Shemini: Does Judaism Annihilate Individuality?



Is there room for individuality in Judaism, or does religion demand conformity? How many people have turned away from their heritage because they felt their souls were asphyxiated by religious pressures?

And how many of us who are sticking with it feel that we are not just good enough Jews? We all know that we could do more … and there are so many others who are quick to remind us just how much more they are doing and how much more we ought to do. We have the sense that if we only conformed more to the rules and behaved like those who keep each mitzvah to the letter, we’d be the Jews that we were meant to be. On the other hand, we also have a sense that if we did just that, we’d somehow disappear as individuals.

But is it all or nothing at all? Is it truly the question of total conformity which demands an abandonment of individuality? Is there a way to be a committed and passionate Jew while retaining your unique voice?

This is one of the most important questions of our times, for it goes to the heart of one of today’s greatest distortions – which has become the source of endless anxiety and divisiveness.

How often, of late, has the debate cropped up between religious advocates ardently dictating certain standards and equally passionate opponents advocating personal freedoms? Whether it is abortion, the right to die, or other expressions of choice, it seems like an irresolvable dispute.

Nadav and Avihu faced this very dilemma in this week’s Torah portion with tragic consequences. The lesson we learn from them, the message of Sefirat Ha’Omer, the beautiful story of the nightingale without wings and the women in a New Age bookstore on the West Coast who lost her religion – all teach us (the pitfalls of religious conformity and) how your individuality is a critical component in being a Jew.


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