They all weighed in on the concept of individual achievement in the context of the greater society. Obama recently made a speech in which he said the following: “…If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that…
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together… “
His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, vehemently attacked Obama’s speech with the following comment: “The idea to say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John Pizza, that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s, that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft, you go on the list, that Joe and his colleagues didn’t build this enterprise, to say something like that is not just foolishness, it is insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America and it’s wrong.”
In the Shabbat (Sabbath) before Rosh Hashanah, we Jews read the portion of the Torah called Nitzavim. We can gain some insight from the Parshah in Depth section on Chabad.org. The initial part starting from Deuteronomy 29:9 is most relevant:
“You stand upright this day, all of you before the L-rd your G-d—your (tribal) heads, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel; your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in your camp, from the hewer of wood to the drawer of water–
To have you enter into the covenant of the L-rd your G-d, and into His oath, which the L-rd your G-d makes with you this day. In order that He may establish you today for a people to Himself, and that He may be a G-d to you as He has spoken to you, and as He has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath; but with those who stand here with us this day before the L-rd our G-d, and also with those who are not here with us this day.”
As a direct descendent of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe and the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement, I was particularly cognizant of his comments. In his comments relating to Nitzavim, he emphazes the cohesion of the Jewish people. He further points out that “the simple ‘wood hewer’ or ‘water-carrier’ contributes something to each and every one of his fellow Jews, including the most exalted ‘head’.” (Parshah in Depth) Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, makes the further point that “everyone is completed by his fellow” (Likutei Sichot, vol. 2, pp. 398-400). “Therefore, the perfection of the Jewish people is dependent on the inclusion of every Jew in the collective body.” (The Torah-Chumash Devarim, With an Interpolated English Translation and Commentary Based on the Works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Copyright 2006-2012, Chabad California, Kehot Publication Society) These arguments seem to echo the combination of individualist and collectivist sentiments that President Obama expressed in his speech. They allow for individual achievement in the context of our collective interdependence.
Finally, Isaac Newton addresses the argument with a certain clarity of vision that has also stood the test of the centuries. His words speak for themselves. “If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”