Intellectual and Spiritual Dimensions of Non-Conformity

I would like to comment on the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of conformity and non-conformity.

I have always thought that Avraham Avinu was one of the greatest non-conformists. Avraham not only walked out on his parents way of life, he destroyed and renounced idol worship. There are numerous approaches in the Talmud and Midrash as to when he changed his life. I think that there are two major approaches which posit his age at either age 3 or in his 30s or 40s. I once heard R’ Aharon Lichtenstein summarize these differences as reflecting either an emotional or intellectual change, depending on the age. (The Ritva in his comments on the Haggadah discusses these views in detail). Other Midrashim and Rishonim ( possiby Rambam in Hilcos Yesodei HaTorah) indicate that Avraham Avinu basically tested and rejected all of the prevalent Avodah Zarah (AZ) and culture of his times. It may be fair to say that whatever impetus was that caused a BT to become frum, non-conformity was one of the greater causes. All of the Avos seemed to follow in this path in their own way.

Moshe Rabbeinu also was a non conformist who rebelled against the Egyptian brutality that he saw, despite being raised in the Egyptian royal court. I know that there are Midrashim that state that Moshe learned Torah, etc while he was in the royal court, but if you read he beginning of Shmos with Rashi, you see very little of Moshe’s personality and midos until he reacts to the actions of an Egyptian overseer. Moshe’s act of courage also was an act of not conforming to a cultural norm. Ultimately, Moshe’s greatest act of non-conformity was his defense of Klal Yisrael after the Maaseh HaEgel when he was given a choice by HaShem to walk away from a people that had committed the ultimate transgression of AZ. His choice of defending Klal Yisrael was an enormous act of courage and non-conformity.

R Akiva and Resh Lakish also strike me as classical models for any BT. Both renounced their prior backgrounds and cultures in very difficult times. The Talmud goes out of its way to describe their past and their achievements to say that every BT can in his or her own way reach huge spiritual heights. One has to wonder how their lives would be profiled today, as opposed to how the Talmud describes their beginnings.

When you study Jewish history, one has to be amazed at the survival of Klal Yisrael. Look at the epocs of religious and political persecution. Then look at how many brothers and sisters were attracted to the various “isms”, especially from the period of the Emancipation thru today. One can argue that being being either a FFB or BT in any manner today is a statement of rebellion against the contemporary culture of today. In addition, when you read about the lives of Gedolim, their ability to just shut out every possible distraction and to achieve mind-boggling greatness in Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim is a model that we can all aspire to within our own limitations. In other words, the key is not to be as big a Gadol as any Gadol, but rather to maximize our own potential and self worth. In today’s society, that is the ultimate act of non-conformity.

8 comments on “Intellectual and Spiritual Dimensions of Non-Conformity

  1. Dovid:

    I don’t think the “general tone” of “many of the comments” have been unduly harsh toward FFBs. True, there have been some harsh words and characterizations (some of which have been deleted). The general tone, however, has been quite tame especialy considering the open and unedited nature of the forum.

    Unfortunately, however, there is somehting in human nature (not that we don’t have the ability to change it) that focuses people on the negative. This is not limited to characterizations of FFBs. BTs are often generalized as unstable, fanatical, overly credulous, simplistic or impressionable. Sure, there are BTs that fit the bill but as we can see from our very blog, BTs, like all others, though often sharing numerous commonalities, are not a homogeneous group.

  2. Dovid:

    That was me (David Linn) and not Mark that requested translations. With your vocabulary, I’m tempted to ask for definitions of the english words as well.

  3. For Aron:

    “Mar Omar Khoda UMar Omar Khoda v’lo pleegee”

    For Mark/all readers:

    “One said one thing the other another, there is no (substantive)argument.”

    There does remain the nettlesome question of who and how “torah-teachers comparable to angels of the living G-d” are nominated and accepted in contemporary Jewish Society. I for one feel that there is also much to be learned in terms of nuance and emphasis from the actual lifestyles of “rank and file” jews who “never lost it”. I think the general tone of many of the comments has been unduly harsh towards them.

  4. Aron,

    That was an excellent comment and I think you not only made great points about your particualr point of discussion but about one of the major points of the blog — turning monologues into dialogues.

