If given the choice, would you sacrifice your own goals, dreams, and desires for the sake of your family or the welfare of your group? Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, conducted pioneering work in the field of cross-cultural psychology, analyzing the differences between different types of cultures. Essential to his work was characterizing individualist versus collectivist cultures. Individualist cultures, such as the United States and Western Europe, tend to value independence, autonomy, and uniqueness. In contrast, collectivist cultures, typified by East Asian countries, among others, value group membership and harmony over the expression of one’s personal values or opinions.
Does the Jewish tradition fit into an individualist or a collectivist framework?
One of the classical sources that suggests a collectivist trend within Jewish thought is rooted in the passage of rebuke found in Parshat Bechukotai. In what was meant as a haunting description of destruction, the verse states that with even no one pursuing them, the Jewish people will be running away in such a panic that they will stumble over one another (Vayikra 26:37). The Sages find within this imagery of everyone stumbling over each other an allusion to the idea that all of Israel is responsible for one another: “kol Yisrael areivim ze bazeh.” This principle has ramifications for several laws, but also serves as a deeper ethical, spiritual, and metaphysical message of collective responsibility. Through the challenges and the celebrations, we are in this together, which generates moral and religious responsibilities toward one another.
Yet, despite this and other indications pointing to a categorization of the Torah within a collectivist system, we find several individualistic notions within Torah, as well. For example, every individual is obligated to say, “The world was created for me.” In addition, an individual is not allowed to be sacrificed for the sake of saving the community, and one is obligated to save oneself before saving somebody else.
Not fitting well into either paradigm, it becomes clear that Jewish thought contains both collectivist and individualist components. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains in his essay, The Community: “The greatness of man manifests itself in his inner contradiction, in his dialectical nature, in his being single and unrelated to anyone, as well as in his being thou-related and belonging to a community structure.” The different sources that push and pull in different directions reflect this tension that requires us to balance the individual and collective components of our natures.
This blended balance of individualism and collectivism is further reflected in the concept of counting, as related to counting the 50 years until the Yovel year and the counting of the weeks and days of the Omer. While discussing the laws of Yovel in Parshat Behar, the verse states in the singular tense, “you should count” – “ve-safarta lecha” (Vayikra 25:8). The Sages understand this as a directive to the court. There should be one singular count for the entire population done by the Beit Din.
When discussing the counting of the Omer, there are two different verses, with two distinct tenses used. On the one hand it states that you should count in the singular “tispar lach,” (Devarim 16:9), but it also states the same idea in the plural “u-sefartem lachem” (Vayikra 23:15). The Sages learn from this that there is both an obligation for the individual to count as well as a directive for the courts to count on a communal level.
The counting of the Omer, rabbinically symbolic of our preparation for receiving the Torah, incorporates the dual elements of individual and communal responsibility. We are both an individualistic and collectivist culture and it is our job to use the guidelines and framework of the Torah to strike a balance between prioritizing ourselves and serving our community.