Individuality and Religion: A Frank Discussion About the Divine Service of Individualism

individualism and G-d

Rabbi Simon Jacobson: This is Rabbi Simon Jacobson, not Mike Feder. Because of the abbreviated show this week (due to sports programming), Mike will be off this week and we’ll welcome him back next Sunday at 6:00.

So please indulge me in these 35 minutes, and I hope to be able to elaborate more in the coming weeks.

As I promised, I would be discussing a particularly appropriate topic this week, in light of the art controversy with the Brooklyn Museum, and in general, an issue that has touches all of us one way or another, which is, individualism and G-d, or individualism and religion: Are they reconcilable? Are they antithetical and diametrically opposed to each other?

When you ask most people within religion or outside of it, they’ll say that religion essentially is conformist.
When you ask most people within religion or outside of it, they’ll say that religion essentially is conformist. They’ll say that because it’s driven by a higher need, a higher good, and justifiably, because human beings can be tempted and have their selfish interests at heart, then for the greater good, there has to be a certain type of conformity to a greater communal good. Essentially, they’ll say, that’s the heart of religion: dictating the terms and imposing upon people a set of laws that are absolute and considered to be, by religious people, Divine.

So most people consider that to be quite antithetical to anything that is individualistic and self-oriented. What struck me recently was last week’s Sunday Times Magazine special issue on the millennium entitled, “The Me Millennium,” and their subtitle was, “We Put Ourselves at the Center of the Universe. So now, for better or for worse, we’re on our own.”

One particular article that struck me, besides all of them (it was quite an interesting issue) was one on radical selfishness, where someone writes about how it is to be thirty-something, overpaid, and totally disconnected.

And this is a recurrent theme and undercurrent in this entire issue. When surveys are done asking people what their priorities are, self-expression is always on top there, and interestingly, only the second or third priority is faith in G-d. However, religion is down at the lowest end of the spectrum, and the explanation of the people who did the survey in the Times is that religion is considered to be a formal, denominational commitment, whereas faith in G-d is more of an individualist thing.

So I want to address this topic and I really look forward to getting your calls, as always, at 212-244-1050 at WEVD.

But let me first, in a provocative way perhaps, lay certain elements on the table and that will make for a much more interesting dialogue.

So the issue is individualism and G-d. As I said, most people would assume that religion is quite conformist, because it has a set of laws—it’s not moral relativism, it’s an absolute set of laws: Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt do this, thou shalt not do that. And essentially it’s a Divine law set down, where human beings must live up to this law if they do accept G-d.

However, I must say that there’s a primary and a fundamental flaw in the entire thinking about this so to speak conflict between individualism and G-d, both in the understanding of what the self is and in the understanding of what G-d is.

You see, with most of us, our perception of G-d is as a superimposed type of entity that dictates laws of how we are to behave. But if someone were to say to you, okay, you’re a person of free expression, your self can express itself, does this mean that you can put your hand in fire? So everyone would understand that that is not exactly an expression of freedom, because the laws of the universe, the laws of nature, simply do have parameters, and putting your hand in fire will burn your hand. It’s not a punishment, it’s not limiting your freedom, it’s just living within the structure of existence itself.

Now, if we are to understand G-d in a more sophisticated way, one has to understand that G-d is not a superimposed entity: that first human beings exist and then a religion appears. But if G-d is to be understood in any legitimate way, you have to see it as the engineer of the universe. It’s like getting a computer with an operator’s manual.

So someone will say, “Well, I don’t have to follow the operator’s manual. I want to press these buttons. I’ll erase my hard drive.” Of course you can do that, but then you are essentially destroying your machine.

Life, too, is a machine, a complex organism. And we receive an operator’s manual with it which is not a collection of superimposed laws (you must do this, you must not do that), but a manual that tells us how the machine works at its best.

So it’s not a question of imposing upon us certain laws that you must do, it’s telling us, “Do you want to be the best you can be? Here’s how you can manipulate the parameters and the boundaries of existence, and how you can learn to soar and allow your spirit to fly.”

The problem is this, however. Religion has become so bureaucratic and G-d has become so stereotyped into a superimposed being with a dogmatic set of laws…

One hears the joke where the atheist asks his uncle, who’s a religious, pious man, “You know, uncle, you’re so religious, if you had to choose between G-d and the truth, which would you choose?” And without missing a beat the uncle says, “Of course, G-d,” without even realizing that if G-d and the truth are not the same, what kind of G-d is it?

Because religion has become sometimes an end of its own, and so many people have been killed and persecuted in the name of religion, there has been a rebellion, for very good reason, against the authoritative, established religions in the past.

