Posted on May 17, 2012 by Ma'ayan Dyer
As most of my fellow Pardesnicks have probably gathered at this late date in the semester, I’m what one might call “quiet.” It’s not that I don’t speak up in class or won’t engage in conversation (if you strike one up first, of course). Rather, my quietness is an overall demeanor. I’m not a smiley person, and my facial expressions are what I like to call “subtle.” Crowded social gatherings make me stiff and awkward, because they require me to be, well, social. This is doable for me in small groups. However, the larger the group gets, the quieter I get. It’s not intended as an act of disengagement and it’s not because I don’t like people. It also certainly is not because I think that I’m too cool to let loose and be boisterous once in a while. It’s really a leftover trait of childhood bashfulness that morphed into nearly debilitating social anxiety at the onset of puberty, which lasted well into adulthood. It’s only been for the last couple of years that I’ve been able to train and force myself just to be this outgoing. I know, I know; I’m not exactly Little Miss Sunshine. I’m more of a Little Miss Moon…beam, or something.
In the last Relationships class with Tovah Leah, we discussed the role of the individual and the community, and the tension between the two, and the sacrifices we must make to obtain some sort of balance where we don’t lose ourselves in the crowd and give in to the pressures of a mob mentality, and we also don’t retreat so far into ourselves that we inevitably become self-centered. Not too surprisingly, this lesson resonated with me.
Rav Soloveitchik philosophized on the nature of aloneness and togetherness, and expounded upon what he called the lonely man and the social man. At first, it would seem that our good Rav is a big proponent of the lonely man, stating, “Social man is superficial; he imitates, he emulates. Lonely man is profound; he creates, he is original.” He goes on to discuss that God made man with free will, and that we are obligated, from time to time, to act with “heroic defiance,” and to condemn the unjust, stand up for what is right, and rebuke those who are wrong and unfair. Lonely man sounds pretty cool. In fact, the dear Rav made him sound like a superhero: “Lonely man is a courageous man; he is a protester; he fears nobody; whereas social man is a compromiser, a peacemaker, and at times a coward.” Social man sounds like the everyman. Lonely man sounds like Superman.
So of course, my knee-jerk reaction to this particular lesson was, “Hey…I’m the lonely man! I’m free, just as God willed me! I stand for justice in the face of unfair mobs! I’m awesome! I should be wearing a cape and a spandex jumper with a large “L” proudly displayed across the chest!” As I read Soloveitchik’s words, with a certain degree of self-righteousness, I just knew that there was something to my lack of social suaveness—I really shine when I’m alone. I charm myself, even. It’s too bad no one else is around to appreciate it. I’m like that vaudevillian frog from Looney Tunes that only sings and dances when that one guy is looking at him. If you’re around to catch me in the moment, you might feel compelled to go and try to convince people that I did something silly and witty, perhaps even cracked a smile, while no one is looking, but when pressed, I refuse to reproduce the behavior. But that’s okay, because I’m lonely man, profound and original, heroic and defiant.
Well, it would seem that my self-congratulatory pat on the back is exactly the kind of behavior on the other end of the spectrum that Rav Soloveitchik would rebuke as the draw backs of being the lonely man. Human beings are, after all, social in nature. Even God stated that it is not good for man to be alone. That is why we have to practice tzimtzum, and make room for community: “By realizing that he is not the only significant being in the universe, solitary man “contracts” his “infinite” existence and makes room for the other. In this, man emulates God’s primordial act of tzimtzum (contraction), whereby He “made room” for an existence other than His own.” Well, now that seems even more profound. Soloveitchik also points out that recognizing the other requires an act of sacrifice. Suddenly, I found myself no longer thinking as though I’m the center of the universe. There are others around me, and they have a place in my life, and I in theirs. I’m not really a superhero, set apart from the hordes.
This idea of sacrificing something for the sake of another is, perhaps, an integral part of what makes us human. When we get too caught up in ourselves, we’re not playing the role of the lonely man. That’s when we don’t notice the injustices around us because we’re too concerned with ourselves. We don’t stand up for what is right and rebuke the unfair because we are the center of the universe, as far as we’re concerned. Who cares what the rest of you want? What about what I want?
That balance between maintaining individuality and freedom while also being a useful member of a community is a difficult balance to find, more so for some than others…and I’m among the “some.” Judaism is so communal in nature, though. For us Jews, there’s always strength in numbers: we need at least ten to form a minyan, we gather together around the Shabbat table every week, we sing, we bless, we observe, and we pray in the plural. We are B’nai Israel. There is no such thing as Lonely Man Judaism.
The reason that I’ve been able to come out of my shell over the last couple of years and gain some kind of control over the pain of social anxiety, is really because of Judaism. I realized that if I wanted to be a practicing Jew, then I needed to embrace the communal aspects of Judaism, and in doing so, I came to understand that it’s good to have a community, and that I didn’t actually always want to be alone, with no obligations to anyone; I had just gotten used to loneliness and being my own universe. Becoming social man once in a while saved me from that quiet, exclusive existence, and it certainly made me a better person. We all long to be social sometimes, because it really isn’t good for man to be alone. I used to drag myself to social events and agonize for days afterwards, in a sincere state of panic over what people might have thought of me. It was incredibly selfish thinking, but beneath it was that yearning for tzimtzum, to make room for other people in my life. That’s why it meant so much to me that they would like me, and it was devastating to think that they might not. What I really wanted was to be a part of something bigger than myself. Life can be very grey and lifeless when you shut yourself off from people, and all the vibrancy they bring into your existence. Life isn’t really lifelike like that.
Although I still struggle with finding the balance between being lonely man and social man and I occasionally have to convince myself to get out of my head for a while and enjoy immersing myself in the company of others, I am the most engaged and present that I’ve ever been right now. It feels good, and is a constant reminder that I really have found myself in Judaism, as another face in the crowd of the community, but still myself, free in my thoughts and in my actions, just as God intended me. Perhaps that’s even better than being a lone superhero.