The Not-So-Obvious Way to Be a Better Jew
And five personal benefits that come with doing so.
Future of Jewish is an audience-supported publication by people passionate about the Jewish future. To receive new premium content and support our mission to make Judaism one of the world’s bright spots, become a subscriber!
Please note: This essay is for our premium subscribers. The first half of it is available as a complimentary preview.
To read the full piece, and to get access to our growing library of other subscriber-only essays and videos, become a premium subscriber!
Considered one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals today, Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian, philosopher, and the international bestselling author of Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
In his 2015 TED Talk — What explains the rise of humans? — Harari starts by saying:
“Seventy-thousand years ago, our ancestors were insignificant animals. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was not much greater than that of jellyfish or fireflies or woodpeckers. Today, in contrast, we control this planet.
And the question is: How did we come from there to here? How did we turn ourselves from insignificant apes, minding their own business in a corner of Africa, into the rulers of planet Earth?”
Usually, Harari said, we look for the difference between us humans and all other animals on the individual level. We want to believe that there is something special about us, about our bodies, about our brains, that makes us so superior to a dog, a pig, or a chimpanzee.
“But the truth is that, on the individual level, I’m embarrassingly similar to a chimpanzee,” Harari said. “And if you take me and a chimpanzee and put us together on some lonely island, and we had to struggle for survival to see who survives better, I would definitely place my bet on the chimpanzee, not on myself. And this is not something wrong with me personally. I guess if they took almost any one of you, and placed you alone with a chimpanzee on some island, the chimpanzee would do much better.”
This is because the real difference between humans and all other animals is not on the individual level; it’s on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in remarkably large numbers.
Now, there are other animals — like social insects, such as bees and ants — that can cooperate in large numbers, but they don’t do so flexibly.
“Their cooperation is very rigid,” Harari said. “There is basically just one way in which a beehive can function. And if there’s a new opportunity or a new danger, the bees cannot reinvent the social system overnight. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic of bees, or a communist dictatorship of worker bees.”
Other animals, like the social mammals — wolves, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees — can cooperate much more flexibly, but they do so only in small numbers, because cooperation among chimpanzees is based on intimate knowledge of one another. Therefore, the only animal that can combine the two abilities together and cooperate both flexibly and still do so in very large numbers is us, Homo sapiens.
“One versus one, or even 10 versus 10, chimpanzees might be better than us,” Harari said. “But, if you pit 1,000 humans against 1,000 chimpanzees, the humans will win easily, for the simple reason that a thousand chimpanzees cannot cooperate at all. And if you now try to cram 100,000 chimpanzees into Oxford Street, or into Wembley Stadium, or Tiananmen Square or the Vatican, you will get chaos, complete chaos. Just imagine Wembley Stadium with 100,000 chimpanzees. Complete madness.”
In contrast, humans normally gather in these places in the tens of thousands, and the result is not chaos. Usually. What we get is extremely sophisticated and effective networks of cooperation. All the huge achievements of humankind throughout history, whether it’s building the pyramids or flying to the moon, have been based not on individual abilities, but on this ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.
According to Edward Slingerland, author of the international bestselling book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization:
“Our ability to thrive is not due to rugged individualism but connected to culture: our ability to trust each other, cooperate, find creative solutions, and build on the cumulative knowledge of previous generations and other people … In order to survive and thrive, humans need to be creative as well as cooperative.”
At the same time, Harari reminds us that cooperation is, indeed, not always nice.
“All the horrible things humans have been doing throughout history — and we have been doing some very horrible things — all those things are also based on large-scale cooperation,” Harari said. “Prisons are a system of cooperation; slaughterhouses are a system of cooperation; concentration camps are a system of cooperation. Chimpanzees don’t have slaughterhouses and prisons and concentration camps.”
This is what scares me, and it’s not that there will be another Holocaust. Instead, it’s Jew-on-Jew hate, or the idea that Jews compete with each other for which types of Judaism is superior. This is actually more sociology than Judaism, since individuals compete with individuals in every group, and we appear to be the descendants of primates who excelled at such competition.
“We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue, that we fool even ourselves,” according to Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University.1
But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups, a dynamic that has plagued the Jewish world since its origins, and comes to life nowadays through flailing Israel-Diaspora relations, as well as religious denominations such as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and so forth. In Israel, the breakdown is often secular versus religious, central Israel versus the “periphery” and, once upon a time, Ashkenazi versus Mizrahi/Sephardic.
As Charles Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound.
“We’re not always selfish hypocrites,” according to Haidt. “We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hive-ishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.”
“Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hive-ish overlay, you get a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion,” he wrote. “Our ‘higher nature’ allows us to be profoundly altruistic, but altruism is mostly aimed at members of our groups.”
The question, then, is: What is your Jewish group? For exponentially more Jews today, it’s one that combines their subgroup religious identity (e.g. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) with their political leanings (e.g. right, center, left).
To me, however, Judaism as a whole and the Jewish People as a whole ought to be the group, not individual subgroups within it. I’m not saying we should automatically get rid of these subgroups and be one uniform group. Definitely not. But just remember that our worst enemies — the Nazis, for instance — didn’t differentiate between the subgroups that we participate in and identify with.
“My fellow Nazis, let’s only round up the Orthodox and modern-Orthodox Jews, not the Conservative and Reform ones. Oh, and let’s make sure they were also born to a Jewish mother, so no converts or people who were born to a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother,” Hitler did not tell his fellow Nazis.
The key, I believe, is for us present-day Jews to act more like humans and less like, say, ants or bees. Ask yourself: Am I being too rigid from subgroup to subgroup? Or am I becoming increasingly more flexible, more open to cooperation, more willing to finding creative solutions, and more eager to building on the cumulative knowledge of previous generations and other people?
This is the not-so-obvious way to be a better Jew.
To be sure, though, this is not just about the Jewish People as a group, for a strong group without the muscles of individuality and subsets actually weaken the group. There are also plenty of personal benefits to subscribing, first and foremost, to Judaism as a whole, and to the group of the Jewish People.
Here are five of these benefits: