14 December 2010

From One, Many

from Proverbs Eighteen

"He that separates himself seeks his own desire; and snarls against sound wisdom."  This is the loneliness of self-righteousness.  It can happen to individuals and it can happen to isolated nations as well.  I constantly try to guard against this impulse in myself.  To be honest, I often prefer to be alone.  I find the reflection and solitude to be of enormous comfort.  And from the earliest age in my own development as a person cognizant of God, that existential aloneness was fueled the euphoric insights of my own joyous isolation.  Up in a tree on a summer day; on the hot asphalt of a driveway, shooting hoops; pushing a mower over tall grass.  God was always present in my conscious mind.  And my values were thought through, only to be tested by the encounter of human engagement.  But I always returned to the posture of lonely, solitary reflection. 

The decision to claim Judaism as my own occurred alone, while standing over a grave.  But, as equally important, the decision to lead in the Jewish community came from the engagement with others.  A rabbi at my great-aunt's shiva; a rabbi in Jerusalem who taught me Torah; a professor in Madison who embraced me like a son. 

One form of knowledge we receive in our uniqueness; another form of knowledge is made manifest in our pluralism.  To a degree, the Jew has this to offer and teach to an American civil society that is struggling to find its way.  I would argue that one of the more double-edged swords of the foundation ethics of American life is the notion of "individual rights" and the "pursuit of happiness."  The privileging of seeking our own desires is a prized American possession; but in fact it has a nasty underbelly of unbridled selfishness.  In certain moments of crisis as a nation--in theory--we have come together for Common Cause, only to eventually retreat to the sanctuary of our individuality.

We Jews, on the other hand, have a collective narrative.  In the early 21st century, it's not always so easy to teach.  We are three if not four generations removed from the ancestors who came to America to flee the collective repressions of Eastern Europe; we have adapted our narrative to fit America's universalism (like the way our synagogue touts above its door, "Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples.") 

But as a teacher of Judaism, I am ever mindful of the necessity, the commandment, to teach collective responsibility.  To break the chains of isolation--as comforting and spiritually fulfilling as it may be--in order to fulfill a promise made to the individual Abraham:  to find personal fulfillment and blessing in constructing a nation of many.

Not from many, one; but from one, many.

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