Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Dialectic of Individual and Community

Last week, we discussed the emergence of the creative individual, and the accompanying elevation from mediocrity engendered by an individual's spiritual activity. Rabbi Carmy, in the same essay, presents the other side of the coin.

In the Guide, Rambam states that those who interpret every trouble and annoyance in life as expressions of hashgacha pratit are guilty of the tragic flaw, hubris. The assumption is all too common that we are in tune with God to a greater extent than our peers, and there is more meaning in everyday troubles for us than others. Rambam calls a person who feels this way foolish, and writes against expecting too much hashgacha pratit. There is great divine wisdom in the shepherding of the flock, and there is great human self-knowledge in the concession that perhaps, in the words of Rabbi Carmy, "vanity, spiritual self-indulgence, and sullen self-justification" lead us to expect too much individual attention.

Rav Kook echoes this when he states that the cringing in the face of personal suffering and troubles prevents the natural love and reverence towards the divine. Individuals and the collective nation can thus become spiritually and physically sick. A pre-occupation with hashgacha pratit can paralyze our abilities to perform our tasks in this life, causing us to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate ourselves vis-à-vis God and what he has allowed to befall us. This is what Rabbi Carmy refers to as "hothouse hashgacha theology".

It is also clear that, however great a human being's personal achievements, they are only possible in the cultural and social milieu into which he is born and raised. Science, theology, logic, music, art and language are all fields which clearly demonstrate that great progress is made on the shoulders of those who came before. And so, as much as a man may like to view himself, and have God view him, as an individual, he cannot and should not completely shake off the shackles of his species.

I would posit therefore that there is great benefit in being viewed, both by God and by ourselves, as members of a Nation, and not simply as individuals worthy of individual attention. Our achievements are only attainable because of our origins, and our nation is the repository of a wealth of cultural and intellectual treasures that fuel our creativity.

Even more than this, the hashgacha klalit that the nation provides us is not simply a lower level of providence, one that should be replaced with hashgacha pratit at all costs. The national providence in play in hashgacha klalit is a powerful mechanism of protection for the individual. As Rav Kook points out in his essay, "Process of Ideas in Israel," the national identity provides immortality to our actions in this world. We are supposed to see ourselves as gaining fulfillment through our national identity. Further, the national destiny of Israel collects even sinners, and allows them to be gathered up in the salvation of the nation. (See Vayikra Rabba 3, where the midrash compares the different parts of the nation to the elements of the mitzvah of lulav. The midrash ends, יבאו אלו ויכפרו על אלו, teaching that even sinners are forgiven and provided for in the redemption.) Indeed, there is unique value and protection that national providence is capable of, that individual providence simply cannot reach.

This point is elaborated upon by the כלי יקר (Sh'mot 30:11-12) in Ki Tisa. He asks a number of questions regarding the nature of protection that donating money provides from the dangers of being singled out by counting. Perhaps, he says, each individual will be remembered and inspected and found wanting. However, as the shunamite woman said of herself, "sitting amongst my nation" can defend against just such analysis.

The national aspect of a Jew provides him with providence vital to survival. And so it is that an individual constantly experiences this paradox, the dialectic between his individual identity, and that of his nation. To abdicate either is to sign one's own spiritual, intellectual and emotional death warrant. Forever vacillating between these two extremes, we nurture ourselves from both springs, never fully our own personality, and never simply part of a group.

Thus judged, we become deserving of the protective qualities of both hashgachot, protected from anonymity on the one side, and from the lonely starkness of isolated individuality on the other.




Someone asked:

Can your free will affect the divine plan? If one makes a decision to kill someone and it is not his pre-destined time to leave this world.

My response is:

Although your question claims to be different form the question of free will vs Divine omniscience, I am not sure it is. However, it is surely related to the question of Hashgacha: Is God's plan for an individual complete and micro-managed, or not, and managed in general terms?

The vast majority of Rishonim (including Ramban (see D'varim 11:13) and Rambam (Guide, ch 17-18)) viewed the world as generally run by Hashgacha klalit. The Jewish nation has a special level of hashgacha from other nations, that God in more heavily involved. However, individual Jews themselves, unless remarkable (righteous or wicked, or if there are extenuating temporal or situational circumstances), can expect general, but not necessarily Hashgacha Pratit. True, the Talmud states that taking the wrong change from one's pocket is a Divinely ordained occurence, but the Rishonim explain these types of passages in extreme situations, and not the norm for an average Jew. Thus, these Rishonim would say that a person can use his free will to do something that is wrong and has a negative effect on another person. This negative effect can be hindered by God, but will not necessarily be. Please see here, here and here for an ongoing discussion I had on this issue. I especially recommend Rabbi Carmy's essay, "Tell Them I Had A Good Enough Life" (available in the Orthodox Forum volume on Suffering).

If this is disconcerting, perhaps a quick aside can help. Every metaphysical system of thought pre-supposes a teleological end (ultimate purpose) to creation. Judaism also posits a teleology. God's plan is not a limited, finite plan such as one you or I might make that can be thwarted. God's plan requires that there be free will to allow humanity to justify its existence (this does not require adherence to any particular theory of Jewish Teleology). God's plan is one in which, on a macro-level, any path, any choice you or I make, lead to the ultimage goal, be it by a more direct path, or less direct. There is nothing you can do to get your path to lead anywhere other than God's ultimate goal. The ethical question of Good and Evil then, is not one of true ability to derail the moral Good or Divinely-desired purpose of the universe; you have no control over that. Rather, Good and Evil are a question of your intent: you believe you have free will to derail His plan, and so, do you intend to do Good and further His plan in this world, or do you intend to do Evil and derail His plan. In the end, however, both choices end up only furthering God's will in this world, somehow or another.



Thus, the question of "can I shoot a person and kill him" becomes one which is identical to the age-old question of theodicy, "why would bad be allowed to happen to someone who does not deserve it." This is a very strong question, and responses are attempted by many. I do not find any of the answers to be pleasing, but I do recognize that the question is asked of a finite being with finite understanding, of an infinite being. It would be silly indeed to assume that our lack of acceptable answer means there is no answer.

I would like to point out that the view you took (that I can pull the trigger, but God decides if the bullet will fire true or not fire at all, or miss my target), is a relatively new view in Jewish Philosophy, I like to think of it as a more kabbalistic approach. It posits that God does not relinquish to natural cause and effect any bit of activity in this world. Rabbi Carmy calls it "hothouse hashgacha theology". (Sometimes I find myself ascribing to this view. I am not judging the views put forth in this email, only putting them forth.)

The story of the brothers does not contradict this view, as we could answer that the brothers were caught in the free-will mirage we all are -- that we do have control over our surroundings. Neither does the story about the two paths. The midrash and מאמרי חז"ל are a richly varied tapestry of thought. Not every midrash must, can or should be reconciled with every philosophical view. As the Ramban said during his famous disputation, aggaddta is not binding, and we can reject those we find do not fit in with our philosophical outlook, if need be.

In response to the concept of death and life of צדיקים and רשעים, I would just say that it is very uncommon for God to remove free will from a person. Even an evil person can change their ways in a moment and this is also part of free will. I don't want to get into a discussion regarding the value of רשעים's existence, but as I mentioned earlier, everything is subsumed within the Divine plan, even evil. Rav Kook, based on kabbalistic sources, states that at the most unified level of Divine Will, the distinction between evil and good does not exist. This is clearly a level of unification and meta-viewing of life that we on earth are never able to experience, but it is an important philosophical starting point. Evil can exist because at the most fundamental level of existence, ethical categories become meaningless. More on that perhaps later.