Isolation, Tribalism and Community – Yom Kippur Evening 2022/5783

This blog post is based on a Yom Kippur evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October, 2022. For the complete series, click here. Video is available here.

What size group is most comfortable for you? It may depend, for what: a dinner party is different than High Holiday services, we all have horror stories about group projects. Some of us love to schmooze, and the more the merrier. Some of us like a few specific individuals, but not people in general and certainly not people in large groups. Anthropologists think humans evolved in hunter-gatherer clans of 100 people or fewer – for comparison, the full capacity of this sanctuary is about 300 people. In a survival group of 100, you know that the group is essential to your survival, and every group member is vitally important: there are dangerous animals and severe weather and hostile groups of other humans out there. According to Margaret Mead, the first sign of civilization is actually a healed femur – if someone broke their leg but lived long enough for it to heal, that means the group fed and cared for them so they could get better and contribute to the group again. I’m sure that for some people, a group of 100 still sounds like a lot of people!

So groups are good – mostly. Remember that in a group of 100 or fewer, everyone knows everyone, news of antisocial behavior spreads almost instantly by word of mouth, and you cannot really be alone even if you want to. Evolutionary anthropologists speculate that one key to social cohesion is our ability to gossip! Let’s be honest: we hate gossip, but we also LOVE it. The Talmud says that the worst sins of all are idolatry, illicit sexual relations and murder, but lashon ha-ra gossip or literally “evil tongue,” gossip worse than all of them! This is why you have never heard Jews gossip about each other…The very concept of “A room of one’s own” was not part of typical home architecture until modern times. An individual living alone, able to self-isolate from society and even from their family, that is relatively new in human experience, and we’re not quite sure how to handle it, or IF we can handle it. Even Tom Hanks’ Castaway on a desert island needed to imagine a companion to remain somewhat sane, and we did not question that part of the movie at all. Aristotle wrote that humans are animals of the polis – political, social, a group species. The Genesis creation narrative agrees: lo tov heyot adam levado – it is not good for humanity to be alone. 

Part of the moral crisis we face today are tensions between me, we, and all of us – individual, tribal group, broader community. Those deeply-rooted group boundaries seem higher than ever, as we are convinced our opponents are evil, not just incorrect. We are skeptical of any friendly critique or loyal opposition on our own side. Our self-interest seems to overwhelm our willingness to concede for the greater good. We are fine with higher taxes, as long as someone else has to pay them; we want more freedom until someone else’s freedom offends our sensibilities. We once thought the internet and social media would transcend boundaries and foster dialogue, but like the original golem it has run amok beyond our designs and group-think is reinforced, not reduced. The resentful, the bitter, the angry find each other and find scapegoats for their failures, and a supportive audience for their grievances. They lash out at those they blame, and WE suffer.

I am not a luddite who wants to return to the days before Facebook, smartphones, or the internet. The positive fruits of technology testify to the Humanistic belief that we have the power to improve our lives. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we can connect with others. We can find like-minded people all over the world, and we can have moving experiences and feel community at great distance; the dozens of people watching this moment live on Zoom and the hundreds who will watch this recording in weeks and years to come, this is only possible because we are more interconnected than ever. I never mind seeing someone walk down the street appearing to talk happily to themselves; chances are they’re on the phone with someone, which means at that moment they are only physically alone – mentally and emotionally they are with someone who brings them joy. The internet is a tool, and tools can be used for good or evil. We saw the risks of in-group thinking in this evening’s Torah reading – elevating the importance of the in-group, denigrating the other. Some take those texts as inspiration for Jewish chauvinism, we see them as warnings of dangers inherent in the human psyche, the challenges of creating fellow-feeling beyond family and clan. Technology has not changed everything about human nature and group identity.

The irony is that, even as we can use technology to connect with any corner of the globe, we can feel more alone than ever. We see happy people, beautiful meals, exotic vacations from our mundane rooms. We can feel alone in a crowd, isolated in our own town, lost even at home. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being an introvert, a loner, someone who prefers solitude to shmoozing. And there is an important difference between being alone and being lonely – “alone” can be by choice, “lonely” means we want connection. Jewish culture does not have a tradition of isolation, a monk on a mountaintop – a traditional prayer quorum or minyan is 10 individuals. There is a commandment to be fruitful and multiply, there is even a principle of not separating oneself from the community. We visit the sick, we honor the elderly and the dead, we must teach these things to our children and to our children’s children l’dor va-dor from generation to generation, we are responsible for each other. An ideal model of Talmud study is in hevruta or partnership because dialogue with another provides more insight, more challenge and more clarity than isolated rumination. For all of the surveillance and intrusion of the traditional shtetl, you were practically never alone, even if you wanted to be!

Imagine the extremes. You could picture yourself as a self-sufficient individual, an entire world all on your own, who needs anyone else? The Simon and Garfunkel song “I Am a Rock” points out the problem – no singing, just some lyrics:

….I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock, I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me

I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries.

