Balancing Community and Authenticity

This post, like the one I blogged last week, reflects a conversation with R’ Rich Wolpoe and R’ Ben Hecht on NishmaBlog and email, on the topic of R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo’s “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity“. That issue appears to be closely tied to the role of communal pesaq, and why do we need some kind of unity in practice, anyway. Comments on that blog entry also revolve around the role of communal acceptance of a particular pesaq and how that creates authority.

How do we balance that communal nature of a halachic community, of being a Chosen People, with the individual’s personal perspective and unique nature? And how does that balance express itself how halachic rulings should be made and followed?


When speaking to people about getting started in Mussar, one of the more asked questions is how all this middah work differs from a self-help program. Through repetition, I have a pretty standardized answer.

Both Mussar and Self Help involve a definition of the ideal, becoming cognizant of the real, and finding a path from the real to the ideal. Where things differ is in who defines the ideal. In Self Help, the focus is on actualizing the person you wish to be. Thus there is a focus on personal choice, doing your own thing, and autonomy.

In Mussar, it’s to become the person Hashem created you to be. For that matter, the same could be said of the Yeshiva Movement, and the ideal Jew as described in Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh haChaim. The split within Lithuania was about the amount of conscious effort one must place in the task of refining oneself. Rav Yisrael Salanter taught that one must actively pursue middah work. The Yeshiva Movement as it evolved in Volozhin and its daughter schools taught that Torah in-and-of-itself will effect this change, and one need only set out to study Torah, with the traditional focus on talmud and halakhah to become the people Hashem created us to be.

To that contrast, let me add a third alternative (in addition to self-help and Mussar): In Chassidus, the ideal is to cleave to G-d. There is a definition of an ideal person, although not phrased in terms of personal refinement but rather in how he relates to the Almighty. And so we can say that in both in the Vilna Gaon’s legacy and in that of the Baal Shem Tov, Judaism is defined in terms of personal becoming — whether it a process of becoming ever more shaleim (whole) or davuq (attached [to the Creator]), respectively.

And for that matter, Rav Hirsch’s approach to the purpose of mitzvos is as symbols and actions that inculcate lessons — and therefore also phrased as a personal transformation.

Given this focus, where then does national membership belong? Shouldn’t we each just follow those halachic positions that best express our own, personal, religiosity? R’ Cardozo’s playing down the role of codification is all about using the fluidity that would enable to better find meaningful religious experience. And yet I objected entirely because I assigned an importance to conformity, and in particular to the extent that we’re taught that accepted precedent is binding and closes the door on practicing the alternative. Why?

If we were discussing self-help this question would be valid. If self refinement were to be the person I defined as ideal, then such limitations would have not place.

However, an ideal of sheleimus and deveiqus defines an ideal in which each individual’s meaning is found as part of the whole. In playing a role in a larger community. Someone who tries to live as a metaphoric island can not be whole.


In R’ JB Soloveitchik’s essay “Community”, the Rav defines a basic dialectic in how people relate to the community: On the one hand, the purpose of the collective is to work together for the good of its members. The whole social contract philosophy of government is based on that perspective. On the other hand, the individual’s higher calling is to aid the the community.

Kelal Yisrael is a corporate entity of which the Rambam in Seifer haMitzvos can discuss mitzvos that apply between two Jews in terms of “haqatzeh el haqatzeh”, what “one end” does to “another end”. But Israel is also a set of Jews, a number of individuals.

The Rav argued that beris Noach and beris avos were covenants made between G-d and individuals, Noach and the forefathers respectively. Whereas beris Sinai created a corporate entity — the Jewish People. And from this he draws distinctions between stories in Bereishis and how we observe Torah today.

Personally, I would have made the personal covenent vs. national covenent distinction later, between the two berisim Hashem makes with us in the desert — at Sinai, and “the words of the beris … aside from the beris which He made with them in Horeb” (Devarim 28:69) at the plains of Moav. It is in describing this latter covenent that was given shortly before crossing the Jordan into Israel in which Hashem relays most of the nation-building laws of the Torah.

