In his classic essay, “The Community,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that G-d created a single, lonely individual in Genesis 2:7. Eleven verses later, G-d declared that it is not good for man to be alone; He introduced Eve to Adam, thereby forming a community. Which of the two – the individual or the community – takes precedence? Which possesses ontological priority? Rabbi Soloveitchik, in typical fashion, declares that neither alternative is wholly true. Rather, “The greatness of man manifests itself in his inner contradiction, in his dialectical nature, in his being single and unrelated to anyone, as well as in his being thou-related and belonging to a community structure.” Neither the hermit living in complete isolation, nor the unreflective communitarian existing exclusively as part of a group, will enjoy a full human existence. The greatness of man is manifested neither in his heroic individualism nor through his social responsibility, but in the dialectical movement between these two poles.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s assertion is reflected in the founding documents of the United States. The Declaration of Independence famously declares that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The individual possesses these rights inherently; they are not granted to him by the community, but are a Divine gift which cannot be rescinded. On the other hand, the Constitution’s preamble states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Even in the staunchly individualistic United States, the proper functioning of society demands that people work in concert, and that the rights of the individual be balanced with responsibility towards the community.
Different individuals will naturally emphasize either the individual or the community, rights or responsibilities. To exist as a complete human being, however, a person’s weltanschauung must encompass both. A life based solely on personal rights is selfish; a reality which devalues the individual is cruel. Living exclusively as part of society destroys individual creativity and heroism, while existing in a private bubble eradicates all commitment, kindness, and ultimate meaning.
Over the past months, as the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe, this philosophical argument has exploded in the most bizarre arena: namely, in the argument over whether individuals should wear masks. In ways which are almost too surreal to believe, many people are suddenly invoking their natural rights as a perfectly acceptable reason to avoid masks. Indeed, we have all probably heard people saying that if you want to wear a mask, then go ahead; but don’t insist that others do as well. We are born with unalienable rights, and apparently one of them is the right to be a complete jerk.
Others will argue that it’s not so much a matter of rights as it is a matter of their determination that masks simply don’t work. For these brilliant, rugged individualists, the scientific and medical consensus that masks do in fact protect others from the coronavirus is less important than the research they did on their own (probably on YouTube) which apparently proves otherwise. Ultimately, however, this argument is fundamentally the same as the first: that self-styled experts have the right to ignore the medical community, and determine by themselves what’s good for others. And asserting that the vast majority of academics and experts are wrong, while they alone possess the truth despite having no relevant training or experience, is a form of selfishness bordering on insanity.
A third argument is that regardless of the efficacy of masks, they are dangerous to the wearer. And this line of reasoning may carry weight – albeit in the same manner as a refusing to drive a parent to the doctor even though that parent may be experiencing a stroke. Driving a car carries a certain personal risk, though in comparison with the risk of death by stroke, it’s effectively inconsequential. Someone may similarly have concerns about the infinitesimal risk associated with wearing masks. But if that “worry” prevents him from protecting his neighbors from the very real possibility of contracting covid-19, his logic is faulty in the extreme.
I am clearly naive. If six months ago, someone predicted that during a worldwide pandemic, these three flimsy arguments would actually be expressed en masse, I would never have believed it. Unfortunately for everyone, we all know that these opinions have become part of normal discourse. And, as a direct consequence, people have died. (Obviously, I am not referring to people who cannot wear masks for authentic medical reasons.)
All three arguments against wearing masks – rights, science, and risk – are fundamentally the same: they are the selfish rantings of people who emphasize Genesis 2:7 at the expense of Genesis 2:18. I believe that when G-d declared that it is not good for man to be alone, He was referring in part to self-centeredness, a lack of concern about the other, the belief that the world was created for me and only me. It is not good for man to be alone.
A human being is only actualized by living in concert with others, and with concern for others, and in the company of others. Ignoring that reality in the name of individual rights, or in the name of individual contrarian research, or in the name of avoiding a supposed personal risk, is to be less than fully human.
People who refuse to wear masks are selfish. People who refuse to wear masks are cruel. People who refuse to wear masks have completely abdicated their responsibility to society at large. In the process of actualizing their sense of self, they are diminishing the image of G-d which was originally part of their makeup. Ultimately, they are violating the Divine mandate expressed in the second chapter of Genesis, and thereby undermining the will of G-d.