Our latest series on Money
and Spirituality elicited a wealth (no pun intended)
One of them addresses a tangential but important
issue about individuality and conformity. We offer it here
this week, followed by Simon Jacobson’s response.
Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
I have been reading your Money
and Spirituality articles with interest. I hope you
can enlighten me as to one aspect of thought you wrote about
“the message of the Torah to each individual is: you
are indispensable to a larger cosmic plan. Your contributions,
your work, your value is not determined by others, etc.”
I went to a well-respected
girls yeshiva in the 1970s and this is not the message of the Torah that I
was taught. As a woman I was taught to emulate Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah
and we had cooking, sewing, kashering chicken classes. My teachers evaluated
our ability to be the perfect aishes chayil [woman of valor] because our value
was solely based on how well our future husbands and children would excel.
Individual talent was squashed and we were told to use our talent only to
perfect our challahs and hemlines. Our personal needs or goals should only
be those that enrich our families.
“Who I was” and “what
I did” were not split but instead entwined with my gender and not the true
mission of my soul.
Needless to say after
ten years of attempting to live up to an impossible aishes chayil image with
a husband who also subscribed to the ideal woman as “barefoot, pregnant and
cooking up a five course dinner” I was happily divorced.
So if it is too long to
explain in response to the quote that individuality is of value and part of
the divine absolute then I hope you might discuss it in one of your weekly
Indeed, in my opinion,
your question is one of the most important ones in our times, and addresses
one of today’s greatest distortions – and is root of a profound stereotype
– which has become the source of endless anxiety and divisiveness.
How often lately has the
debate cropped up between religious advocates ardently dictating certain standards
and equally passionate positions advocating personal freedoms? Whether it
is abortion, the right to die or other expressions of choice, it seems like
an irresolvable dispute.
How many people have turned
away from their heritage because they felt their souls were asphyxiated by
the demands of religious conformity (I use the word “asphyxiated” intentionally
– read on why).
The dilemma is obvious:
Religion dictates the rigid commitment to an absolute system of laws and guidelines;
individuality is the free expression of your unique personality, independent
of any system’s orders. Religion demands conformity; conformity is the antithesis
This at least is the perception
of most people, including many who have embraced a religious lifestyle. Some
argue that the justification for suppressing individuality in the name of
religion is that left on our own, people can gravitate to anarchy. The benefits
of religious discipline outweigh the virtues of independent expression, and
therefore justify its suppression.
However the major flaw
in this argument is that faith dictates that the same G-d that gave humans
guidelines also created them as individuals, each with their own unique personalities,
mindsets and dispositions. “Their faces are not alike, their minds are not
alike.” From the beginning of time no two people ever existed that are alike!
Indeed, the Mishne states: “Why was the human created as an individual? To
teach us [our great individual responsibility] that each person must say ‘the
entire universe was created for me.’”
Yes, some obstinate religionists
may argue that our inherent individuality can be seen as the “enemy,” no different
than the “evil inclination.” According to this thinking, G-d gave us individuality
as a challenging voice that must be suppressed, lest we risk undermining the
“system.” I don’t believe we need to spend time refuting this argument. Suffice
it to say that according to this “thinking” no single innovation, no unique
contribution, no unique melody would ever have been played in history had
people suppressed their individuality in the name of religious conformity!
Can we really say that G-d created so many different people just in order
that they all shed their differences and become self-made clones?! Is such
a thing even possible…
So how do we reconcile
our individuality with the seemingly inflexible discipline of religion?
Whenever addressing any
given issue, especially one shrouded in controversy as well as touching a
deep personal place, it is critical to first dispel myths and distortions
that cloud the essential issue. Then we can look at the issue itself with
new eyes and perhaps discover its original intent.
When discussing religion
we must distinguish between man-made established systems that may or may not
reflect on the true meaning of faith, and the true meaning of faith.
I submit that most (if
not all) opposition to religious ideas is based on the way people and
their institutions have projected these ideas.
In one of my travels I
spoke at a new-age bookstore on the West Coast. After my talk a 45-year-old
woman asked me the following question: “I grew up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish
community in Boro Park, Brooklyn. My education was very rigid and dogmatic.
An angry father and even angrier mother always silenced me when I would ask
questions. They would tell me: “be a gut Yiddish meidele [girl] like your
bobe and elter-bobe [grandmother and great grandmother], and stop thinking
“My soul was asphyxiated,” she continued. “I felt deeply
Jewish. And I was hungering for some answers, for some spiritual nourishment.
Instead I was being invalidated and silenced. I was dying inside. I was just
not made to be a conformist.
“I left home when I was
seventeen, made off to the West Coast, where after a while I found my spiritual
voice in Zen Buddhism. My family must have sat shiva for me, but I
found my peace.
“I have not met many Rabbis since I left home 28 years
ago. You look like the teachers and authorities I had back in Boro Park. But
you speak of G-d and spirituality in intimate ways that I can completely relate
to. Where did you come this? I never heard anything like when I went to Yeshiva.”
My brief reply – intended for the particular audience I
was addressing – was meant to open up a follow-up discussion. I said: “Well
we Jews have this 613 step program…”
The woman smiled and said, “I understand.”