There are risks in any human connection, and relationships are not easy. I sometimes joke that my job as a rabbi would be much easier if it were not for all the people! With risks of connection come rewards – people who care for you and know you, people who have shared experiences with you, people who share your values and beliefs. Traditional religions point to research showing that church members tend to live longer, but their science is imperfect because it’s not controlling all the variables. Religious BELIEFS are not what help them live longer; it’s religious COMMUNITY – if nothing else, someone to check on you if they haven’t heard from you in a while! And being part of a community helps you think about someone other than yourself once in a while, a good thing psychologically and emotionally. I know many secular humanists who are thrilled to see church affiliation and attendance going down on opinion surveys. While I prefer a less religious to a more religious society, the news is not all good – just because people are not religious does not mean they would join a Humanistic alternative, and human nature abhors a vacuum. If they do not find connection from a loving and supportive community of positive meaning, they may lash out at those who do.

At the other extreme, there are 8 billion people on this planet. Loving all of humanity is a noble ideal, but it’s not practical. We live in discrete cultures, we speak specific languages, we connect with social circles far smaller than 8 billion, or even 8 million. Picture attending a large sporting event or a concert all by yourself. Sitting at Soldier Field or Orchestra Hall surrounded by tens of thousands of people, would you feel less alone or more alone? As a Detroit sports transplant, I can testify that it depends on whether you’re rooting for the home team or the away team! Sitting in that huge stadium community by myself while seeing others in their own small friendship and family groups, that would make me feel more alone – a live event is much better with a friend, even one.

As with just about everything, diversity and balance. We want both our Jewish continuity and our individual freedom to make our own choices. We need the warmth of group loyalty without the chauvinism of in-group superiority. There is no one group size that everyone likes, just there is no one correct thermostat setting. I once heard a story about a church sexton who would go up to the thermostat before every service and tap at it a few times. He never actually changed the temperature, but the people who felt hot thought he was turning the temperature down, those who were cold thought he was turning it up, and everyone felt better! Sometimes even “people people” want to be alone, and sometimes introverts want a hug.

A Jewish lesson from this season that applies to all of the above – those who love groups and those who prefer to be alone, universalists and particularists, in-person and online, a band of hunter-gatherers and the interconnected 21st century world. The traditional High Holidays liturgy focuses on repairing one’s relationship with a divine – asking for and hopefully receiving forgiveness. Yet, just as important, is an emphasis on repairing human relationships. In all varieties of Judaism, there is no higher forgiveness for hurting others without first asking for and receiving forgiveness from the person one has wronged. Relationships are living things, and living things can break a femur and need care and support and patience to heal – the wound can leave a scar, a fracture, and the relationship may never be the same again. If we repair a damaged relationship, it will continue, it will contribute to our happiness and well-being, it can remain an important part of who we are and whom we want to be. Not ALL relationships deserve to be saved, and it takes two to repair damage. You can debate which is harder: to ask for forgiveness, or to offer forgiveness when someone asks. Again, it depends, diverse circumstances and personalities, a balance between justice and moving forward. If we do not try, if we say to ourselves “if I never loved, I never would have cried, I am a rock and an island,” then the relationship will wither and something valuable will be lost.

When “me” meets “we,” whether it’s one person or a group, that is a relationship. We risk misunderstandings, insults, offense. We risk rejection, indifference or to the other extreme OVER-acceptance where we lose our individuality. What we need to keep me-we relationships strong is to enter with our eyes open, keep our sense of self, and above all we need to both give and receive. When Hanukkah encountered commercialized Christmas in the 20th century, our children learned quickly from their neighbors how to expect gifts. Did we teach them how to receive? Did we teach them how to give? We need to speak to each other in terms we understand, we need to expect that other people’s minds work differently from our own, and we need to listen when we are told something is wrong. A bridge firmly rooted on one side and crumbling on the other will not last.

It is not good for humanity to be alone; we are social animals. We have endured the isolation of pandemic, the group conflict of social crisis, the risks of individual alienation and the stresses of group conformity. We still believe it is better to be together. You might not know that our broader movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism has disagreed about how to sing one of our most common songs. Hinnay Ma Tov U-Ma Na’eem shevet akhim gam yachad “behold how good and how pleasant it is for siblings to dwell together.” The problem is that in Hebrew, other than some experimental linguistics, there is no gender-neutral way to say “siblings,” so it literally says “brothers.” Some feel this is just how Hebrew grammar works and they prefer to sing the original words from Psalm 133 in common with the rest of the Jewish world. Others prioritize inclusivity and alternate “Akhim” (brothers) and “Akhayot” (sisters) as they sing, but the meter doesn’t always work. And still others try to avoid gender altogether by changing “achim” to “amim”, which means “nations” – behold how good and pleasant it is for groups, ethnicities, nations to dwell together. A balance of continuity with tradition and expressing our values. The differences between shevet achim – brothers or siblings and shevet amim – nations, that’s open for debate. The debate itself demonstrates the power of diversity and balance, because when one community has different people singing each word at the same time, achim and amim, it still makes beautiful music. Because it is better to be together.


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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2 Responses to Isolation, Tribalism and Community – Yom Kippur Evening 2022/5783

  1. Pingback: Morality in Crisis – High Holidays 2022/5783 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

  2. Pingback: Anger, Grief and Consolation – Yom Kippur Memorial 2022/5783 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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