So I want to say something which may sound somewhat radical, but I think after you think about it, you may reconsider. We consider this millennium to be a celebration of the self, as the Times put it. In this millennium the self has emerged, and we’re on our own, for better or for worse, as opposed to the first millennium, where G-d was the center of the universe.

Back then, most people, or all people, did not have surnames, did not have private space (there was no such thing as private rooms). The center of the universe was G-d, religion, the church, or the monarch. And human beings were not only denied their individual rights, there wasn’t even an expectation of individual rights.

Essentially, the greater good was served by people submitting themselves, repressing their individuality, and conforming to a greater good. Now, if the leader happened to have been benevolent, that may have been a fine system. However, if he was a dictator or if he was in any way a fascist, he could of course abuse his position, because to be a monarch was considered to be a Divine right, whereas the masses had to follow blindly and obediently.

However, in this millennium, in the waves of the Renaissance, Emancipation, and the Enlightenment which began to sweep across Europe and spread across the world, individuality rose to the surface. Individual freedoms, the Bill of Rights, which in essence and in truth, as I’m going to explain, is not really a contradiction to G-d. But I’ll say this. When Nietzsche writes that G-d is dead, it’s a misconception and people feel that he was an atheist. What he was saying is that the G-d that we have been educated with, the G-d that we have been presented with in our homes and in our schools, in our religious environments and institutions, is dead, is corrupt, is essentially bankrupt.

“The G-d that you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in.”
However, I always tell the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev who responded to an atheist, “The G-d that you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in.” In other words, we have to know what definition of G-d we’re talking about. A god that is a contradiction to individuality perhaps is not a true G-d at all. Because it is G-d who created the individual. Our individuality is not our own creation, it is a Divine right: as the Bible puts it, you were created, every one of us, of you, was created in the Divine image.

So individuality is not just an inherent right of birth, it’s actually a Divine right, a sacred right, given to us by G-d. So in no way could G-dliness, or a Divine institution in the spirit of G-d in any way contradict, repress, suppress, or compromise that individuality.

But once there is a distortion in how we see ourselves and how we see G-d, then there arises a competition. Either I’m following G-d’s rules or I’m following my own. Well, one has to look at, who are you and who is the self?

We’re here to serve a greater purpose. And part of our self-expression is actualizing all of our talents and abilities to transform this world.
I would pose it this way. In Jewish tradition we read one portion every week of the Torah (the Chumash, the Bible), and in this week’s portion we read about Abraham and about Abraham’s search for G-d. And a friend pointed out to me that Abraham’s search for G-d, once he came to the recognition of a G-d who was not manmade [it was the year 2,000 from creation, because according to Jewish belief, we are now in the year 5760, so we’ll call it the second millennium from creation (not in the Roman calendar but in the Hebrew calendar)], was when Abraham really went out and began to influence the world to recognize a G-d, who was not manmade.

So, in essence, when you look at it in a historical sense, you can say that at the beginning of time, when man and woman (Adam and Eve) were created, their sense of self, their ego, their individuality and G-d were completely aligned with each other. It was one agenda. G-d created us. We’re here to serve a greater purpose. And part of our self-expression is actualizing all of our talents and abilities to transform this world.

That was essentially their recognition. However, with the eating of the Tree of Knowledge, their self, their ego, suddenly became, you can say, divorced and split off from the Divine agenda. Suddenly individuality for the first time suffered a crisis, an identity crisis. Who am I? Why am I here?

As G-d tells Adam after he sins, “I don’t recognize you. Where are you?” Suddenly the individual identity of the human being got misaligned from its higher purpose and mission.

Now what happens then? G-d, in a sense, is compromised and the self is compromised. Because if your spirit, if your person, your personality was viscerally aware and instinctively sensitive to its higher purpose, then we would have an alignment between spirit and matter, between our inner selves and our outer selves, and then there would be no contradiction between individuality and G-d.

But where the ball started rolling and created a snowball effect was when G-d became a superimposed reality. Oh, there’s a G-d out there, some of us have faith in G-d. But then I have an individual self. How do I reconcile the two?

And what slowly happened, and what Abraham came to recognize, was that this is a complete distortion. We have to understand that these are two forces, both individuality and G-dliness, can work side by side and be integrated.

But as generations passed, and the self became more selfish, more narcissistic, more self-contained, G-d was relegated to a second level of our existence, and so the conflict began.

Now, in essence, I would say that this second millennium, this rebellion or the emergence of the self and individuality, in many ways was healthy, because it was responding to an unhealthy G-d. When I say an unhealthy G-d, I don’t mean G-d, I mean how G-d was represented by corrupt leaders, by authoritative people, who were not necessarily representing how G-d wanted to be represented but their own power and their own control.