When the crowd dispersed we had a lengthy conversation,
some details which I will share here. I told her that I fully identify with
her frustration. I cannot say what I would have done had my soul been asphyxiated.
However, you were only taught half of Judaism. You were taught the strict
laws and disciplines of the tradition; the body of Torah. You were not taught
I shared with her the following analogy:
When the nightingale was
created with a beautiful voice, she came complaining to G-d: “I thank you
for my beautiful voice. I love to sing into the night. However my voice also
attracts predators. A hungry animal looking for a nice meal will be drawn
to my voice. Seeing a piece of flesh, a little bird, perched on a branch,
they will pursue me for their next meal. Please G-d, give me a defense with
which I can protect myself from predators.”
G-d offered the bird a
beak. The nightingale examined the merchandise and declined it, saying: “Please
G-d. I’m a beautiful bird. A nose like that is unbecoming for an elegant bird
like me.” G-d then offered the bird claws. And again, the bird rejected them:
“Such ugly long nails – so unbecoming.”
Finally G-d offered the
bird a set of wings. The bird looked at the two wings and exclaimed: “Master
of the Universe. You created us all with profound wisdom and design. I don’t
understand. I have enough body weight to carry with me when I need to escape
predators. You’re now giving me two more pieces of flesh that just add more
weight and will make it more difficult for me to escape!”
G-d replied: “No, little
bird. Let me tell you. I’ll teach you how to use these wings. I will teach
you to soar. With these wings you’ll be able to fly away and escape your enemies.”
Mitzvot – the laws of
the Torah – are commitments that clearly add more “body weight” and responsibility
to a person’s life. It’s easier and lighter to live a life without responsibility.
Yet, if you only see the “body” of the mitzvot then they can appear as “dead
weight.” However when you learn to access their soul, you discover their ability
to serve as “wings” to fly with; wings that lift and carry you to places you
could never reach on you own.
There is no bird in the
world (even one wanting to lose weight…) that would prefer to be wingless.
It’s sad to see a grounded bird that cannot fly. What’s even sadder, I told
the woman, is a bird that has wings and doesn’t know that it does or how to
Unfortunately, an oppressive home and a dogmatic education
can clip our wings, or conceal the fact that we have them. In place we are
left with a lot of body weight.
Mitzvot mean not merely commandments (that’s their “body”
translation). They mean connections – they are wings that connect us to our
own essence, to our calling, to our destiny.
And therein lies the eloquent integration of religious
discipline and individuality: If mitzvot were superimposed guidelines, then
they would contradict our unique personalities, and the only way to embrace
them would be to conform and suppress our individual selves. However, as connections
mitzvot actually uncover the true inherent nature of the human being. They
are wings that allow our souls to soar to the greatest heights.
A good example for this is the discipline of music. Anyone
who wishes to play or compose music must “conform” to this absolute, immutable
system. But this not called “conforming; it’s called “freeing.” By submitting
to this framework, the musician will be able to uncover the true power of
music and create a melody that touches the deepest place in a person’s heart,
and transports us to unprecedented heights.
Imagine, then, a musical
discipline whose laws are dictated by the inventor and creator of life---by
the one who has intimate knowledge of life's every strength and every vulnerability,
of its every potential and its every sensitivity.
Yes, the Torah offers
us spiritual paragons and ethical models for us to live up to; we are taught
to emulate Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah. But
not in order to squash our personalities and unique talents; on the contrary:
to be inspired by these great people to use our individuality to express our
The big myth is that Judaism
is about conformity. The earliest roots of Judaism all about rebellion against
the status quo. The first Jew – and father of all nations – was the first
revolutionary: he shattered the idols in his father’s home and rebelled against
the entire standard of living of his times.
Abraham instilled that
revolutionary spirit into his children. Coming from Purim, Mordechai would
not bow to Haman. Throughout history people of true faith stood out with their
revolutionary attitude – refusing to conform to the norm of the land, and
setting a visionary course to a brighter future.
I believe that the reason
so many religious institutions gravitate toward suppression rather than encourage
the unique voice is out of fear and insecurity. It seems easier to keep people
in line by suppressing individual expression; many are more aware of the body
of Torah than its soul. When we lack the confidence in the soul’s ability
to soar, we often tend to put on “blinders” and retreat toward the comfort
Our education system must
be revived with the spirit of faith: To teach our children how traditional
disciplines are musical notes; how they are wings that allow us to fly and
express our deepest selves.
Obviously there is a need
to channel our individuality into a productive force, and not allow it to
run amuck with no direction. But that is the challenge not of individuality,
but of subjectivity; we must not allow our subjective selves to cloud our
ethical judgment. However subjectivity should not be confused with individuality
–- our Divine uniqueness that give us our indispensable mission in this universe.
What I finally suggested
to the woman on the West Coast was this: If you want to be a true free spirit
– and express your deepest individuality – return to Boro Park and teach 17
year old girls to find in their tradition what you were deprived of. Teach
them the soul of Torah; teach them how to fly on its wings.
Best wishes in your journey,