    One point: You did it at most points of your post but it’s important for all of us to translate the Hebrew words we use in to English.


  5. Dovid,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my note, and to comment on it. I appreciate your transforming my monologue into a dialogue. And so eloquently too, I might add. And thank you for asking for clarification.

    I do not believe we’re on different pages. If you notice my words, I specifically mentioned learning from “neighbors” and “others,” in contrast to learning from mentors and rabbis. I’m referring to the tendency to be influenced by the noise in the back row of the shul, the neighbor’s latest chumra or kula, the shadchan’s “advice” as to how to set your life in order so that your children will stand a chance, the silent lashon hara spoken with the snub of the nose, “kee b’apom horgu ish,” and other forms of pressured groupthink.

    That is quite different than the influence of teachers, mentors, and Rabbeim. Hence my emphasis on Torah teachings and study, which needless to say, needs proper teachers and hadracha.

    Or perhaps that is “needed to say.” I would agree with you that we’re living in an era in which “there is no prophet in Israel, each one does what is fit in their own eyes.” The anarchy that develops in such vacuum can be dangerous and lead to a contorted and distorted perversion of Judaism.

    I would go a step further. We need perhaps to reemphasize the principle of “gadol shemusha yosair melemuda,” that we must learn from observing the behavior of those whose Torah knowledge awards them the right to be role models. And it is their insights and nuances that should guide us in our Torah life. Yes, we all need a rav, rebbe, by whatever label we call him.

    But the right to be considered a role model, is not granted lightly.

    When we raise someone in our estimation, to a position of prominence, we are not always doing them, or ourselves, a favor. Exaggerating their degree of authority also adds to them the dimension wherein their every act will be examined and can be construed as either a kiddush or chilul Hashem. The judgment of “chut hasaaro” should not be exacted or expected of everyone. But when we attribute to someone status that they do not necessarily deserve, we are setting them up on a pedestal from which they or others can fall perilously.

    To some extent, even in our days, the rabbi’s integrity needs to be many notches above the neighbor around the corner. As the Rambam teaches, the rav has to be “comparable to an angel of G-d.” For our Talmidei Chachomim, a good review of the fifth chapter of Hilchos Dayos of the Rambam would be very helpful. As a congregant once told me, respect has to be earned, not demanded.

    Having said that, and not meaning to digress, nevertheless, I feel we have to reinstitute the classic Talmudic question of “meno hanee milee” “where are those words from,” quote your source. We have a need, to ask respectfully of our mentors that they teach a Torah source for their words. And the ultimate arbiter must be halacha, as it is expressed through Torah sh’baal peh and Shulchan Aruch. We seem to have introduced a new phenomenon in our days, giving certain people the blanket authority to determine right and wrong by a nebulous process referred to as “Daas Torah.” Daas Torah is only valid when it is rooted in Divrei Torah.

    With the greatest of respect at all times to our mentors and rabbis, the Rambam clearly instructs us to say “rebbi, Torah hee, v’lilmod ani tzorich,” “rebbi, it’s Torah, and I need to learn it, and my understanding is limited – so explain.”

    Uniformity in Torah observance exists only because of the independence of Torah law.

    So in summary, the opinions of neighbors and others — that’s blowing of the wind. Our rabbis and mentors, are our Torah guides and teachers. And more than ever, we ourselves need to become knowledgeable and learned Jews. We learn with and from our teachers and rabbis — but even the rabbi, and yes with his complexities of nature, has to submit his own will, to the will of the Torah.

    Less self, more Torah teaching – and learning.

  6. Aron wrote:

    “The moral, spiritual, and ethical teachings of life — specifically from a Torah perspective — are ideally absorbed and learned from Torah teachings themselves, and not by observing the behavior of others. It is mighty difficult to attempt to learn proper behavior by imitating the neighbors, no matter how noble the neighbors might be.”

    Ideally absorbed???I need some clarification. If you mean walking outside with a wet finger to check which way the communal winds are blowing I couldn’t agree with you more. If you mean that “Ideally” we can do away with those troublesome, demanding, conflicted Mentors and Rebbeim I disagree strongly.

