Every culture has a different take on what ‘excellence’ means. In Western culture, we tend to borrow many of the meanings of our ‘virtues’ from the Greek thinkers or the Hellenic cultural tradition. Western cultural tradition constantly or continuously seeks or strives for ‘excellence’ in life’s everyday quests: academic, professional, artistic or spiritual. Latinos’ western cultural tradition can be traced to the Greek concept of ‘arete‘ which loosely translates as ‘virtue’ or ‘excellence’ . This concept derives from the Greek or Hellenistic outlook on life among the Athenian aristocracy where accomplishment was invariably praised. In our modern day culture, the individual is always praised for outstanding achievement beginning in pre-school or earlier. This continues right through college and into professional life. Team effort or accomplishment is equally praised.
Yet, there are cultural differences in the way the concept of excellence is approached that should be pointed out. For example, the Jewish tradition is noteworthy in explaining the constant demonstration and celebration of ‘excellence’. The Jewish concept of striving for excellence is inherently different than the Greek ‘arete’. The Greek concept, which we Latinos seem to emulate, is that every social class has its own icon of perfection and all should strive to be that perfect individual (in strength/beauty/intellect etc). Whereas in Judaism, according to Rabbinical thinking, one does not stress trying to be the pinnacle of strength/beauty/intellect etc. because these are God given gifts and it is not always within an individual’s capabilities to be the strongest, prettiest, smartest individual within a group. Rather, Judaism stresses utilizing those God given gifts to the limit of one’s ‘potential’.
One Rabbinical expert goes on to say: “A person may not be that intelligent, but if he utilizes his intelligence to the utmost limit of his capabilities – he is deemed to have reached perfection. Whereas the individual with far superior intelligence, who has authored many scholarly works, if his potential was even greater than that, and he could have pushed himself to the limit of his capability to become an even better person, he is deemed a less perfect person than the other fellow who did indeed utilize his capabilities to its fullest.” Hence, in Jewish culture it is often said: “do what your passion in life asks of you, but do your best and try to be the best if you can”. The renown accomplishments of Jewish achievers can readily be cited in any field: mathematics, literature, music, art, science, engineering, media, and commerce. This does not denote or suggest an inherently smarter or more biologically gifted ethnic group. What it underscores is their grand tradition of honoring and practicing the virtue of excellence within the scope of the individual’s potential. Hence, in the Judaic visualization of excellence, the challenge to achieve is not out of anyone’s reach since what it asks is for each one to be the best one can be.
While both the Western (Greek) and Jewish cultures strive for perfection, the not-so-subtle difference between the two cultures is telling. This difference should be a real consideration when Latino movers and shakers clamor or call for more achievement-oriented action among the Latino community. This is especially indispensable when seeking scholastic or secondary school and college completion. More importantly, the Latino community should ensure that ‘excellence’ translates into being the best each one can be, instead of chasing a model of perfection that emulates the idea of ideal perfection outside of what is possible. The pragmatism of demanding excellence in doing everything within one’s potential in daily activities should be part of the daily mind-set as well as the mantra.