Individual rights versus communal responsibility

Individual rights versus communal responsibility

When I worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the chancellor was Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch. I remember him writing a brilliant essay discussing the similarities — and more importantly, the differences — between American ideology and Jewish theology. He argued that it was a myth to believe that the two marched in lockstep. His central thesis was that American ideology focuses almost exclusively on individual rights, while Judaism balances the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. A wonderful example of this balance, which he very well may have included in his essay, was how leprosy was dealt with in the Bible. When someone was diagnosed with leprosy, he or she was forced to move outside the community until the priest, who apparently also served in a medical capacity, determined that the leprosy had gone away. Then, after a purification ceremony, the former leper could rejoin the rest of the Israelites. In this instance, the needs of the community — namely, to be safe from an infectious disease — took precedence over the right of the individual to remain with his or her family and community. The leper’s requirement to quarantine was a positive example of God’s rebuke of Cain, when he asked if he was his brother’s keeper.

Yes, he was, and we are.

Another example of this tension between the rights of the individual and the responsibility to the community can be seen in the political philosophy put forward by Amitai Etzioni, the Israeli-American sociologist, in the 1980s and 90. The philosophy, called communitarianism — which had absolutely nothing to do with communism — believes that the rights of the individual must be balanced with communal responsibility. Endorsed by politicians as different as Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican Warren Rudman, communitarianism pointed out that every individual right that is claimed places a responsibility on someone else. That responsibility may be a responsibility to protect someone else’s right; it also could be the responsibility to take action to protect yourself from the exercise of that right by another. Therefore, a person who refuses to quarantine when he or she has leprosy imposes an extra responsibility on the rest of the community to take even extra precautions so that they do not get sick.

I doubt very much that my attempt to draw a parallel between leprosy when the Israelites where walking in the desert and covid-19 today is subtle enough to be missed by others. We are living in an age where we must balance our responsibilities to the rest of the community with our desire for individual freedoms. If someone chooses not to be vaccinated, not to wear a mask, not to socially distance, that person is putting others in our community at grave risk. It is no different than if someone chooses to drink alcohol to excess and then gets behind the wheel of a car; a person has the right to drink to excess but does not have the right to drive a car because that puts others at risk.

In effect, we are dealing with an instance in which the right to liberty conflicts with a right to life. If you have the liberty not to be vaccinated, you are endangering my right to life. And we are not even dealing with the impact of the large number of unvaccinated people flooding our hospitals are having on the vaccinated, who cannot get other needed medical procedures because our hospitals are overwhelmed. Nor are we dealing with the impact of the unvaccinated on our healthcare professionals, who are exhausted and risking their lives to save others who refused to take simple steps to save themselves.

The time has come for us to condemn the selfish and excessive focus on individual rights at the expense of communal responsibility. We are not a nation of individuals who can survive without the help of other individuals. We are a nation of interconnected individuals and communities who depend upon each other to survive and to thrive. The myth of the rugged individual may have served its purpose in the past, just as other myths serve their purpose for a time. Now, however, it is time for us to acknowledge the reality that we are part of a community, that we are our siblings‘ keepers, and that we are part of a whole that is far greater than ourselves.

The idea that we can thrive without sacrifice is a myth. It is time to remember the immortal words of John F Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” You don’t need to do much. Get vaccinated, wear a mask, and practice social distancing.

If we all do this, we will overcome this pandemic, as we have overcome other challenges in the past. And in doing so, we will reflect back on 2022 as a year to celebrate.

Michael Starr of Oradell is a past president of Temple Avodat Shalom, a former Berrie Fellow, and has held many leadership positions at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.