One Billion Chinese Can’t be Wrong

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.

22 comments on “One Billion Chinese Can’t be Wrong

  1. “Administrator
    January 15th, 2006 23:52 19
    Editting comments is a tricky business and we try to limit it to putting paragraph breaks in to make it easier to read or to correct obvious mis-typings/misspellings. We rarely delete comments, but sometimes we have no choice. ”

    Well, you misspelled “editting,” how’s that for irony?

  2. Rabbi-Yasher Koach for the beautiful Meor V’Shemmesh. IMO this excerpt from another thread (Towards a Subtler Nonconcormity comment #55)is pertinent to the individuality vs. tribalism debate between David K and Rabbi G.

    “I think that you’re conflating the concepts of individuality and group identity. One wouldn’t expect to find a lot of receptivity to the Satmar Rebbe’s ideas in Mercaz HoRav nor, realistically, should they… Perhaps your frustration and feeling of oppression stems from finding yourself within the wrong camp and feeling too invested to switch allegiances? You ought to look at the December 20th, 2005 post “A Helpful Eitzah for BTs” by Rabbi Mayer Schiller that talks about “noshing” from various traditions.”

  3. Editting comments is a tricky business and we try to limit it to putting paragraph breaks in to make it easier to read or to correct obvious mis-typings/misspellings. We rarely delete comments, but sometimes we have no choice.

  4. Frankly, David, I’m sorry the administrators cut out your remarks — although I certainly sympathize with their reasons for doing so — because my own rebuttals consequently have no context in which to be understood. Since I mananged to read your barbs before they were excised, I will respond to some degree, not because I expect to convince you of anything, but because I think exposing the fallacies in your reasoning may be instructive to others.

    You criticized me for rejecting, in my words, “The shrill condemnation of whole schools of thought and practice…” by claiming that I also condemn such. Yes I do. I condemn Islamofascist terrorists, I condemn neo-Nazis, and I condemn white supremicists like Timothy McVeigh. In order to engage in reasoned debate, however, one must be able to distinguish between such extremist points of view and a mainstream yeshiva (the one against which you so passionately railed) that has turned out literally thousands of successful, well-adjusted graduates.

    This is the same incapacity for nuance that allows you to draw a comparison between Chinese bicycles and Tienanmen Square, and which prevents you from recognizing that one can conform with the external trappings of a group with whom he shares core values without sacrificing his essential individuality.

    By the way, David, you may indeed have been at my Shabbos table back in Zichron Yaakov, but I have always sung Shir HaMaalos, as do most people.

    Note to administration: would it be possible to edit personal comments from David’s remarks while allowing the main points of his arguments to remain for the benefit of readers?

  5. I don’t know what all this is about, but marrying an alumni of Ohr Somayach has only enriched my life, both spiritually and materially. Proper and balanced goals and values in both of those important arenas, as well as proper parenting and spousing is what my family gained from there over the past 17 years.

  6. It’s a pity, David, that you weren’t able to benefit from what the yeshiva had to offer. The overwhelming percentage of graduates are committed observant Jews with successful marriages and happy families and purposeful, fulfilling lives. Very few of them could be categorized as wealthy.

    Evidently, your own experience with Jewish observance has left you scarred and bitter. Yes, there is plenty to be cynical about in Orthodoxy, but much of that comes from the high standards that we set for ourselves, and the eternal balancing act between the physical and the spiritual, between our commitment to the collective and our determination to fulfill the individual potential that each of us possesses. The shrill condemnation of whole schools of thought and practice — although it may provide you a brief emotional catharsis — will not help you move forward in realizing your own potential, nor will you succeed in convincing anyone else of the legitimacy of your position.

    As far as your objections to my interpretation of the midrash in my post, I maintain that the point of the midrash is to demonstrate the intrinsic diversity that exists and must exist within Torah Judaism. The individual finds his own place within the collective, not apart from it. And even if you must reject my interpretation, the illustrution from the tent doors proves that individuality is a Torah value. However, as long as you insist that individuality and conformity must be mutually exlusive (which was my original point bringing the example of the Chinese bicycles) then it seems that we will have difficulty finding any common ground.

    As far as delivering messages, I think I can imagine the content of any message you would want to communicate, in which case I would have to decline.

  7. I think I remember you. You got married around the time I got there?

    Are you in touch with anyone from there? Could you give Rabbi Black a message from me?

