Rabbi Avi Weinstein

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2009 at 4:36 am

David Brooks in The New York Times admires the “institutional life” and challenges the conventional wisdom regarding liberal education as described by a recent Harvard report paraphrased by Brooks:

“Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.”

The institutional life goes to the beat of a conforming drummer but, contrary to what the doyens of liberal education believe, society may glean more benefit from these folks than from those who manage to follow their provocative bliss into oblivion. Brooks describes the institutional thinker as follows:

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

The Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) from his commentary on Values of Our Ancestors Derech Hachayyim riffed on Brooks’s theme on a more fundamental level. Individualism, rugged or otherwise, is a myth. We are not biologically designed to be self-made. Institutions are an individual’s vehicle for relating to society. We define ourselves in relation, and the greater impact we have on others, the more alive we are.

The Maharal comments on one of the more popular Talmudic aphorisms “Do not separate yourself from the community”. Implicit in his commentary is the question why does Hillel phrase this question in the negative, why doesn’t he enjoin us to be a part of the community?

Hillel has also asserted the special quality of community which, as opposed to the individual, is more important. That is why he says: Do not separate yourself from the community. For the community which is a collective has more permanence, as we have explained, because a community has a more resilient existence. Therefore one who separates from the community is separating from the thing that is more deeply alive.

Furthermore, the community is all, and it has the power of all. Therefore one who separates from it, removes himself from all, and thus lives on the periphery. On the periphery, he is considered as insignificant as vapor—a thing that is outside the collective.

The Maharal, sees Hillel’s declaration as a philosophical statement about the nature of community. Do not separate yourself from the community means do not cut yourself off from life. The Maharal teaches that we are born into community, that it is our natural state, for communities generally survive the individual. They were there before and they will be there afterward. To separate yourself is to remove yourself from its life force, ki haklal zeh hakol. (The Community (the KlaL) is all (haKoL.)


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