Monday, March 31, 2008

Power to the Person

The Jewish Week 11/03/2006

In case you missed it, we have entered the Era of the Individual. Groupthink is yesterday’s news. Mass culture is over. Thomas Friedman proclaimed it in his recent best seller, “The World is Flat.” “It just happened — right around the year 2000 … people all over the world started waking up and realizing that they had more power than ever to go global as individuals.”

The hottest property online right now is YouTube, a celebration of unbridled individuality, where millions of videos call out for attention, homemade outtakes intermingling with masterpieces, Steven Spielberg and Steve from Secaucus on the same web page. Some of the videos are quite good. Many are quite bad — but it doesn’t matter, because when there are millions of them, people will find the good ones.

If the battle cry of the 20th century was “Power to the People,” the battle cry of the 21st is “Power to the Person.” But that has been Judaism’s battle cry all along, at least ever since the final moments of Creation, when God decided to make humanity with a touch of divinity. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that there are three fundamental dignities that are inherent to our being created in God’s image, basing his views on a Mishnaic teaching from tractate Sanhedrin. These dignities — that life is of infinite value, all people are equal and that each individual is unique—have been dramatically affirmed by the flattening of the earth and the globalization of cyber-culture.

Chris Anderson’s trend-setting new book, “The Long Tail,” says of the marketplace, “The era of one size fits all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes.” He adds that “the mainstream has been shattered into a zillion different cultural shards. Increasingly the mass market is turning into a mass of niches.”

While some have questioned the legality of copyrighted materials appearing on YouTube, this market of multitudes is so “kosher” that I may start calling it O-U Tube. During the recent war in Lebanon, a home video of Israeli soldiers praying before their tanks crossed the border was one of the most moving scenes to find its way around the Internet — it was home grown and it was real. What can be so bad about people choosing to run from the corporate communications behemoths, preferring instead the handiwork of individuals? Where’s the crime when famous journalists are quoting average Joes from podcasts or the Blogosphere? That’s the “long tail,” the unlimited number of choices we have and the infinite opportunity each of us has to be heard, read and seen.

It’s the mark of Godliness.

The “zillion cultural shards” brings to mind the kabbalistic concept where shards of divinity were scattered throughout creation following a primordial divine “big bang.” We live in a dizzying world, a “flat world,” empowering the individual as never before in history. But each of us has a piece of God in us; each of us can now bring our little bit of godliness directly into contact with billions of people.

We know all too well that the 20th century was a disaster for the individual conscience. Certainly there were great heroes, the Natan Sharanskys and the Raoul Wallenbergs, but they were so exceptional because they were the exception. Mass culture produced all too many examples of people willing to sacrifice conscience at the altar of security.

The innate desire to relinquish personal choice is a dark part of human nature, a side that we need to recognize. A landmark Yale psychological experiment in 1961 by professor Stanley Milgrom showed that 63 percent of us will willingly suspend our own moral judgment and believe an authority figure more or less without question.

Imagine a group of a hundred, which would include one autocrat and 99 others, primarily good, moral people. Amazingly, 63 of them would not raise a finger, even against a Hitler or Ahmadinejad, a Pol Pot or Jim Jones. That would leave the other 36 of us to be the skeptics, to answer the questions, to challenge what we are told and to stand up for what is right.

There is a Jewish tradition that in each generation there are 36 righteous people, the Lamed Vav (for the Hebrew letters for 30 and six), who will save the world. As I see it, the purpose of Jewish education these days is to produce Lamed Vavniks, proud individuals able to stand up to authority, imbued with an unwavering Jewish conscience and the desire to promote godliness on earth.

In an era of individuality, where one size no longer fits all, the religious community that embraces the power of choice will rise above the rest. Innovative marketing concepts like the Synaplex Initiative, designed by the philanthropic partnership STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal), have added spice to synagogue programming by offering cutting-edge choices that are helping a growing network of forward-thinking congregations to think outside the bima. The Synaplex network has more than doubled over the past year, with well over 100 congregations now signed on, representing all denominations. My own congregation is celebrating the Era of the Individual with our own Synaplex “Grand Opening.”

There are no more yearning huddled masses, because each of us now breathes free. And each of us, no matter how big or small, can make all the difference. We’ve never been so empowered and dignified, perhaps since Eden. Each of us matters.

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