  8. Good question about the erev rav. You’ve stumped me.

    By the way, I think I knew a David Kelsey in yeshiva. Do you play the violin?

    More on individuality as time allows.

  9. Again, you did no address the basic flaw of the first midrash you brought. Your highway example is different, as everyone has his own seat in a car or train. There are no seats on this tunnel. again, I would define individuality not as non-conformism, but as having something (anything) to do with the individual. Your glass tunnel moshel has no such place.

    For seomthing to have anything to do with individuality, it must specifically address the individual. This is not my own radicalism and wild non-conformism fir for cut-off jeans and a tank top. This is, rather, the root word in individuality. Not group. Not community. Not tribe. Something for the yuchid specifically. A glasss tube for the whole tribe does not cut it. It’s a language problem, not an attitude deficiency.

    And just curious, where exactly did the eruv rav travel in this moshel?

  10. Hello David, I’ve been expecting you. Your leap from bicycles to Tiananmen Square, however, has surpassed any expections I may have had concerning your objections. Please consider how you would respond if I were to suggest a similar extrapolation from one of your own arguments.

    The “glass tunnel” midrash is sound. The midrash asks why twelve passageways were created when a single passageway would have sufficed. The answer is that each tribe needs to express its own singular identity. You seem to define individuality as rejection of the mainstream. It is possible to be an individual without isolating oneself from the surrounding community. This requires two steps. First, identifying the community with which I wish to associate myself. Second, finding my own unique place within that community.

    The midrash makes this clear. HaShem did not create 600,000 distinct passageways, as you imply would be necessary to prove the recognition of individuality, because the Jewish people are first and foremost a PEOPLE — our collective unity is what defines us and is our greatest strength. We all pass through the sea TOGETHER. After we recognize our unity, only then do we seek to express our individuality.

    Try this example: the verse says: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwellings, Yisroel?” Rashi comments famously that the doors of their tents faced away from one another as an example of their modesty. The Meor V’Shemmesh, one of the Chassidic masters (the same ones who all dress alike) understands from this that no Jew should ever look into another Jew’s “doorway” in connecting to G-d. Each Jew has his own individual avenue by which to approach and reach the Almighty. This, however, does not contradict the basic prinicple that we are all travelling the same highway.

  11. Rabbi Goldson,

    China is a strange example for you to bring. It was, from the time period I assume you are describing, still quite Leninist in its one party Authoritarianism. Is this your defense of frum conformity? Why not also defend the Tiananmen Square massacre as proof that too much freedom of expression is a problem as well? The Peoples Party Elders Hath Spoken!

    Your first proof learned from the underwater glass tunnel MIDRASH is quite unconvincing. You wrote,

    “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”

    How do we learn that? All we learn is that there are different tribes, or SCHOOLS of thought, nothing about individual expression. Nothing at all. How does this say anything about an individual? Every individual was limited to a TRIBAL tunnel. If it was like you said, then everyone would have had their own special tunnel within a larger tunnel. They did not. So if we are too learn anything about individualism from this MIDRASH (and I don’t think we can, that doesn’t seem to be what it’s about at all, does it?) I would say pum fakert (just the opposite) this teaches us that there is abolutely NO room for the individual, that you must do everything — absolutely everything– according to an established and recognized school of thought.

  12. Mrs. Housman: My wife’s name is not Tefilla, but she does daven every day. :-)

    Mrs. (Miss? Ms?) Newcomb: Thanks for your positive spin. I’m afraid that all too often I let my cynicsm get the better of me. Look for a post on that topic in coming weeks.

  13. The question is could one billion “anybody’s” be wrong. Seriously, the non-conformists, whom I have always reffered to as “Rebels without a cause” are living as you say a fallacy,whether about these issues or a host of others. There will always be something for them to go against. It is quite unfortunate, some of them never find their way out of that attitude.

    About the fact that too many in Orthodoxy may care more about externals, my humble experience is that when it comes down to it, they really do know what’s important and regardless of that, they are greatly outnumbered by those who have priorities in order. I have been zoche to know many FFB’s who grew quite a bit themselves, many. Both young and older, in learning, dress, attitude, throwing out the TV, etc. These folks have always been an inspiration to me in particular, as they were raised a certain way, were respected in their community roles, and felt the drive to grow further anyhow. That somehow stands out even more, at least publicly, than BTs who may be expected to be in a process of growth/change.

    Good Shabbos to all.

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