My visit to mainland China in 1981 left me saturated with images. Luminescent green meadows transected by bales of razor wire along the border. Meals comprising endless courses that, in my pre-kosher days, could have been anything from dog to silkworm. And bicycles. Thousands and thousands of bicycles. All of them the same make, the same model, and the same color — black.
“How do you tell them apart?” we asked our host. He laughed at the question. “One may have a ribbon around the handle, a scratch on the fender, or a bell on the handlebar”. In other words, although they were all the same, they were all different.
Conformity is relative. In mainstream society, everyone goes out wearing tops, bottoms, and footwear. Does that make us all conformists? No. It means that we all recognize a standard convention for socially acceptable behavior.
At Elks Club meetings (or so I imagine), everyone wears pins or hats or some other symbol of their brotherhood. At the 2008 Democratic convention, everyone will be wearing (in all likelihood) Hillary for President buttons testifying to their common political vision. Is this conformity? Is it bad?
I imagine that every single one of us reaches conclusions based upon superficial impressions. Would you higher a lawyer who greeted you in his office wearing cutoff jeans or a tank top? Would you trust your portfolio to an investment banker whose suit was worn and soiled?
Executives dress the way they do because they want to project an image of professionalism and competence. And there’s still plenty of room for individuality, albeit more subtly expressed. Medium or dark? Blue, gray, or black? Pinstripes or solid? Double breasted or triple buttoned? A pin, a watch, a bracelet, or earrings? Subtle details can stand out just as dramatically as brazen ones, but they display self-restrained sophistication instead of gaudy egoism.
The same reasoning lies at the heart of frum dress. We want to project self-respect, modesty, and social orthodoxy by how we present ourselves in public. This is essential to our mission as an ohr laGoyim.
According to the midrash, when the Jewish people escaped from the Egyptians through the Sea, each tribe followed its own passageway, and the water turned clear like glass. From this we learn three things: first, that we are not supposed to be clones or robots, but that there is sufficient room in Jewish practice for individual expression; second, that every tribe needed to see every other tribe traveling toward HaShem so that none would think their way was the only way; and third, that there are a limited number of passageways — not every option is a kosher option.
Yes, Torah does teach conformity. Minhag avoseinu b¹yadeinu — following the custom of previous generations — is part of the bedrock of Torah life. But the Torah also encourages individual expression. The Mesillas Yesharim explains in his introduction that every individual finds his own balance in learning and in avodah according to his own abilities and inclinations.
The fallacy of many self-described nonconformists is to confuse nonconformity with anti-conformity, thereby defining themselves not by what they are but by what they are not. This is truly sad, for it means that they have no identity of their own, that they can only express their own individuality by rejection of the mainstream.
Yes, it’s true that some (undoubtedly too many) in Orthodoxy care more about the width of their hat brims than they do about their middos or their davening or their chesed. But there is a reason for the hats, as a symbol of our submission to the One above us, and there is a reason for it being black, as an expression of our transcendence above fad and fashion. One who rejects these symbols out of hand is certainly no better, and perhaps a good deal worse, than those who embrace them simply because that¹s what everyone else is doing.