We’re All in the Same Boat – Yom Kippur afternoon
Perhaps you share my frustration with the tension we’ve seen quite a bit lately between perceptions of individual freedom and social responsibility. Our tradition offers an analogy for how to think about this tension. Having noticed that, often enough, the mistakes of the few lead to consequences borne by the many, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, “The matter may be compared to a man on a boat drilling a hole in the deck beneath his feet. The other passengers object, but the man retorts, “It’s none of your business. I’m drilling only under my own feet.”
But what if the uncooperative passenger wasn’t drilling a hole? What if they were merely allowing one to appear and refusing to take effective action to plug it up? We can well imagine how the argument on board that hapless vessel might go today. The other passengers would try to explain, “When holes appear anywhere in the floor of the boat we act as quickly and as effectively as we are able to plug them up. Even a few holes might sink the boat. Admittedly, this hole has appeared under your feet, but your intransigence could result in swamping the entire boat!” Now there are many options of retort from which the stubborn passenger might choose. “Drowning is not a thing.” “Water is natural.” “You’re being bribed by the profiteering glue industry.” “It’s your choice to use glue but it’s my choice to try malaria pills or horse dewormer.” “Water seems to seep in anyway; it seems like patching doesn’t even work.” “I intend to wait and see if your glue is safe before I use it,” etc. What they all come down to is some version of, “I’m an individual. I have rights. My freedoms must not be infringed. Your demands have no claim on me, they are merely “political.” My personal beliefs carry more weight for me than your elitist expertise in waterproofing or judgmental attitude about my social obligations.” Whatever the specific rationalizations and rejoinders, the point is to deny a fundamental truth – that we’re all in this together. As Shimon bar Yochai might say, “they deny that we’re all in the same boat.”
If you’re feeling a tinge of doubt about the fairness of this analogy, you may have a point. Our modern celebration of rugged individualism doesn’t completely square with the traditional Jewish view. Our tradition does recognize the value of the individual. Our rabbis famously compared the extraordinary human accomplishment of minting countless identical coins with a single stamp to God’s miraculous power to create from a single pair of human beings countless distinct humans who are each unique from one another. There’s even a bracha for one who sees a crowd of people: “Blessed is the knower of secrets. Just as our faces are not identical, our minds are recognized as not being identical; rather each and everyone is of his own mind…”
But these passages in praise of the individual are relatively few and aren’t invoked to undermine our social obligations. On balance, in our tradition, the tension between the individual and the community is settled in deference to the needs of the community. Ours is not a rights-based system. The Torah doesn’t say one has a right to this or that. In Judaism, we may have a right to our opinion but there is no right to act upon it. Doctors have an obligation to treat the ill, patients have an obligation to accept treatment. We don’t “own” our bodies, God does. Ours is not a system of rights but of obligations. It is this sense of obligation, coupled with putting the communal need first, which informs the Jewish interpretation of a pandemic and other public crises and natural disasters.
An outstanding example is a startling claim made by the midrash: Rabbi Elazar said, “Great is social harmony, for if there was peace among us and if everyone were to stand together in solidarity, even if we did so in order to worship idols, God would be rendered powerless to inflict any punishment whatsoever upon us.” This is an audacious claim for a pious rabbi from 17 hundred years ago to make: that human beings might easily get away with even the number one biblical sin if only we created a high trust, high level of social cohesiveness society.
Drawing upon this claim, an early 17th century Bible commentary called the Kli Yakar taught that the level of trust in society may be measured by the willingness of its members to give and receive rebuke. We tend to recoil almost instinctively from being judgmental, or at least from being seen as being judgmental – unless, of course, we’re judging someone else for being judgmental. The Kli Yakar believed this reveals our general and ingrained lack of trust. If we trusted one another, we’d feel safe in a face-to-face frank discussion about what is and is not okay. If we weren’t suspicious that our critics were deceitful or driven by some ulterior purpose, we could hear their criticism without dismissing it as motivated by self-righteousness and of being “political.” For the Kli Yakar, a situation in which a peer is making a mistaken moral choice is similar to that person being lost. When someone is lost, refraining from correcting them does not contribute to social harmony, it’s simply behaving irresponsibly. So too, in a morally healthy society, people wouldn’t keep their mouth shut and mind their own business when another’s choices negatively impact everyone else. And those making negative choices would be willing to open their minds to be persuaded by evidence-based criticism.
Analogies distill and focus but inevitably fall short. Shimon bar Yochai can clarify that our recalcitrant fellow citizens risk sinking the boat, but this metaphor can’t tell us to what destination we should set sail. Second-century rabbis, and for that matter biblical Israelites and pre-modern Torah commentators, didn’t have to spend a lot of mental energy trying to figure out where our boat should go. “To a life of Torah and mitzvot in the Land of Israel,” would have checked all their important boxes.
I think the deficiency may lie with modernity itself. In our times, a unifying vision is typically more aspirational than actual. Threats inspire us to unify, utopian visions, not so much. As in a science fiction movie, it seems to take the threat of alien invasion from outer space followed by immediate and total world annihilation to get us really committed to staying on the same page. This may be precisely why the challenges posed by vaccine or mask mandate resistance are so especially disconcerting. We’re accustomed to resistance to visionaries seeking to remake the world into a better, more ideal place. What’s vexing is the realization that around a third of our fellow citizens persist in undermining a unified response to a clear and present danger. Other threats, such as climate change, though every bit as real, seem inchoate to those in denial. “I don’t see a clear line connecting anything I do with how many micrometers the sea level rises or which tree I somehow caused to burn,” they could say. A pandemic should seem different. Hospitals are filled right now. It’s contagious and our neighbors and family members are falling dangerously ill and dying, right now. A safe, effective vaccine is free and available, right now. It’s almost as if there was a zombie apocalypse and about a third of the country willfully allowed themselves to be bitten. “If I become a zombie, it must be God’s will,” they might say. That movie, they haven’t made yet.
Those who are in employment situations where a temporary reaction to the inoculation might jeopardize their job or pay deserve our support and legal protection, but in a world in which jury duty can require you to take a week off from work, it shouldn’t be controversial to ask risking a few days to save countless lives. It wasn’t so long ago that self-described patriots held that the government had a right to draft young men and send them off to die in wars, irrespective of whether these men understood or believed in the cause they were being asked to fight. Now some of those same patriots, or their ideological heirs, blithely invoke their “freedoms” in dodging their responsibility to serve the greater good. If you’re under 12 or have bonafide health issues which prevent vaccination, you’re honorably exempt. Otherwise, America wants you – to get vaccinated!
What would Shimon bar Yochai say about the contemporary counterpart to the boat passenger who petulantly insists, “Let it sink. I don’t care”? My guess is he’d say something gentle like Democratic President Joe Biden, “What more is there to wait for? We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.” Or perhaps he’d be a bit more blunt, like Republican Governor Larry Hogan, “Get the damn vaccine.”