Friday, 14 November 2008

2. Unity of God

There is a tragedy to God’s unity, isn’t there? He’s peerless. Unity is complete solitude, complete self-sufficiency. Do we envy God His unity? Most people admit to the fact that they want to be needed, but do we also want to need?

In our pursuit towards greatness, do we view unity as a goal—‘in the image of God’—or as a failing—‘it is not good for Man to be alone’—?

There’s this balance that we’re taught as children: Play nice with the group; Don’t copy—that’s rude. So we’re flung into society and told to blend in when we stand out and to stand out when we start to blend in. In other words: Individual=good, Isolated=bad. In kindergarten: “He’s very popular among his fellow classmates but is not afraid to act alone on certain issues: gold star.”

Of course, this is how society functions. If we were each totally self-sufficient, there could be no growth—we’d have to hunt for our own food, build our own houses, sew our own clothes, treat our own wounds, etc.—there would be no time for advancement. If we sacrificed all individuality, however, there would be no specialization: no cooks, no carpenters, no seamstresses, no doctors. In either case, humanity would soon be extinct. Perfect unity—either unity of the individual or unity of the group—is incompatible with our survival as humans.

But our drive to be as much like God as possible compels us towards unity. Perfect levels of self-sufficiency, self-awareness, and self-confidence appeal to us like immeasurable treasures. But when we equate these things with utter and complete solitude, do we still hunger for them?

The funny thing is that our world develops and expands based on the individual’s desire for unity of self. In trying to be the best we can be—essentially, trying to escape reliance on anything other than the self—we push towards a greater existence. Society excels by virtue of the individual’s attempt to rid himself of the need for society.

At the same time, we speak of One Nation and we long for unity in society. In a dreamlike way, we wonder about a world in which everybody sees things as we do. In a generic sense, this dream unites us. But the specifics of the dream are distinct from individual to individual—my One Nation is, most likely, vastly different from your One Nation. What would you be willing to sacrifice for parity of values? Would you be willing to sacrifice your own values?

Perhaps our role here prohibits us from achieving either form of unity. We can’t be unified as individuals because we are part of the group; we can’t be unified as a group because we are individuals. But there may be a form of unity that is unique to humans which can only be expressed in the negative: I am unified with the self because, despite the pull towards society, I am not apart from myself; and I am unified with society because, despite the pull towards individuality, I am not apart from society. Unlike the kindergarten doctrine from above which describes a well-adjusted child-of-the-world, this vision depicts a troubled individual, clinging to two mutually exclusive unities, trapped somewhere in the middle—not not here and not not there. It is a unity achieved through struggle, sacrifice and meticulous philosophy. I think the model for this kind of unity can be found in prayer: ten men, joined, dependent, each standing silent, isolated, alone. So the question may be: do our shuls and synagogues evoke the indescribable sensation of mutually exclusive unities? And if not, why? What can we do to be more like God, less alone?


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Your words are most interesting especially in light of Rashi's comments on it not being good for Man to be alone. While colloquially, this statement is used to promote the idea of marriage and the joy of marital bliss in the combination of man and woman, Rashi understands this statement in a philosophical/theological sense that it is not good to have kept Man alone, as a singular being, for in that way he could be mistaken as a god. Thus God created a reality in Man to be insufficient as a singular being and thus needing another to complete him. This concept in many ways reflects the dialectic that you present. We approach godliness in our combination with others, especially with that special other, for that is when we reach a perfection of unity. Yet in that very need of another, we challenge this very godliness within ourselves. The dialectic is phrased in that one statement that it is not good for Man to be alone.

Anonymous said...

Both the thought-provoking post and R' Hecht's comment are reminiscent of the first half of the Rav's Confrontation, in which he discusses three progressive levels of man: non-confronted man, man confronted with the cosmos, and finally, man confronted with Eve: two equal subjects, both rejected by the objective order, both lonely. Despite his new "together-existence," man finds that there can never be complete mutual understanding, as each individual is an entirely unique entity, different and exclusive. Man's desire to connect and his ultimate inability to do so fully is, according to the Rav, "his triumph as well as his defeat."

Anonymous said...

The writer of this blog seems to know a lot about individual unity -- does this blog qualify as an attempt to be part of the larger society? Do electronic societies have more of a chance at unity?

Anonymous said...

Provocative piece.

Do you think it is the responsibility of society to ensure the attempted unity of self? Do the members of a group, though, by definition, reject an aim toward individuality as it threatens the insular quality of the group and the group's very attempt at group-unity?
It seems that unless one assumes a leadership or philanthropic role in society -- one is not praised, is quite possibly tacitly or overtly dismissed, rejected for exhibiting signs (symptoms) of individuality: is this a collective anxiety of disruption or can a group make a decision to reject the possible dissonance, the upheaval inherent in the voice of the individual who wants to be part of the group but will not blend?
Can a unified individual anyway do otherwise than lead? And if this is possible -- yet, is it selfish?
Is the ideal society comprised of non-attenuated, strengthened individuals? -- how is cacophony avoided and symphony achieved?
Was the Sanhedrin an ideal society? Was the Garden of Eden a model of an individualized or non-individualized society?
The Chumash speaks of hierarchal societies, societies within societies -- does democracy allow this?

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