"Every human being, even the greatest of the great, has periods of elation and depression, of ups and downs, and this lack of spiritual equilibrium is inherent in the nature of things and is not necessarily a function of the individual's own failings." by Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz

The Rabbi's Essays
"Most of the Jewish people are so very scattered and removed from each other that they hardly ever find a common language, or even any language that makes sense to them as Jews. This is what is called assimilation, which is basically the loss of the common heritage. We therefore have to try to reach some deeper levels of the soul, many of them bordering on the unconscious, to help us get back to talking together, to having some kind of a common language."

Homecoming by Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz.
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The One and the Many

Generally speaking, the Jewish way is not designed for outstanding individuals but for the people as a whole. In areas that pertain to the people of Israel, every single one of the Torah commandments pertains to the entire nation, and there is no commandment or teaching that involves only a select, special section of the people. Moreover, one of the aspirations and ideals of Judaism is the Tikkun, betterment, of the whole world.

The appreciation of the many is expressed also in ruling according to the majority opinion. "To decline after the many to wrest [judgment]" (Exodus 23:3) is a rule that applies to Jewish law even in those cases where it seems that the individual's opinion is the correct one – as was the case with the ruling that was decided against the opinion of Rabbi Meir, whose companions could not fathom his thinking, or the more dramatic case of ruling against Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, despite of all the proof that he was right, because his was a minority opinion.

This is also the source for the ruling that Jewish customs often are a basis for Halachic rulings, and quite often also "a custom abolishes a ruling." Wherever the Halachah is weak, we must see how the people conduct themselves. An extreme expression of this point is found in the Midrash (Tanhuma, va-Ethanan 6): "Let Moses and a thousand like him perish, and not one single Jew." This is the epitome of the submission of the choicest individual vis-à-vis the majority.

This is one aspect of the Jewish approach to the relationship between the one and the many. On the other hand, however, there is a second approach, indeed a diametrically opposed one, which nullifies the many vis-à-vis the individual, the parameter being – truth. In front of the truth, whatever the claim of the many may be, it is immaterial. In fact, the very status of the Jewish people among the nations is a salient example of this principle: the Jewish people is a minority, a very small minority, but it is the minority that chooses the truth, and therefore all the others do not mater at all. The Jewish nation has chosen the path of truth, it stands alone in front of all the multitude of false prophets, and does not take them into any kind of consideration. This is so also in Jewish law: an erroneous custom, even if observed by many, cannot persist, and it is annulled by the choice few. The Midrash (Tanhuma, vaYeshev 1) explains this idea with a parable: there was once a king who lost a diamond in the trash piles, and he fumbles among those piles – until he finds the diamond, and discards the piles altogether. So too the Almighty: he dealt with the generations from Adam to Noah, until he got to Noah; and in the generations from Noah to Abraham, until he got to Abraham, and set aside all the rest. This Midrash expresses the relationship between the one and the many: the many are subsidiary to the individual, they do not count at all; it's the individual that matters.

It is immediately obvious that there is no contradiction between these two approaches. But what is it that distinguishes the multitude that is viewed positively, because it is right, and the multitude that is viewed negatively because it is wrong? It is not a question of justice or injustice: even when the People of Israel sins, it is more important in Moses' eyes than he himself, the supreme individual. So where does this difference lie?

There are two aspects to the multitude: "people" and "mob". Both people and mob are not just a large number of individuals, but a whole organism that is made up of many individuals, and that the sum total of which is more than the sum of its parts. The difference is in that a people is a multitude that is unified in a way that enables, at least potentially, the loftier powers of the soul to rule, whereas a mob is a group of individuals that draws the base and lowly aspects of its members. A multitude that is a people is preferable even to the best of individuals, because the group powers are of a more sublime nature. This is the reason why, whenever there is a Halachic dispute, the ruling is decided according to the majority opinion יחיד ורבים הלכה כרבים – למצוא מקור. But when the multitude is a mob, there is no significance to numbers, on the contrary: the higher the number, the greater the disadvantage. In this case, the multitude is like rubble, as against the diamond. The Talmud puts it as follows: חזקיהו היה דואג שמא נוטה דעת הקב"ה אחרי הרוב. אמר לו הנביא: 'לא תאמרון קשר לכל אשר יאמר העם הזה קשר', קשר רשעים אינו מן המניין" (Sanhedrin 26). In other words: the mob, even if it is a majority, is insignificant. קשר רשעים is not counted at all.

