The Individual and Society

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help to match him. (Bereishit 2:18)

This verse constitutes a fitting introduction to our discussion regarding the relationship between man and society, between individual and community.

The fundamental question is: Which of the two is of higher rank? Does the individual enjoy essential primacy over society, society being merely a collection of individuals; or does society take precedence over the individual, the individual being merely one small element of the community that surrounds him?

We know that Judaism assigns great importance to the community; many religious rites can only be performed in a communal context. The quorum of ten that is required for prayer teaches us the vital importance of society and community for religious life. God turns to the people of Israel and commands them as a single entity, "And there Israel camped ('vayichan' in the singular) before the mountain" (Shemot 19:2).

On the other hand, we are also familiar with the many sources that emphasize the value of the individual. Here too the starting point is the second chapter of Bereishit:

Therefore, man was created alone - to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul in Israel, Scripture regards him as if he destroyed the entire world. And whoever saves a single soul in Israel, Scripture regards him as if preserved the entire world. And for the sake of peace among people, so that one person should not say to his fellow: "My father was greater than your father." And so that the heretics should not say: "There are many powers in heaven." And to tell the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, for man mints many coins with a single mold, and they are all similar to one another. But the King, the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He, stamped every man with the mold of the first man. And not one is similar to his fellow. Therefore, each and every person must say: "For my sake, the world was created." (Mishna, Sanhedrin 37a)

This assertion that every person must say, "For my sake, the world was created," greatly emphasizes the value of the individual. In one of our previous lectures, we discussed the fact that man was created alone in the context of man's rank in creation. We now raise this point a second time in a different context: the status of the individual vis-a-vis society. In light of the fact that man was created alone, it is difficult to argue that the individual is merely an element of society with no independent significance of his own.

We mentioned earlier that the Torah was given to the entire Jewish people. Rabbi Chayyim Ibn Attar, author of "Or ha-Chayyim," emphasizes this point that the Jewish people received the Torah as a community:

Here Scripture teaches us a general rule about how the Torah can be fulfilled, demonstrating how the Israelites must confer merits one upon the other. The Torah in its entirety is only capable of fulfillment by means of the entire Jewish nation. Every individual Jew is charged with the duty to perform those commandments which he is able to fulfill, all conferring merits one upon the other. The verse may allude to this when it states (Vayikra 19:18): "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" - i.e., you shall love your fellow Jew as he is part of yourself. For his well being will benefit you, and through him you can achieve perfection; thus, he is not another person, but you yourself and like one of your parts. In this we have found pleasure, for God has commanded us with 613 mitzvot, but there is no man who can fulfill them all. This is your proof: a kohen, Levite, and Israelite, and women. There are positive precepts that apply to kohanim, but not to Israelites, and there are mitzvot that apply to an Israelite, but not to kohanim. And similarly regarding Levites, and so too women. How can the individual fulfill them so that he may perfect his 248 organs and 365 tendons which correspond to them? Rather, there is no question that the Torah is only capable of fulfillment by means of the entire Jewish nation, each individual conferring merits upon the other. (Rabbi Chayyim Ibn Attar, Or ha-Chayyim, Shemot 39:32)

The six hundred and thirteen commandments correspond to the number of man's organs and tendons. No single individual can fulfill all the mitzvot on his own; the perfection of his body is, therefore, dependent upon his working together with his co-religionists. The object of the Torah is the entirety of the people of Israel as a single entity.

Ramban points out, however, that all members of the Jewish people are bound by the Torah's mitzvot as individuals, and not only as members of the Jewish community:

Now all the [Ten] Commandments are expressed in the singular - "the Lord your God, who brought you out [hotzeitikha, in the singular]" (Shemot 20:2) - and not, as He began to say: "You [atem, in the plural] have seen" (ibid., 19:4), "if you [tishme'u, in the plural] will hearken" (ibid., 19:4). This is because His intent is to warn that each individual is subject to punishment for [transgression of] the commandments, since He addresses Himself to each one individually, commanding him that he should not think that He will judge according to the majority and that the individual will be saved with them. (Ramban, Commentary to Shemot 20:2)

Ramban notes that the Ten Commandments were formulated in the singular in order to emphasize that each individual is independently bound by the mitzvot, and that every person is individually judged for his actions.

