An email response to a friend of mine:
A couple of points. You’re right. There is a distinction between government-sponsored social action and social action in a Jewish context. But the distinction is NOT between “government” and the “individual.”
For one thing, “government” is composed of individuals–just like you and I, they’re members of our communities. There is no “us” and “them” (i.e. goverment and people). That’s an illusion. The government is “us”; if we don’t like it, that’s our problem, and we should elect new reps who will change it (obviously campaign finance reform may be necessary, but that’s ultimately in our hands too). Posing government as some kind of demonic bogeyman is just another form of scapegoating. It tries to fob off our problems on some other entity or group of individuals. It’s another component of the victim mentality prevalent in Western culture. Usually we think of ethnic groups as engaging in the discourse of victimiziation, but those who blame the government for all of our ills do exactly the same thing.
Government does good things, and government does bad things. It built our highway system. The Voting Rights Act allowed African-Americans to vote in the South. It gave us the GI Bill of WWII, which allowed a whole generation of GI’s to attend college and buy homes and helped to produce the modern American economy from which we still benefit. For all its faults, affirmative action and diversity have produced work forces that include women and minorities–I think of universities where I have worked, and I know that they would look very different without the pressure of government (probably hardly any women or minorities). Of course, government does bad things as well. Look at our tax code. Look at the huge bureacracies. Look at the welfare system. Look at the Post Office. Look at the mess we have for an educational system. In the end, what government does well and what government does badly simply reflects on US. Good or bad, in the end we are responsible. Instead of blaming government or the “system,” we need to take a good, hard look at ourselves.
As to Judaism on social action. Judaism does not view individuals as completely separate from their communities. That’s why at Yom Kippur we atone for sins that we ourselves as individuals may not have committed. And Judaism always views indidiuals as part of a larger Jewish community. And the rabbis wrote the Mishnah, Talmud, and Responsa for the express purpose of governance. They always envisioned a Jewish society in which these laws (civil, criminal, and religious) would run a nation. That’s because Judaism isn’t solely a religion, but also a culture, a people, and a nation. It’s both indidivual and group. The two go together. Tzedakah, etc., are OBLIGATIONS that Jews have both as indviduals and as a community. The rabbis viewed those who did not do their share not only as making an individual error, but as disturbing the harmony and well-being of the larger group and even the cosmos. And there were penalties when such behavior got out of hand. I’m not personally a big fan of a rabbinic government, but, when we refer to the rabbis, we should be clear: THAT’S WHAT THEY THOUGHT. It’s fine to emphasize the individual over the group (though I myself prefer a more balanced and integrated approach), but in any case that’s not how the rabbis thought or think even now in Israel.
The individualism that some in our country emphasize reflects a very different tradition from the rabbinic one. It’s a wonderful tradition that has helped to make our nation what it is today, but (in my opinion) it owes more to the Enlightenment than to any earlier religious traditions. As for myself, I believe that we can exist both as individuals with our own personal goals and needs and as members of larger communities with whom we share group commitments and oblgations. It’s always a balance, but that’s the challenge we have to acknowledge and face.
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