In 1998, the British literary world was shaken to its foundations, when a London bus driver named Magnus Mills was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize in contemporary fiction for his debut novel. In his work, “The Restraint of Beasts,” Mills reflected on the millions of people who utilize public transportation on a daily basis, in one of the world’s busiest cities. In an interview, Mills spoke of his innumerable passengers as “crowds herded on and off the bus, flows of humanity [who are] not individuals to know.” In his succinct and poignant prose, Mills vividly described the existential loneliness inherent in the modern urban experience.
In our modern world, millions of people crowd together on buses and trains on their way to work and back home, as I used to do when I was a college student in London during the 1990s. I vividly recall the intangible curtains separating souls in the London tube every weekday morning. I remember the interminable sporadic halts in the underground tunnels, the physical density of anonymous crowds and the grueling paucity of air during rush hour.
Karl Marx, a premier diagnostician of the modern urban condition, defined this painful paradox of being surrounded by multitudes of people while at the same time still feeling utterly alone as “alienation.” Alienation is that soul-crushing sense of complete estrangement from those who are around you and also from your very own inner core.
Max Weber described this experience as the “iron cage” of the modern condition, an inner captivity which Franz Kafka masterfully captured in his unique and enigmatic prose. Sadly, this sense of social alienation and emotional estrangement continues to haunt many of us, well into the third decade of the twenty-first century. Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT argues that despite the advent of novel technologies and social media, we are still very much “Alone, Together,” as the title of her recent book wisely suggests.
In a word, contemporary civilization, with all its manifold scientific and technological advancements, had yet to alleviate the spiritual and communal deficit inherent in secular modernity.
In Parshat Tazria, we find a laconic yet noteworthy allusion to the mitzvah of brit milah, which literarily means “a covenant by way of word.”
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founding Rebbe of Chabad, explicates in his seminal Torah commentary “Likutei Torah” that the timing of the Brit Milah on the eighth day of an infant’s life is no mere happenstance — it carries profound spiritual symbolism.
According to the Alter Rebbe, the underlying message of this ancient ritual is clear and pervasive. It is as if we are saying to the newborn soul during the eighth day of its existence, your life will not be confined to the natural realm of the seven-day working week routine of the Gregorian calendar. As a Jew, your soul will also be imbued with a transcendent dimension and with an overriding sense of spiritual vocation.
To live as a Jew entails toiling and struggling in this world, like all mortals do. But it also means to sporadically soar above and beyond our immanent duties and worldly roles. For in privileged moments of spiritual elation and communal intimacy, we bid a temporary reprieve to our daily challenges and behold a glimpse of eternity.
Philosopher Alfred Whitehead observed that religion is what a person “does with his solitude.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks complemented Whitehead’s insight by reminding us that Judaism is also the “redemption of solitude.” Judaism redeems us from a horrid positivist perspective, which sees Homo sapiens as nothing but cosmic dust and a random ensemble of selfish genes hovering in the infinity of a seemingly vacuous and apathetic universe.
By being part of a soulful Jewish community, a community in which we cultivate veritable bonds of friendship and altruism, Judaism redeems us from prospective social loneliness in a transactional culture dominated by purely instrumental business relationships of give and take.
Simply put, Judaism redeems us by reminding us that our life-stories have meaning and that humanity has a destiny. Shabbat Shalom.