We find in Jewish thought a certain tension between individualism and collectivism, between the belief in the primacy of the individual and the view that exalts society. Rambam, following Aristotle (whose position will be cited below), argues that man is a political creature. He does not argue, however, that the individual is merely an element of society, but only that man cannot live without society:

The first perfection consists in being healthy and in the very best bodily state, and this is only possible through his finding the things necessary for him whenever he seeks them. These are his food and all the other things needed for the governance of his body, such as a shelter, bathing, and so forth. This cannot be achieved in any way by one isolated individual. For an individual can only attain all this through a political association, it being already known that man is political by nature. (Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, III, 27)

Rambam argues that the satisfaction of man's material needs can only be realized through the cooperative efforts of many individuals. Rabbi Kook went even further. He too does not denigrate the value of the individual, but he greatly stresses the individual Jew's dependence upon the Jewish people:

The relationship between the Jewish people and its individual members is different than the relationship between any other national group and its constituents. All other national groups only bestow upon their individual members the external aspect of their essence. But the essence itself each person draws from the all-inclusive soul, from the soul of God, without the intermediation of the group... This is not the case regarding Israel. The soul of the individuals is drawn from ... the community, the community bestowing a soul upon the individuals. One who considers severing himself from the people must sever his soul from the source of its vitality. Therefore each individual Jew is greatly in need of the community. He will always offer his life so that he should not be torn from the people, because his soul and self-perfection require that of him. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot, p. 144)

Rabbi Kook explicitly distinguishes between the collective of the Jewish people and the collective of other nations:

The does not constitute man's greatest joy. This applies to a regular state ... which is not the case regarding a state founded on an ideal, in which is implanted in its very existence the most sublime ideal content, which is truly the individual's greatest joy. This state is truly the highest on the scale of happiness. And this is the case with our state, the state of Israel. (ibid., p. 160)

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his usual manner, stresses the dialectic of Jewish thought, pointing out the complexity of the issue that has no simple resolution:

Judaism has always viewed man from this dual perspective. It sees every person as an independent individual and also as part of a community, a limb of the body of Israel. Jewish thinkers have conducted an ongoing dialectic on this subject throughout the ages. The pivotal question is: Does the individual stand above the community which should serve its needs, or should the individual subordinate himself to the community's needs? In Judaism this question has been asked in relation to the individual who serves as a community leader. Who, in our history, was a greater leader than Moses, redeemer of Israel, the great rabbi and teacher, about whom our Sages wrote that his worth was equivalent to that of six hundred thousand men, meaning the total number of the male community of his time? Nonetheless, when the children of Israel fashioned the Golden Calf, "God said to Moses, 'Go down - lower yourself down; for did I not grant you greatness only to benefit Israel? And now that Israel has sinned, what need have I of you?'" (Berakhot 32b). Even the greatness of an individual like Moses is dependent upon the community. It would seem that the community and the individual are placed in balance with each other and are interdependent. At times we find that the community must sacrifice itself on behalf of the individual ... And at times the individual must sacrifice himself for the good of the community.

Never is the individual's worth belittled when measured against the whole community; and never is the community undermined because of any individual or individuals. Each has its own position of strength. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance, pp. 114-115)

Rabbi Soloveitchik's formulation does not resolve the difficulty with which we have been grappling: What is the relationship between the individual and the community? Which of the two is more important? Or put otherwise, when should we focus on the one, and when on the other? Rabbi Soloveitchik himself seems to attach greater importance to the individual: the great majority of his writings relate to lonely man's encounter with God. Considerable latitude, however, is left for practical wisdom to choose its path in real life, while taking into account diverse circumstances.


It was not only the Jewish sages who occupied themselves with the relationship between individual and society. Non-Jewish thinkers also dealt with this issue at great length. We have already cited the position of Rambam, noting that it was based upon the view of Aristotle. Let us now examine Aristotle's actual words:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it... Thus the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand... But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is not part of a state. (Aristotle, Politics, I, chap. 2)

Aristotle coins here the expression: "Man is by nature a political animal." According to Aristotle, man by his very nature is destined to live in society. The collective note is far more pronounced in Aristotle than in Rambam. While Rambam suffices with the assertion that man needs society in order to satisfy his basic needs, Aristotle declares that the state by its essential nature is prior to the individual, just as the whole is prior to the part. Individuals are merely the limbs of society.

