May 1, 2013

Kierkegaard On Individualism [Plus Commentary By Abraham Joshua Heschel]


Below is an excerpt from, "The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journals." Edited by Alexander Dru. Dover Publications, Inc: Mineola, New York. 2003. Pg. 187. 
How often have I shown that fundamentally Hegel makes men into heathens, into a race of animals gifted with reason. For in the animal world "the individual" is always less important than the race. But it is the peculiarity of the human race that just because the individual is created in the image of God "the individual" is above the race.

This can be wrongly understood and terribly misused: concedo. But that is Christianity. And that is where the battle must be fought.
II. Commentary By Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wikipedia: Abraham Joshua Heschel (January 11, 1907 – December 23, 1972) was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.

Below is an excerpt from, "A Passion for Truth" by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Jewish Lights Publishing: Woodstock, Vermont. 1995. From the chapter, "Individualism."
"Kierkegaard constantly emphasized his category of the individual; many of his books are dedicated to "that individual whom with joy and gratitude I call my reader." For him the individual stood opposed to the public and the crowd which embodied "untruth."

Kierkegaard's individual was not the exceptional man, the genius, but the "religious individual," the man who had to reach the third level of existence beyond the aesthetic and ethical stages. This idea included all men, since each was called to being an individual in the religious sense, and could reach this (third) stage by existential effort.

Like Kierkegaard, the Kotzker wanted man to discover himself as an individual, to free himself from the crowd. To ignore public opinion was an imperative, and the Kotzker shared Kierkegaard's inability to run with the pack. He scorned "the crowd" and did not want to belong to it.

And as Kierkegaard dissented from the official Church of his day, so did the Kotzker from some of the views held by great rabbinic authorities. When the Law did not clearly indicate a course of action, Hillel, the first-century Palestinian sage, declared: "Leave it to Israel: if they are not Prophets, yet they are the children of the Prophets." What he meant was: see how the people act and follow their example. In similar circumstances, Abbaye, the Babylonian Jewish scholar (ca. 278-338), and Reb Ashi replied: "Go forth and see how the public are accustomed to act." Joshua ben Levi, the third-century Palestinian teacher, declared: "If the application of a law is undecided in the courts, and you do not know what its nature is (how to act) see how the people act."

The tradition of Jewish Orthodoxy, which accented impersonal learning and obedience to the Law, was bound to bring about a crisis. The Kotzker offered a response by his eagerness to emancipate the individual.

In a famous passage, Kierkegaard remarked that we lose sight of the individual when we think only in terms of laws and universals. To cite an example: for centuries the philosopher has been declaring, "All men are mortal," without paying attention to the fact that he, too, was a unique individual who must die.  

The same may be applied to the strictly observant Jew, who, in conforming to the Law, thinks in terms of general rules and neglects the spiritual problems he should face as a particular individual. 

To the Kotzker, the individual was a person capable of recreating things anew. "God loves novelty," he said. Mere repetitiveness was contemptible. Individualism involves newness, creativity.

He demanded that his disciples be individuals, that they stand out from the crowd. A Kotzker hasid did not simply belong to a group. By his individual decision he had become a personality apart, breaking with his background, his family, his environment. Kotzk had become his entire world.

An individual faces the continuous task of bringing pressure to bear upon himself, urging his mind to influence his heart. A man should keep his character in constant repair. Though the soul is born clean, man gradually learns to convert it into a chalice in which he mixes his own brand of poison.

Hasidism had become a mass trend, threatened with spiritual enfeeblement, even trivialization. The only possibility of renewal, thought the Kotzker, lay in the reinstatement of the individual's role. The movement that had come into being through stress of the personal aspect of Judaism could be reborn only by an emphasis on individualism. 

Every individual has a unique vocation and task to perform. He must be his own master, not rely on other people's wisdom. Even when the Messiah and all mankind are redeemed, the Lord will still review each individual to ascertain whether he deserves to be redeemed on his own merit.

The Kotzker does not imply that each individual should be concerned merely with his own salvation; such a view would destroy his basic premise that to be exclusively concerned with oneself is idolatry. One needs to be within another's concern and to embrace others in his concern. The greatest lie one can live is self-centeredness, and to be authentically human is to be able both to surpass oneself and to fulfill one's special relevant role vis-à-vis God."