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Although it is often said that the emphasis on Judaism is on the group rather than the individual, on the Chosen People rather than on particular Jews, this glib generalization is not supported by the evidence. Where the emphasis lies in a religious tradition is notoriously difficult to determine. The possibility always exists that some ideas are rarely mentioned not because they are considered unimportant but, on the contrary, because their importance is taken for granted. Yet even if the yardstick of frequency of mention is applied, it becomes clear from the classical Jewish sources that, while there are numerous passages centred on the role of the people, passages are certainly not lacking in which the role of the individual is stressed. In any balanced picture of the Jewish religion, what the individual does with his life has eternal significance for him or her, not only for the Jewish people, which is itself made up of individuals.

In the Talmudic and Midrashic literature, the emphasis is generally on peoplehood but statements regarding individual duties, responsibilities, and needs are found throughout this literature. Each of the Rabbis is an individual with his own particular virtues and failings, so much so that it has been possible, with a fair degree of success, to reconstruct Rabbinic biographies from the hints scattered in this vast literature.

In the philosophical tradition in the Middle Ages, especially in Maimonides, Judaism is so interpreted that the aim of the religion is ultimately for the individual, the social thrust of Judaism being regarded as a means to an end; a sound social order helps the individual to rise towards perfection. Maimonides' principles of faith are directed towards the individual Jew.

Moreover, in every version of Jewish eschatology, it is the individual who lives for ever, whether in the doctrine of the resurrection or of the immortality of the soul. In the other-worldly Judaism that was the norm until modern times, the whole of life upon earth was seen as a preparation by the individual for his life in the Hereafter and all the precepts of the Torah have this as their ultimate purpose.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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