During the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, philosophers and social thinkers developed the idea of the "social contract." This perception attaches essential superiority to the individual over society. According to this outlook, society is an aggregation of individuals, who entered into a social contract (generally, unconsciously) in order to allow each of them to acquire more resources for his own preservation. The most prominent proponent of this theory was Jean Jacques Rousseau:

I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer... But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance... This sum of forces can arise only where several persons come together... The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution... Although they have perhaps never been formally set forth, they are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognized, until, on the violation of the social compact, each regains his original rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty in favor of which he renounced it. (Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, chap. 6)

Rousseau's outlook is individualistic, elevating the individual over society. Man enjoys essential (though not necessarily historical) priority over society; the individual comes before the community.

An individualistic approach of this type leads to certain conclusions regarding an individual's conduct in society and society's attitude toward the individual:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... To justify [compulsion], the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, chap. 1)

The more we emphasize the individual and view society as a collection of individuals, the more we will limit society's right to control individuals and fashion their lives. Mill's individualistic outlook led him to the conclusion that society has no right to prevent a person from acting in a certain manner, unless such conduct interferes with the rights of others.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, G.W.F. Hegel proposed an entirely different approach. Hegel viewed the Prussian state of his day as the ideal social institution, arguing that it represents the climax of human history. We shall not go into Hegel's complex philosophical views, but rather limit ourselves to a single citation that illustrates the importance that he attaches to the collective in contradistinction to the individual:

If the state is confused with civil society, andif its specific end is laid down as the security and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership of the state is something optional. But the state's relation to the individual is quite different from this. Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual's destiny is the living of a universal life. (Georg W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, sec. 258)

In contrast to the idea of the social contract, there are other approaches that see in society, the nation, or the state an organic unity that goes beyond the sum of the individuals of which it is constituted. Society is not derived from individuals. Just the opposite is true; individuals are derived from society. The fundamental unit is society, it being a whole entity. This attitude reached clearest expression in the fascism of the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century. We shall cite here the words of the leader of Italian fascism, Benito Mussolini:

In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution. Hence the great value of tradition in records, in language, in customs, in the rules of social life. Outside history man is a nonentity. Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism.

Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity... The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. (Benito Mussolini, The Doctrine of Fascism)

It seems unnecessary to emphasize the extent to which Judaism's approach is different from this.


We saw in a previous lecture how Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the two-fold account of the creation story in Bereishit 1 and 2. He argues that the two chapters describe different types of man. He also understands that the two chapters describe two different types of society and community. He sees the relationship between Adam and Chava as the archetype of social relations between individuals. Chapter 1 describes practical-technological man who does not experience existential loneliness. The community that he establishes is merely utilitarian:

The community of which Adam the first, majestic man, is a member, is a natural one, a product of the creative, social gesture, in which Adam engages whenever he thinks that collective living and acting will promote his interests. I term this community a natural one, because the urge for organized activity at this level is not nurtured by the singular needs and experiences of spiritual man created in God's image but by biological instinctual pressures. It is a natural reaction on the part of man, as a biological being bent on survival, to the menacing challenge of the outside world. In fact, the root of the instinct of gregariousness which is the very foundation of the natural community is to be found already in the animal kingdom...

Adam the first is challenged by a hostile environment and hence summoned to perform many tasks which he alone cannot master. Consequently, he is impelled to take joint action. Helpless individuals, cognizant of the difficulties they encounter when they act separately, congregate, make arrangements, enter into treaties of mutual assistance, sign contracts, form partnerships, etc. ... The whole theory of the social contract brought to perfection by the philosophers of the age of reason, reflects the thinking of Adam the first, identifying man with his intellectual nature and creative technological will and finding in human existence coherence, legitimacy and reasonableness exclusively... They considered the individual ontologically perfect and existentially adequate...

According to the Biblical story, God was not concerned with the loneliness of Adam the first... Eve vis-a-vis Adam the first would be a work partner, not an existential co-participant. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, pp. 20-22)

This is the community of Adam the first. Rabbi Soloveitchik comes here to criticize the theory of the social contract. In a footnote, however, he remarks that he has similar criticism of the theory of organic society: the nature of organic society is also, first and foremost, utilitarian. Its proponents emphasize how essential society is for proper human functioning.

