Last month, I had the honor of interviewing Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, whose writing on Torah and Judaism I’ve long admired. He recently published a new book called Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, and we spent our time together discussing the book’s core themes.
Digging deep into what makes a moral society, Rabbi Sacks argues that over the period of the last half-century or so, we’ve moved from a “we” to an “I” society, in which the over-emphasis on individualism has eroded collective morality and a focus on the common good.
In his exploration, Rabbi Sacks cites another acclaimed thinker, political scientist Robert Putnam, who has written extensively about the loss of community life in America, and is perhaps best known for his seminal book Bowling Alone.
So it was fortuitous that I had the opportunity to hear Professor Putnam speak at the recent virtual General Assembly, the annual conference hosted by Jewish Federations of North America, which this year brought together over 10,000 participants online. Professor Putnam shared his similar theory, what he labels the “I-we-I” curve, explained in his new book The Upswing.
The book kicks off in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, a time of bitter social and economic divides, political polarization, and self-focus that bears a startling resemblance to our own. The “upswing” that follows, the move toward a more “we-centric” society, is evident in the emergence of federations, rotary clubs, and other civic associations that gain traction in communities across the country. By the middle of the twentieth century, Professor Putnam describes an America that has transformed into an “egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” Then we begin our descent into a society that — despite great progress on many fronts — once more places the individual far above the community. And that’s where we are now.
Both Rabbi Sacks’ and Professor Putnam’s books take a long view of history, assuring us that we are not the first nor the last generation to feel that society might be irrevocably splintered. Both writers are, at their core, optimists — there is hope for better days. But it’s up to us. The pendulum swings between the “I” and the “we,” between an extreme self-focus that closes us down and an openness that builds community, and we are the ones to determine its course.
To start, we need to be willing to engage others with civility, even when we hold different points of view. We need to sit at tables that may make us uncomfortable, knowing that our truth is not the only truth. Shutting down, retreating into our echo chambers, labeling the other side as “evil” only exacerbates the problem.
Four days before a national election, these are important lessons to hold on to. They will be even more vital in the weeks and months after, when we’ll need to forge a path forward together, whatever the outcome.
And if we need a reminder of the tragic consequence of ignoring the common good and demonizing those with opposing views, this week we marked the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. A hero of the Jewish people killed by another Jew.
We all recognize that the period ahead will be a very challenging one, but all of us — irrespective of our views — must be committed to never allowing the pendulum to swing so off course again.