    We live in a generation which has done more than be “shofet es shoftov” been “judgemental of their judges”, our generation has by and large judged their judges to be superfluous. With the ever increasing popularity of “dead” chasidic groups, the spectacle of 19 year old yeshiva-bochurim deciding that they are essentially finished products no longer in need of something as childish as the “rebbi-Talmid relationship” or the pandemic of reliance on vernacular Torah sources in print or on the net supplanting yenneeka and hadrocha (study under and guidance from) Talmidei Chachomim we are seeing a reannaisance of neo-Karaism. By this I mean not so much a rejection of Torah-Sheba’al peh per se as a loss of the sensibility that it is Jewish Human Beings who are the bearers, transmitters and alter-egos of the Torah. Yes those same human beings who are as you wrote”complexities. The drives and motivations of people are often inner battles between one’s own personal good and evil, strengths and weaknesses.”

    If one is not plugged in to the Mesorah via a living breathing link in the chain one will almost without exception be missing the many intangibles and nuances that are the difference makers between authentic expressions of the, admittedly multidimensional, streams of Judaism and some of the more off-the-wall, grotesque parodies thereof.

    To paraphrase Rav Yisroel Salanter (fill in the blanks with whomever you please) “The____feel that they have a Rebbe the _____think that they don’t need one. Both are wrong”

  7. Steve, great piece. In addition to the overt points being made, the latent point is that non-conformism does not have to be outwardly visible. A true non-conformist is not conforming because there is a valid reason to do so and not because (s)he wants everyone to know that (s)he is different.

  8. There’s a natural tendency within the existential loneliness of humankind, to seek to find a community fabric in which to fit in. People have sought communities since the earliest of times.

    However, there are two aspects to community life. The search for principle, and the search for preference. Principles are not negotiable and in the purest sense of the word have no room for flexibility. Preferences are always negotiable and as soon as two people are involved, there should always be flexibility.

    The moral, spiritual, and ethical teachings of life — specifically from a Torah perspective — are ideally absorbed and learned from Torah teachings themselves, and not by observing the behavior of others. It is mighty difficult to attempt to learn proper behavior by imitating the neighbors, no matter how noble the neighbors might be. Human beings are complexities. The drives and motivations of people are often inner battles between one’s own personal good and evil, strengths and weaknesses. Halacha is determined to a precise process, and not simply by observing others. Yes, there is a concept of “go out and see what the people are doing,” but that is often the exception and not the rule.

    In the Tana Dvay Eliyahu, there’s a beautiful teaching that run something along these lines, and I’m paraphrasing. Do not stand when others are sitting, do not sit while others are standing. Do not sleep amongst those who are awake, and do not be awake amongst those were sleeping. Do not cry amongst those who laugh, and to not laugh while others are crying. It ends by saying, the general rule is, do not change from the custom of your place.

    It is obvious that this Midrash is not teaching a Halacha, but rather a hanhaga tova, a good behavioral practice. And yes, a subtlety of a Halacha, the idea of the respect of communal norms. Communal norms too, have an ethical value in the place in a (Jewish) environment.

    Contrast this for a moment, with the story told about the Kotzker Rebbe. The Kotzker Rebbe once entered into his synagogue and noticed a commotion. He asked what the commotion was all about. He was told the Czar had issued a decree forbidding Jews from wearing their traditional clothing. He then gave a bang on the table and declared: the only Jewish traditional clothing are Tallis and Tefillin. The conformity to other societal norms such as clothing, was reduced to insignificant by the Kotzker Rebbe.

    The BT is often missing an anchor at the beginning of his journey and looks, understandably, at the behavior of others for guidance. With time, the BT finds his own bearings, and becomes less dependent on the others.

    Principals leave no room for conformity. Preferences leave plenty.

    Similarly the principles of Judaism should be found as a common denominator in all observant communities. Except for nuances, there should be no basic difference between the observance of Shabbat in the most ultraleft to the most ultra right community.

    But in preferences, one may shop around and shift or drift from community to community, until you find one that fits you. Or, you might not find one at all. And truth to tell, that’s okay too.

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