So the rebellion in that millennium was a rebellion not against G-d the way G-d was meant to be, as Abraham recognized Him, that fits and is completely consistent with our own individual expression, but it was a G-d that was inhibiting personal expression. It was a G-d where you ceased to be an individual created in the Divine image, where you could be killed by another human being who decides that he wants control.

However, like any rebellion, there are positive elements and there are negative elements. So now we come to the end of the millennium, and we’re about to enter the third millennium, and here, I would say, that the real call of our times—and this is where I emphatically disagree with the New York Times—that we have put ourselves at the center of the universe for better or for worse, we are on our own. No. “We have put ourselves at the center of the universe,” was one stage where we rebelled against a corrupt representation of G-d. But now the time has come to recognize that we’re not on our own. That we can reconcile our individuality with a G-d, and let’s call the next millennium, instead of being the “Me” millennium, perhaps the “Us” millennium, where you can understand that the Divine system is not one that imposes itself or in any way asks us to conform, but rather teaches us how to be the best individual we can be.

A simple analogy would be music, and its system of notes.
To use a simple analogy, and then I’d like to reidentify ourselves and go to the phones, a simple analogy would be music. There’s nothing more structured than musical notes. There are twelve musical notes on the scale. Now, some great musician could say, “I don’t want to be a conformist. I want to create a 13th musical note. Or only use eleven. That’s ludicrous! There’s a structure, this is what sound is. The spectrum of sound breaks down into this number of notes. However, within the structure, you can play an infinite number of combinations of music and song that can transform hearts and souls, that can transport us to another time and place, as we see in the power of music.

So it’s not structure that’s conforming, it’s what you do with the structure.

Existence has a structure. There are parameters. The human being can’t fly. We can’t walk into fire and just remain intact. That doesn’t mean that we are necessarily limited. It means that you have to learn how to ride with the waves instead of battling them. And that is the function of the Divine system of laws in the Torah, the body of mitzvahs. It is not meant to inhibit us in any way; it’s meant to teach us how to use the parameters of existence to soar and transcend these parameters.

Now this is a topic that deserves, as always, much more time, but I just wanted to lay that down on the table, that individuality and G-d can be reconciled and we can be a complete healthy self, an individual, and at the same time, rise to our higher calling.

Now we’re here at WEVD, 1050am, every Sunday evening 6-7pm. This is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson, who is sharing some of his thoughts with you. We’ve been touched and moved by many of the letters that I continue to receive, so please keep them coming. You can contact me at my organization, the Meaningful Life Center, through email at And we have a website which is We have all the transcripts of the radio shows available there. You can also contact us by “snail mail” which is The Meaningful Life Center at 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11213. And finally, our 800 number is 1-800-3MEANING or 1-800-363-2646.

And now, if any of you would like to call in and rebut what I have been saying or argue about it…it’s definitely an explosive topic because most people would say “religion is quite conformist” and wouldn’t agree with what I’ve said, so please call. We do have a shorter show today so I can’t promise that I can elaborate as much as necessary.

Meanwhile, let me continue on one more note regarding this issue, which is, I would say, a philosophical point, however it has very far-reaching implications. In Jewish philosophy there has always been a debate whether the self, that individual, self contained sense that you and you alone have, is this self a healthy force or is the root of all evil. Remember everyone outside of yourself you experience from the “outside in.” You see someone, even if it’s someone you love, from the outside—you don’t feel them from within. You look at their face, you look at their body language, you communicate with them. But with yourself you don’t need to look in a mirror and you don’t need to be told what you feel like. You feel yourself. We are self-contained individuals.

So the debate and the question which has always plagued many philosophers and thinkers is, is this sense of self inherently a problem or inherently healthy? Because some argue, then, that inherently it is the root of all evil. Though the ego, per se, is not necessarily a negative thing, but the ego in the sense of a self-contained self, is the root of all selfishness, greed, and ultimately the power to hurt another to advance your own goals, as we’ve seen in history.

So even though it can be tamed, in essence, this is where all problems begin, because a person who has that sense of self and self-preservation in excess, can hurt others, can be abusive.

But there was a great Torah teacher, a Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who lived in the 18th century, the founder of the Chabad movement, and he was a student of the great Maggid of Mezeritch, who in turn was a student of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement.

That self-contained, self-made instinct that a human being has comes from G-d Himself.
And he writes in his classic magnum opus, the Tanya, a fascinating thing. He writes that this sense of self, the feeling we have that we’re self-made (though logically we understand we have parents, and though logically we understand that every effect has a cause, and our parents had parents and so on), emotionally and instinctively, we don’t feel that we’re an extension of our parents; we feel that we can do what we wish. And that’s why we see that individuals can rebel against their parents and can even hurt them.

