The issue of non-conformity was a rather big one in my high school days, and it was largely seen as a virtue. The teachers valued it, or so it seemed in English classes when we learned about Thoreau, the idealized American hero of non-conformity. Plenty of students, often the smarter ones, wanted to resist conformity, too, but the daily life of a high school student wasn’t quite as dramatic as Thoreau’s life, so non-conformity became more about making fashion statements. The punk rocker types with their spikey hair, black clothes, and combat boots were Non-Conformists Supreme. The worst put-down from one of them was, “You’re such a conformist.”
Amidst all this discussion in and out of class came one that had a particularly strong impact on me. My eleventh grade English teacher said that to be a non-conformist, you don’t have make a big deal of your non-conformity. Ideally, it’s just a matter of being true to yourself. In fact, making a cause out of one’s non-conformity could lead a person down the slippery slope to hypocrisy. I liked that because it was precisely my sense of the punk rockers.
Given this liberal education, conformity has never come easily to me. I conform to Halacha because that is what the Torah requires, but I remember being resentful when told by one of my seminary rebbeim that ultimately, most BTs conform. It sounded like a grim future to me. But he added one important caveat: there is still room for individual difference within communities, and those differences show themselves from home to home.
Now that I have a home of my own, I see that my sem rebbe was right. On the outside, I look like my neighbors, but as people get to know me, they begin to see my differences. By that point, though, we’re looking past externals and relating to each other as individuals, each different from the other. As long as we’re not waving our differences in each other’s faces like rebel flags, but relating to each other as fellow human beings, conformity or the lack thereof really doesn’t matter. We’re all just people living our lives. And that’s really all we need to be.