Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
Jewish Heritage Center
The majority of the posts and comments on the conformity debate deal with standardization in dress and speech. The basic consensus is that swallowing hard and adopting a bleak conformity is just another of the many sacrifices that we make for integration into the Frum community. Unlike relinquishing, say, seafood this demanding sacrifice seems to reward those who make it with a lifetime of ambivalence. Here are some thoughts I hope will make us more comfortable within our own skins by recasting this never-ending and draining sacrifice as a labor of love.
We need to ask ourselves: “Do I yearn for nonconformity or individuality?” At times, nonconformity implies a grouchy contrariness simply for the sake of being contrary. It often indicates insecurity and low self-esteem that cannot be assuaged without gaining notoriety. The nonconformist may be subconsciously saying “If I can gain prominence by excelling at what I do and where, I am… terrific if not I will do so by deviating from the expected standards in obvious and attention-grabbing ways”. In short it often comes from an unhealthy place.
Individuality, on the other hand, expresses the central Human longing for self-actualization and the resistance to external oppressive forces that would squash it. It is a wholesome drive that unites rather than divides BTs and FFBs. It is born in a whisper at our innermost core that demands that we be who we truly are. Where nonconformity is reactive, individuality is proactive. The drive for individuality concerns itself not with modes of dress but with the personality being clothed, not with the language but with the message, not with affectation but with effects, not with mannerisms but with middos (character traits).
IMO, we often under valuate our lifestyle makeovers. In spite of the popular “Avrohom” and “Yisro” models for repudiation of the dominant culture, what compels a Jew to do T’shuva in the post-Sinai era is not a rejection of secularity or secularities’ excesses. These may serve as triggers to the process but they are not the key moving forces. Rather, it is the drive for individuality. A Jew is a Jew and can never hope for self-actualization without Torah and Mitzvahs i.e. living as a Jew. An eagle that has grown up among marching penguins does not take flight to spite the penguins and mock their black and white conformity. The eagle flies because that’s what eagles do. Even when both are at rest the eagle is qualitatively unlike the penguin. It need not differently to different. Yet, its very being compels it towards unique behaviors.
There is a Midrash about the cruelty of S’dom. In S’dom there was only one bed for wayfarers. When the forlorn traveler was forced to spend a night in S’dom they were made to lie down on a “one-size-fits-all” bed. If they were too short a rack would stretch them and if they were too tall they would be decapitated to fit the bed.
The dominant culture with its tyrannical egalitarianism is the heir to the mantle of S’dom’s bed. While ostensibly celebrating nonconformists by allowing for some superficial dissimilarities it is a culture that demands leveling and conformity between men and women, between old and young and between criminal and victim. Many a soul has been stretched to the breaking point or constrained and crushed by this harsh and unreal steamrolling.
Paradoxically, the outward uniformity of frum societies proffers the blessing of true individuality. It is precisely because so much external uniformity is expected that people must dig deeply to discover what makes them unique and irreplaceable individuals. In analyzing both the sacred avodah of Hagrolah (the sacrifice lottery) on Yom Kippur and Shoshanas Yaakov, the anthem of Purim, Rav Hutner Z”tl explains that once we posit that two things are, , different it follows that the greater the number of layers of external similarity they share then, perforce, the deeper and closer to their cores will be that which actually differentiates them.
Chazal describe Hashem as “the peerless Artist” because every piece of His work (human beings) is a one of a kind creation. Our aching to be unique is a paean to the Divine Artist. It is nothing less than the ultimate, logical conclusion of imitatio dei (Mitzvah of Divine Imitation:clinging to the ways & middos of HaShem). Just as He is Yochid (singularly individual) so shall you be! Individuality ought to be embraced and celebrated in spiritual, sophisticated, deep-seated ways that flow outward from the core of our values and our beings not relegated to some quirks at the outer limits of our most public personas. Such quirkiness represents little more than a clichéd, shallow conformist’s losing touch with their individuality by “going with the (nonconformist) flow”.