We don’t feel that we have a source; we don’t feel that we’re coming from somewhere. So he explains that that sense is not something unhealthy at all. That self-contained, so to speak, self-made instinct that a human being has comes from G-d Himself. Because G-d, as he puts it, in Hebrew, mitziuso mi’atzmus, a “causeless” self, an existence that has no cause, as opposed to every other type of existence that does have a cause. And because G-d created us, G-d instilled within the human being that same self of being self-contained, as if you have no precedent, no preceding cause.

Now, the far-reaching implications of a thought like that is obvious, because it tells us that though that self can turn into selfishness, greed, abuse, harming others or being cruel to others, that is only its manifestation. In essence, the kernel of that sense of ego, that sense of self-containment, is a very healthy one, it’s a Divine one. And the goal, the objective, is to use that self to become an extension, to become a channel for a higher calling.

The fact of the matter is, I’m sure for all of you and I know for myself, that when you do something like volunteer work, for example, something that’s not driven by personal self-interest, even though there’s definitely a voice inside of us that says, “why waste your time doing that, perhaps better to advance your own interests,” however when we do something like that, there’s something deep inside of us that feels very good.

And when we do something good like that, it’s not that we feel inhibited or that we gave away part of ourselves. It’s true, if you give $50 to charity (you have $100 and you give $50 of it to charity), in a sense, on a material level, you’re now $50 poorer. You share a piece of food and you don’t have the same amount of food to consume. But there’s a certain gift that you receive in return, the gift of giving, that gives you back something that enhances you.

Anyone who’s ever been truly in love knows that though love includes sacrifice—you love a child, you love someone, a spouse—you’ll stay up at night, you’re not going to start thinking, “Hey this isn’t convenient for me. I have to get to work tomorrow,” because love doesn’t make those calculations.

So someone may argue, well love, therefore, is like a sense of giving away a part of myself. Is it worth it? Now in a very mathematical sense people could say, yes it’s worth it because I get something in return. But true love, true unconditional love is such that you really love someone not because you’re getting something in return but because love is love.

Now, you do get something in return and that is that you have the ability to transcend yourself. That ability to rise above your own personal needs, that you’re not just taking care of your own self is, in itself, the greatest gift.

So my point is that self and selfishness are not the same thing. A self can also be selfless and still be completely intact. It’s critical for a human being—as important as it is to survive and pay our bills and eat and sleep—to be dedicated to a cause greater than ourselves.

Because when you’re dedicated to your own needs, you’ll only be as great as you are. But when you’re dedicated to something greater than yourself, then you also become greater than yourself. And when you’re dedicated to something that’s eternal, and not temporary, not transient, not impermanent, you too become eternal.

And this is, in other words, the point that I was making earlier about integrating individuality with G-d. The idea here is not to limit the human being but to free him or her.

I want to give an analogy for this idea with music that I used earlier. But I also want to give another analogy that is connected to music with the nightingale. I might have mentioned it on the air but I’d like to share it again because I think it’s very beautiful.

Tradition goes that when G-d created the nightingale with a beautiful voice (no one is ever happy with one’s own goods), so the nightingale comes complaining to G-d: I thank you for my beautiful voice, I sing and I love it, and others love it, however, I also attract predators. Because someone looking for a nice free meal, who are they attracted to? A piece of flesh, a little bird perched on a branch that is its next meal. You need to give me something to protect myself with. Some defense system.

So G-d offers the bird a beak. Now the bird examines the merchandise, looks at the beak and says: Please G-d. I’m a beautiful bird. It’s unbecoming that a beautiful, elegant bird like me should have a nose like that. So G-d offers the bird claws. And again, the bird looks at the claws and says, “Please. To give a bird some uncomely and unbecoming long nails?”

So G-d at this point finally turns to the bird and says: I’ll give you a set of wings. The bird looks at the two wings and says to G-d: You’re the Master of the Universe. You created us all. I don’t understand. I have enough body weight to carry with me when I need to escape predators. So you’re giving me two more pieces of flesh that just add more weight and will make it more difficult for me to escape.

So G-d says to the bird: No, little bird. Let me tell you. I’ll teach you how to use those wings, to fly with those wings. And when you learn to fly with them, you’ll be able to soar and escape from your enemies.