The difference between mob and people is not in the essence of the multitude, but in the way its members are brought together. The same group of individuals can either be a multitude or a mob, depending on its state at any given time. It follows, then, that the verification of anything by the many must be checked, in order to see whether those many are "the majority of the people" and not a "קשר רשעים".

There are two ways of exerting influence over the multitude: one can turn to the "people" aspect of that multitude, or to its "mob" aspect. The appeal to the "mob" is characterized by its being a way of descent: it brings down its values to match them with those of the multitude. It wants to be accepted by the multitude, and therefore it tries to be equal to it. One such approach is the religious reform. Seemingly, the Reform movement takes the multitude's needs into consideration; but in truth, it is an appeal to the mob, because it belittles Judaism in order to hit the lowest common denominator – which is the most salient characteristic of the appeal to the mob. The Jewish way, on the other hand, is the appeal to the "people" aspect – with the intention of raising it to a higher level.

Now comes the big problem: how does one do that? How can the multitude, which is like amorphous matter, be turned into a people, which is the form that makes further progress and ascent possible? Appealing to the mob is easy, because the lowly sentiments that are the cohesive element of the mob are easily aroused. But a people is not created in this way. The creation of a people is a personal process, a process that mainly involves extended, ongoing education – until this goal is attained. This is where the outstanding individuals come in. Such individuals are the educators of the public who lead the way toward its becoming a people, and later on, after turning it into a people, continue to guide it throughout.

This explains the double-edged attitude towards the individual: although certain individuals may be worthy as much as, or even more than, the multitude – משה רבנו שקול כנגד שישים ריבוא מישראל – they also have certain roles vis-à-vis the multitude. On the one hand, the role of the individual as the guide and educator of the public gives him great importance, much beyond his worth as an individual. However, this importance has to do with the mission that he has to fulfill for the sake of the multitude. לך רד כי שחת עמך – רד מגדולתך, לא נתתי לך גדולה אלא בשבילם (Berachot 32).

The entire Jewish nation is like the individual that leads the multitude. It is the guide of all humanity on its way to fulfilling God's will. All of Jewish history is marked by those superb personalities that are at the forefront of the Jewish people and educate the Jews to the way of the Torah. This educational process is slow and may last for generations, or more; but the final goal is in the hands of the true educators of the people, who aspire to raise the nation to their level, rather than bring themselves down to their level. The prophets of Israel were the individuals who educated the people. It took many years until the messages of their prophecy were absorbed, but eventually, they defeated all the false prophets and annulled idol worship.

The Sages of Israel, the Pharisees and the Chaverim,  eventually succeeded in leaving their mark on the life of the nation, and to educate even the simplest folk – amei ha-aretz,  a social group that in the course of the Talmudic and Geonite periods disappeared completely. In fact, there are numerous Jewish customs whose origin is not only הידור מצווה: great individuals, through their educational influence, have succeeded in instilling them in the entire nation. Some examples are the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, which nowadays is done like the מהדרין מן המהדרין, or the custom of wearing a hat, and the like.

The conclusion, then, is even though the way of Judaism is a path for the many, the role of educating and influencing is in the hands of choice individuals. The individual, in and of himself, is of great worth, but has an even greater worth as the leader of the multitude, and his actions and self elevation should always be in relation to the multitude. Finally, we must keep in mind that the desirable way for the nation as a whole is the way of the leading, pioneering individuals.