Individuality in Judaism


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 emails.




Dear [signed],

Excellent question!

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 of individuality.

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 so much.’

“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 to this? I never heard anything like this 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 its soul.

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 use them.

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 deepest faculties.

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 of conformity.

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 amok 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,

Simon Jacobson


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techiya Levine
9 years ago

Please- can we start a revolution? The pervasive fear and anxiety is a red flag that healthy people are wary of…. Something has got to change or we will push away droves of healthy people and only perpetuate the myths with people who dont mind such coercion…

3 years ago

What an unbelievable article… needs to be pursued, the core of Judaism is reflected …

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