My new blog post for The Jewish Journal:
Howard Roark wasn’t Jewish, but his creator was.
Roark was the protagonist of Ayn Rand‘s 1949 novel The Fountainhead. An architect who wouldn’t compromise his ideals or his integrity, he declared that independence from other people was the hallmark of personal worth:
“Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn’t done for others. There is no substitute for personal dignity. There is no standard of personal dignity except independence.”1
Born in Russia in 1905, Rand and her family were persecuted by the Communist government after the 1917 revolution. When she got a chance in 1926 to emigrate to the United States, she took it. Reacting against the Soviet Union’s collectivism, she went to the opposite extreme. She argued that individualism and personal self-interest were the basis of morality. She denied any individual responsibility for the good of others or the welfare of the community.
Where does Judaism sit on the spectrum between individualism and collectivism? Can you be a faithful Jew as a “lone wolf,” or do you need to be part of a Jewish community?
It seems to me that the answers are: yes, and yes.
It’s possible to be a faithful Jew all by yourself. However, if you’re part of a community, it’s easier and you can do a better job of it.
Alone, you can say most of the prayers. You can do your best to live morally and to respect God. But if you do only that, you neglect the duties and miss the benefits of participation.
The Talmud says that “all Jews are responsible for one another.”2 Traditionally, that means each of us is responsible not only for our own behavior, but for that of all other Jews.
There are also benefits that we can’t get if we remain alone. Participation in communal worship helps to strengthen our ability to live by our ideals. Psychologists call it “sensory pageantry:” music, sound, ritual, repeated physical actions, and repeated spoken declarations reinforce our moral commitment.
Likewise, interaction with other members of the community gives us feedback about our own ideas and behavior. It’s easy – too easy — for us to rationalize doing things we want that are morally dubious. Other people can provide us with checks on our own thoughts and behavior:
- Moral accountability: Are we doing the right things, not just according to us, but according to other people? We are never unbiased about our own actions and motivations. Neither are other people, but they can often be less biased about our actions than we are.
- Intellectual accountability: Do our ideas make sense? Naturally, they make sense to us, but do they make sense to anyone else? We seldom see the flaws in our own arguments and opinions.
- Social accountability: Are we fulfilling our responsibilities to other people and to the community as a whole? Or are we too easily letting ourselves off the hook?
As members of a community, we also naturally care about what other people think of us. Very few of us, if any, can be totally indifferent to the respect or disapproval of others. That doesn’t seem very strong or individualistic. However, contrary to what you might think, it’s a good thing. As they say in the computer business, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
Suppose that you’re tempted to cheat on your spouse. Ideally, you’ll choose not to do it because you know that it’s morally wrong; but we’re not ideal people. We have an impulse to evil along with our impulse to good. If all you can depend on are your own conscience and will power, then you can be defeated by rationalization and the desire to do what you want. In a community, you have a backup team to strengthen your conscience: “What if someone sees me? What would they think? Would they tell my spouse? What if it got back to the other members of the synagogue?”
Of course, it’s best if we do the right thing for the right reasons. However, doing the right thing for less admirable reasons is better than doing the wrong thing. Just as you are responsible for other Jews, they are responsible for you. They’re your backup and you are theirs. Alexander Pope identified the issue very clearly:
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
So if you want, or if you must, you can be a lone wolf. But you’ll be missing a lot.