Individualism Gone Wild

Rabbi Reuven Mann

The fourth Book of the Torah which we begin reading this week contains setbacks and tragedies which make it the saddest of the Five Books of Moses. However, it starts on a high note as Moshe gathers the people to take a national census. The commentators deliberate as to the purpose of this count. On the surface level, it is undertaken because the Jews are about to embark on a new phase of their history.

A year has passed since the Exodus from Egypt. The main accomplishments were the national gathering on Mt. Sinai for the Revelation of the Torah and the construction of the Mishkan, (Tabernacle) dwelling place of the Divine Presence. Having completed their Wilderness tasks, the Jews now had to embark on the next phase of their odyssey, the invasion and conquest of Eretz Canaan, (Land of Canaan) which Hashem had promised to the Avot (Patriarchs).

The census united the People and prepared them for the ensuing adventure. It demonstrated that every person had merit not only as a part of the collective but as an individual who was important in his own right. Judaism is unique and rejects the notion that it is only the society that is significant and that the value of the individual is merely insofar as he furthers the goals of the group.

The individual has great importance, quite aside from his membership in the organization. Thus, we see that Hashem related to Avraham because he discovered the existence of G-d and the proper way to serve Him. Notably, our tradition teaches that “He who saves a single life is as one who has saved the entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:5). We should also take note that in the time of the great Flood, the world was saved from utter destruction because of the righteousness of a single individual, Noach.

The great Biblical commentator, Ramban (Nachmanides), maintains that the census required that each individual come before Moshe and Aharon and announce his name. In explaining this procedure, Ramban (BaMidbar 1:45) says,

…he who comes before the father of the prophets [Moshe], and his brother [Aharon] the holy one of the Eternal and becomes known to them by name, receives thereby a merit and life, because he has come in the council of the people and in the register of the house of Israel, and he receives a part in the merits of the community by being included in their numbers. Similarly, each of the people receive a special merit through being counted by number before Moses and Aaron, for they will set their eyes upon them for good, and intercede on their behalf for mercy, [just as it is said], “The Eternal, the G-d of your fathers, make you a thousand times so many more as ye are, and He will not reduce your numbers, and the shekels shall be a redemption for your souls.”

It seems clear from this commentary that the importance of each individual is not nullified by the group but is enhanced by obtaining a direct encounter with their two great leaders.

Societies that operate by an officially approved “party line” and “cancel” individuals who display a mind of their own, stagnate and do not reach their full potential. It is important to unlock the creativity of talented people, whose ideas are unique and do not conform with the accepted way of thinking. They should be heard, to determine whether their ideas have merit. They should not be treated as pariahs for having the audacity to think for themselves.

The Rambam (Laws of Idolatry 1:2-3) describes Avraham as one who was raised in Idol Worship, but from an early age used his mind by day and night to challenge and analyze the religious principles he had been imbued with. Thus, the freedom to think is vital to the well-being and ultimate redemption of mankind.

The Jewish people have been at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations because of their great tolerance and respect for dissenters from the politically correct viewpoint. This has been the case even in theological matters. The study of Talmud is replete with debates and disagreements between students and scholars from all generations past and present.

However, the question arises, can the divergent views of non-conformist thinkers ever go too far and become a thorn in our side?

The Talmudic recording, (Rosh HaShanah 25a) of an incident between Raban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua, is instructive. The story takes place when the Jewish court declared the new month based on the testimony of witnesses who claimed they had seen the new moon.

It once transpired that a dispute arose about the reliability of certain witnesses. Rabbi Yehoshua announced his agreement with those who rejected the purported witnesses. However, Raban Gamliel the chief judge (Nasi) of the High Court, found reason to accept the questionable testifiers, and he declared the month of Tishrei on the basis of their sighting. Thus, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, Yom Kippur which falls on the tenth of Tishrei, would come out a day after the Yom Kippur of Raban Gamliel.

However, there was a problem. Was it feasible that the followers of Raban Gamliel would observe the Day of Atonement on one day, while those who favored Rabbi Yehoshua would do so on a different day? This was deemed to be a serious threat to the religious unity of the Jewish nation and a major breach of the Halachic System. To prevent this, Raban Gamliel ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to appear before him on the day that he himself calculated as Yom Kippur, carrying his walking stick and money (activities prohibited on the holy day). In effect, he would thus publicly disavow his own well-considered Halachic position.

Rabbi Yehoshua was a monumental Torah scholar with great spiritual integrity. The idea of desecrating Yom Kippur would be an unthinkable offense he would never undertake unless there was no choice. But on the day which he himself regarded as Yom Kippur, he presented himself before Raban Gamliel with his money and walking stick. He determined that there was something more important than his particular Halachic reasoning. That is the maintenance of the Torah System, which governs the lives of all Jews.

To preserve Judaism and the Jewish People, there must be a mechanism to determine the Halachic principles that all Jews will live by. Therefore, religious authority is vested in certain key institutions, which have the final say in all matters of religious behavior. Judaism encourages the most intense intellectual disputes between great Halachic minds, who are all dedicated to establishing the most precise and accurate religious practice. But they must keep their egos out of it and relinquish their beautifully formulated and compelling theories in the face of the governing authority.

Thus, the greatest Torah scholar must accede to the decisions of the High Court, even if on an intellectual level he is convinced that they are mistaken. This very principle is incorporated in the Mitzvah known as Zakein Mamrei (The Rebellious Elder). This refers to a great Torah scholar who disagrees with a verdict of the Great Sanhedrin, Judaism’s highest legal body. If he persists in teaching his view in the classroom but clearly states that one cannot follow his position in practice, no harm will befall him. But if he urges people to act according to his dissenting opinion or if he himself does so, he is liable to the death penalty. This is because he destroys the viability of the Halachic System and the unity of the Jewish People by causing divisions based on different ways of practicing Judaism.

This lesson has great relevance to our lives today. Israel is a robust democracy where individuals are encouraged to state their thoughts and opinions, no matter how at odds with the official outlook. Individualism is a wonderful thing, but only if there is an underlying commitment to the preservation of the state which renders this possible. Our greatest Torah scholars have been able to argue their positions vociferously while respecting the importance of sustaining the prevailing authoritative institutions. They had the wisdom and discipline to know when to engage, and when they needed to back off.

In recent years, we have witnessed what may be characterized as “Individualism Gone Wild”. Various ideological groups are not content with merely exercising their legitimate right of free-speech. They have broken the laws, taken over highways, and trampled on the rights of others, thereby endangering the social fabric that binds us together. They should be asked, “Are you prepared to sacrifice the well-being of our nation in pursuit of your personal partisan positions? Are you saying that the tranquility of the society which preserves the freedoms and rights of all must be swept aside because of the desires of certain individuals?”

It is vitally important that the virtue of Rabbi Yehoshua–who yielded his Halachic understanding of a vital Mitzvah, to preserve the authority of the High Court and the unity of the Jewish People–be affirmed and championed.

As we approach the Holiday when we reenact the Kabbalat HaTorah (Acceptance of the Torah) and while our soldiers are bravely defending the nation in a brutal war on multiple fronts, let us reaffirm the virtue of national unity in both the religious and political spheres.

Shabbat Shalom VeChag Shavuot Sameiach.