Rabbi Hecht beautifully described the national character of Torah as:

… [W]hat we may term the model of the symphony which advocates for the a collective of individuals who are actualizing their individuality but in a collective manner so that the result is greater than the sum of the parts…

The Ramban (among numerous others) likens the Jews to organs in a body. It’s like the symphony model. Not uniformity in action, but unity though each playing a different part toward the same combined action.

Or, putting it in the covenental terms — the beris at the plains of Moav had to come after a generation of people raised in a mileu of the beris Sinai. However, beris Sinai couldn’t be complete without it. Until the details spelled out in Devarim, given at Arvos Moav, there was only an incomplete definition of the entity the individual is to try to be an effective part of. At Sinai we were given the tools to learn how to play music, if we chose to pick them up. But at Arvos Moav the musicians were given the score to which the orchestra will be playing.

Does this deny the idea we saw in common in all those schools of thought that place the centrality of halakhah in how it shapes the person following it? Not at all! The goal is to be the best musician you can, to choose the instrument best suited to your proclivities and abilities and master it.

By giving us free will, Hashem offers us autonomy in two ways — first, we could choose to violate the beris. We have bechirah whether or not to fulfill the terms of the covenant. But even within conforming, we can choose our intrument. And a point somewhere in between these two extremes, by choosing how much we invest in studying music we have some input into whether that role in the symphony is first violin, or part of the chorus. Between the skills with which we were blessed, how and if we choose to develop them, we have some autonomy in our choice of role to play in the orchestra.

6 thoughts on “Balancing Community and Authenticity

  1. If a person without a very deep knowledge of Torah (or without consulting with someone who had such knowledge) were to try to piece together “his Judaism”, using pieces that appealed to him and were also considered valid by one or more Torah authorities, past or present, what would he have? Possibly, something like a mismatched wardrobe. Following a community’s set of normative practices, or those of a particular Gadol (I’m excluding personal chumrot here) would be far more likely to create a properly integrated approach.

  2. The problem is that too many people think that halakhah is like chess, when in reality it’s like go.

    Go is a Chinese game played on a 19×19 board. With 361 (19×19) locations to deal with, it’s beyond a person to actually logically think out the entire board. Rather, you have to develop a global view and a feel for the subject. You develop an aesthetic sense of what looks like a strong position in ways that you can’t articulate. (Or so I’m told; I have not played enough games to get good at it.)

    The real world is more like go than chess, and thus so is halakhah. (Although the real world has many elements of backgammon — you can only maximize your odds.) You need to not only know the ideas, you have to have a feel for the subject. I think that was the original, 19th cent, meaning of “daas Torah”, that feel for the subject necessary to be a poseiq or moreh derekh. (But nothing about communal leadership or career advice.) It is why there is more consensus about electricity on shabbos than about why it’s prohibited — the basic global aesthetic sense is that electricity doesn’t fit what Shabbos is about. Being able to articulate it is harder. And, if in trying to articulate it the gedolei haposqim found that their instinct was wrong, it is the instinct that would be questioned. There is a balancing act going on here.

    A “Qaraite”, relying on texts, can’t develop that feel. It requires shimush with a rebbe. When Batei Hillel veShammai failed to properly serve their rabbeim, they didn’t get that hands-on feel for how halakhah works, and we lost so much — leading to a multiplying of machloqes. All the facts were there, eilu va’eilu, but the feel for how to put them together wasn’t.

    If I may remain controversial (this thread has a lot of that), I think this is why R’ Avi Weiss is comfortable ordaining women; he holds that if it can be justified in dry process, it should be allowed. The feel for the flow of mesorah and its momentum isn’t factored in. Textualism without sufficient mimeticism. The notion that halakhah involves weighing legal argument against accepted practice against the sho’el’s spiritual needs and capacities isn’t part of the repertoire in this new camp. It’s a mistake that actually the prevalence of Brisk makes more likely, and I don’t think that RAW being a talmid of RYBS is coincidental to where he is today. A Brisker’s shiur doesn’t invoke values and meaning, only process. An imperfect talmid — and who is bright enough to be RYBS’s perfect talmid? — can easily lose sight of the whole.

    -micha

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