellow,” idiomatic for “Do not stand by and permit others to come to harm”), lo ta’asok reyecha (“Don’t defraud your fellow,”), lo tikalel cheresh (“Do not curse the deaf,” idiomatic for “Do not speak ill of others behind their backs”), lifnei iver lo titen michshol (“Do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” idiomatic for “Don’t suborn, entice, or enable others to bring themselves to harm”), mipnei seivah takum v’hadarta p’nei zakein (“Rise before the grey-haired, and honor the visage of the elderly,” idiomatic for “Respect the elderly and treat them well”), lo ta’asok s’chir ‘oni v’evyon me-achicha o me-garcha asher b’artzecha b’sha’arecha (“Don’t withhold the wages of the poor, whether they are your fellow countrymen, or aliens among you”), lo tateh mishpat ger yatom v’lo tachbol beged almanah (“Don’t pervert the justice of strangers and orphans, and don’t take the garments of widows in pledge,” the latter being idiomatic for not confiscating the collateral of a poor person who cannot afford to repay their loan), and numerous others of that sort.

The Rabbis tell us, kol yisrael arevin zeh la-zeh b’inyan ha-mitzvot, “All Israel are responsible for one another in the matters of mitzvot,” and since all our lives are matters of mitzvot, we are therefore responsible for one another– and by extension, for everyone else also, since our mitzvot also cover interactions with non-Jews and secular society– in everything.

In other words, Judaism is a tradition, a legal culture, a people of mutual responsibility, of shared obligations, and of deep interest and caring for the lives and welfare of others.

While there is certainly a place in our tradition for individual prosperity, for seeing to one’s own affairs, and for privacy and not intrusiveness, all of these are rights and privileges secondary and subordinate to the need for justice in society– a need which is entirely dependent upon our attention to the needs, well-being, and justice of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, and the resistance of permitting the wealthy and powerful to exercise unrestricted power without consequences.

Individualism, as a social philosophical good as understood in American social philosophy, is alien to Judaism, which is fundamentally communitarian.

What is currently going on in American society is precisely what the Torah teaches us to shun.

The poor and the hungry and the homeless are neglected, they are given deeply insufficient to negligible health care, they are not taken care of, and whole families are permitted to suffer in the streets. The rich grow ever richer, and they purchase the service of those in power to enrich themselves further, and enable doing so by gerrymandering political bounds to ensure lack of competitive elections. Justice is perverted everywhere, as officials take bribe after bribe under the cover of “campaign financing,” “donations,” and “political junkets,” and become the pawns of massive corporations that serve treasuries, not people. And in the halls of our government, our “elected representatives” strip funding from such meager programs to help feed and house the poor that we have, and bring our nation to the point of financial ruin in attempts to ensure that those in need of health care cannot get it affordably, even from a flawed and deeply insufficient program.

This is the inverse of Torah. This is a nation passively accepting the contempt of the rich and powerful for the poor and vulnerable as either uninteresting or “not my problem.”

But it is our problem. It is our problem more than anyone else’s, because we are the Jewish People, the people of the Torah. Our responsibility is our covenant with Hashem, and what He wants from us is justice.

In the prophecies of Amos, God says, sineiti ma’asti chageichem v’lo ariach b’atzroteichem, ki im ta’alu li olot u’minchoteichem lo ertzah v’shalem m’riachem lo abit, haser me-‘alai hamon shirayich v’zimrat nevalechah lo eshma, v’yigal kamayim mishpat u’tzedakah k’nachal eitan. “I hate and scorn your festivals, I will not savor your assemblies; if you offer me offerings, I will not accept them, and I will not see your fat-animal goodwill offerings; get your songs away from me, I will not hear the song of your harps: rather, let justice break like waves of water, righteousness like a river in spate.”

This doesn’t mean that we should focus entirely on mitzvot having explicitly to do with social justice and not pay attention to what we sometimes dismissively refer to as “ritual mitzvot.” We have to observe them all, because they are holistic, a single structure that in its unity helps us create and maintain a consciousness of holiness throughout our lives, every moment. But to observe only the “ritual mitzvot” without paying attention to those having to do with social justice is an ineffectual and hypocritical as doing only social justice without observing “ritual mitzvot.” It means that God doesn’t set the bar low for us: it’s not an either/or choice. We have to do “ritual mitzvot” because they are spiritual discipline for us, and make us more aware of God, of our own lives, of the world, and of others around us. That spiritual discipline should then fuel our observance of the “social justice mitzvot,” which are the first steps on the road to tikkun olam.

Anyone who calls themselves a Jew is obligated to be interested in helping others. In the well-being of others. In protecting the vulnerable and the helpless– not just through their favorite charitable organization, not just through what your shul does, or what the church down the street does, but through municipal programs, county and state programs, and Federal programs. Whether they are ideal programs or not, whether they are expensive or not: the poor will not ask for a funding budget breakdown for the food that comes to their table, they will eat the food, and not be hungry. We can have political debate about many things, but this has to be a set of issues on which we all stand firm together. The poor, the homeless, the hungry, the victims of discrimination: these must be housed, fed, protected, educated, without petty and selfish stinting on funding. The immigrants among us, both legal and illegal, must be treated thoughtfully, kindly, with attention to their individual plights. The violence that plagues our society must be addressed, not with the voices of arms corporations and their pawns and dupes, but with the voices of people who value the lives of their fellow people. Labor must be honored and fair, living wages given to all. And we must work to scour the taint of bribery and perversion of justice from our government.

This is our duty, which transcends our daily household needs, our petty political divisions, our movemental differences, and our career and class ambitions. This is our covenanted obligation between ourselves, our ancestors for three thousand years and descendants into the farthest future, and the Source and Creator of All Things. It is everything. And if we fail in it, we are nothing.

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