Now, the fact is commitment, responsibility, a mitzvah, a good deed, is yes, more body weight. It’s easier, so to speak, more comfortable, to never have anyone to answer to. You wake up when you want, you go to sleep when you want, you do what you want, you eat what you want. It’s easier, seemingly. It’s seemingly more comfortable. So responsibilities and commitments add bodyweight to a human being, there’s no question. However, I don’t think there’s a bird in existence that would rather have no wings and less bodyweight than have wings.

It’s very sad to see a bird that’s grounded and cannot fly. So the fact that we have extra commitments and responsibilities does not necessarily mean that it does not help us grow. It’s the way you look at it.

Unfortunately, many times one grows up in a family or a community where the Divine laws, the mitzvahs, are presented as extra bodyweight. We’re not taught how to fly. Because there’s one thing sadder than a bird with no wings. It’s a bird with wings that doesn’t know how to fly. Because there, the bird has all the potential. But unfortunately, there was a part of history and it still exists where G-d’s laws are presented as extra bodyweight.

Religion is not just extra bodyweight, it’s a way to free yourself, to fly and to soar.
There’s another analogy. If you’re given 100 pounds of stones and you’re told that if you carry them across the street, they will belong to you. So every one of us would decline. Who needs 100 pounds of stones? But if someone said to you: Here are 100 pounds of diamonds, carry them across the street and they will be yours, everyone would say: Give me 200 pounds! Why? Do 100 pounds of stones weigh more than 100 pounds of diamonds? No. But it’s worth the exertion because you see the value, you see the value of your labor, the fruit at the end of the road.

It’s not that we’re afraid of commitment or responsibility, or that we’re even afraid of following certain laws. If we see them as being freeing, as giving us return, to help us fly and soar, if we saw them as wings instead of extra bodyweight, dead weight, everyone would embrace it.

And that is the challenge of our time. So to talk about the emergence of the self as opposed to a millennium where G-d or religion is at the center of the universe, we have to understand it in context. That perhaps the time has come for us now to integrate the self and G-d. Today we have a more sophisticated understanding of G-d, of science… In the beginning of the 19th century, there was this battle between science and religion which almost seemed irreconcilable. You had a science that replaced all the religious beliefs.

But today we have a more sophisticated understanding, a knowledge that we’re dealing with two different parts of existence. Science, trying essentially to understand the laws of nature, cannot make any statements about G-d, cannot make any statements about good and evil, about moral choices. Science is essentially morally neutral, and that’s the way it should be.

So with a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of where we’re headed, I think the millennium, the dawn of a new age, offers us the opportunity to begin to learn that perhaps the G-d of our forefathers did have it right when the self was created, and that we can learn to coexist with G-d and actually, not only co-exist, but be enhanced by G-d and soar and fly with wings.

In closing, I want to extend my thanks to the sponsors of this show and to all the shows that have been brought to you, because I really feel a personal indebtedness. These people, who have great faith in the human spirit, have initiated and motivated me to do this show and I do feel I want to acknowledge them because I would not be able to do it without their financial help, moral support and general inspiration.

Namely, Ivan Stux, Robert Klein, Sharon Gans, James Garfinkel, Ted Doll. And many others who have helped, however these are the pillars, who set an example and inspire other to help us. I really look forward to the support both from them and all of the listeners because for a show like this to carry on, it has to be a grassroots effort. So I welcome all of you to support us in any way possible and to call us after the show at 1-800-363-2646 and pledge any kind of support.

We will send anyone who does contribute the free newsletter that we will be publishing called Meanings, so please call us.

Finally, just to conclude, I would like to say that this issue of self and G-dliness is something that I think touches us all. I do want to give an example that I think all of us can apply in our own lives, and that example is: Giving to another person is not just a moral obligation, it’s the right thing to do.

It also does something for you, more than what you do for the person you give to. It warms you and it’s nourishing to the spirit. It nourishes the part of you that has a need to give, and in that context, giving is not just an obligation, not just a tax-break, it’s also that something that nourishes your own spirit and soul. It’s not just extra bodyweight, it’s a way to free yourself, to fly and to soar.

May we all merit to recognize that the obligations and the responsibilities that we have are not just there by default and something that we have to begrudgingly embrace, but that we really accept them and embrace them, recognizing that they help us to soar and fly.

I hope that this show can help us all do that. Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. I look forward to speaking to you next week and in the weeks to come.


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Rex Sinclair Rambo
18 years ago

I have experienced nearly every concept you have enumerated with your text here. I saw religion being used for personal power and greed, but even then something inside me realized that G-d was not dead, that I was here for a purpose. I heeded the Talmudic sages. I continued to be strict with myself, and I judged my fellow man with a liberal eye. I am a Zionist, and I shall continue to stand fast with Israel and oppose those who would destroy Jews whereever they are.

6 years ago

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