In a provocative New York Times article (July 18, 2020), columnist David Brooks distinguished between liberalism and what he called “personalism.” Liberalism, as it emerged in the nineteenth century, was based on the idea of personal autonomy and individualism and assumed that people are motivated by self-interest. Personalism is about social arrangements that foster relationships that “enhance the full complexity and depth of each soul.”
On Brooks’ view, the pursuit of a morally meaningful life requires more than liberalism. Liberalism is largely ethically neutral. Contemporary advocates of social equity are not satisfied with ethical neutrality. They insist on the vigorous application of justice. The liberal conception of the primacy of the individual omits the recognition that we are also members of families and groups. Personalism seeks to cultivate the whole person in all its complexity.
Interestingly, the Torah anticipated Brooks’ perspective. Near the end of his life Moses assembles the entire people: tribal heads, elders, officials, and more. Children, women, strangers are included, ranging from the woodchopper to the waterdrawer (Deuteronomy 29:9). Not only all present are to be included in the covenant but even future generations: “those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (v. 14). This covenant is designed to promote individual goodness. It is also intended to foster connections of mutual affection and responsibility for fellow community members. This covenant also imbues each individual with an obligation to perpetuate the principles of justice and harmony that inhere in it, assuring its transmission to future generations.
Perhaps there is no more valuable message for Rosh Hashanah than the reminder that while each Jew is duty bound to look inward; we are personally bound to look forward. May the New Year bring individual fulfillment and collective blessings.