In contrast to these communities, Rabbi Soloveitchik presents the community of Adam the second, the Adam of chapter 2:

Adam the second is still lonely. He separated himself from his environment which became the object of his intellectual gaze. "And the man gave names to all the beasts and to the fowl of the heaven and to every animal of the field." He is a citizen of a new world, the world of man, but he has no companion with whom to communicate and therefore he is existentially insecure. Neither would the availability of the female, who was created with Adam the first, have changed this human situation if not for the emergence of a new kind of companionship...

Adam the first was not called to sacrifice in order that his female companion come into being, while it was indispensable for Adam the second to give away part of himself in order to find a companion. The community-fashioning gesture of Adam the first is, as I indicated before, purely utilitarian and intrinsically egotistic and, as such, rules out sacrificial action. For Adam the second, communicating and communing are redemptive sacrificial gestures...

The covenantal faith community, in contradistinction to the natural work community, interprets the divine pronouncement "It is not good for man to be alone" not in utilitarian but in ontological terms: it is not good for man to be lonely (not alone) with emphasis placed upon "to be"... Adam the second must quest for a different kind of community... His quest is for a new kind of fellowship which one finds in the existential community. There, not only hands are joined, but experiences as well; there, one hears not only the rhythmic sound of the production line, but also the rhythmic beats of hearts. (ibid., pp. 26-28)

Adam the second is a profound man, and therefore also a lonely man. The community which he establishes is, therefore, existentially far more significant. That community is also more demanding: in order to benefit from social relations, one must also sacrifice. For this reason, Adam the second must sacrifice so that Chava, his life-mate, may be fashioned: he must give up a rib. The partnership that he creates with Chava, which is the archetype for the community that he creates, is profound and meaningful. Spiritual and sensitive people create more meaningful social connections. Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that that such a community becomes integrated into religious life as well:

The second is a community of commitments born in distress and defeat and comprises three participants: "I, thou, and He," the He in whom all being is rooted and in whom everything finds its rehabilitation and, consequently, redemption. Adam the first met the female all by himself, while Adam the second was introduced to Eve by God... God is never outside of the covenantal community. (ibid., p. 28)

What is the relationship between religious profundity and emotional profundity in social life? One may argue that there is no direct connection; but just as a profound person needs God, so too he needs a partner and mate. But it may also be argued that standing before God teaches man the extent to which he is in need of a partner, and also teaches him to sacon behalf of social order. Rabbi Soloveitchik alludes to this later in his article:

If God had not joined the community of Adam and Eve, they would have never been able and would never have cared to make the paradoxical leap over the gap, indeed abyss, separating two individuals... Only when God emerged from the transcendent darkness... did Adam absconditus and Eve abscondita, while revealing themselves to God in prayer and in unqualified commitment - also reveal themselves to each other in sympathy and love on the one hand and common action on the other... Friendship - not as a social surface-relation but as an existential in-depth-relation between two individuals - is realizable only within the framework of the covenantal community where in-depth-personalities relate themselves to each other ontologically and total commitment to God and fellow-man is the order of the day. (ibid., p. 45)

Let us compare this to the words of the historian and sociologist Jacob Katz, who argues that religion has an important social function. This function, however, is only fulfilled when man devotes his entire self, body and soul, to God, and does not relate to religion merely as a means of achieving social goals:

The synagogue served to maintain society precisely where and to the extent that it avoided all social motives... At the climax of Jewish public devotions, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when the likelihood is greatest that the individual will turn his thoughts away from his selfish motives and social ambitions, he is likely to be absorbed almost completely in his society-congregation. This experience of coalescence, though it is temporary, is not likely to go without effect. The internal cohesiveness of the Jewish community was undoubtedly nourished by the depth of the religious experience of the ever-recurring ritual... Only where religion lives on its own independent resources - man facing God - is it unconsciously and paradoxically also transformed into an all-important social preservative. (Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis, pp. 181-182)

When a person comes to synagogue for social purposes, he sets himself in the center, seeking pleasure and benefit. But when he comes to synagogue to pray, his standing before God teaches him how fragile he really is, the extent to which he is need of society, and that true society requires sacrificial gestures.

(Translated by Rav David Strauss)