Individualism and Conformity by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Judaism believes deeply in the power and value of the group, but it also values the individual.  Jewish unity is vital, the Jewish people were only able to receive the Torah when they were like one person with one heart.  On the other hand the danger in unity is the loss of the self. If the individual finds their meaning and value in conformity then something profound has been lost.  The mishnah tells us that the reason God created all humans from one parent was to achieve both lessons, to remind us that we are all interconnected, we are all brethren of one parent, yet additionally to show the greatness of God, that though we are all “minted” from one die, yet we are all utterly different from one another, each truly unique.   

 

In some segments of Jewish people I fear that communal conformity has replaced personal spiritual life.  Whether it is the social orthodoxy of the modern Orthodox community or the extreme emphasis on conformity in dress, speech, and diet in the Charedi community, or the pressure to conform politically in the liberal Jewish world.  

 

The problem with all the conformity is that it serves as an easy way to engage with spiritual life, it is much harder to bring one’s unique self to the surface and cultivate one’s own personal religious life.  To ask, what is my personal take on the Torah? What are the mitzvot that I will bring myself to bear upon most? What is my mark in the spiritual world? Do I swallow the opinions and outlook of the crowd without subjecting them to my own religious and moral vision which God has endowed me with and which has grown within me through the Torah i learn?  I think all observant Jews must ask these questions.

 

This general attitude is of course a reflection of the same phenomenon currently popular in the general society.  We live in an era in which personal ideology is gone and has been replaced with partisanism. Not a partisanism that is practiced in service of a higher, deeply held value, but a partisanism that has become an end and an identity in itself.  A way of pretending we have the truth instead of a truth that is deeply, personally, thought through.

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