Orthodox Individualism: Is There a Model?

By Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim

There’s much confusion about the role of the individual within Orthodox Judaism. This is especially true among spiritually sensitive newcomers. Well after accepting the theological and emotional rewards involved in performing the “big Mitzvahs” like holidays, kashrus and daily prayers, these often very intelligent, critically thinking neophytes find themselves questioning (if not panicking over) why so much legal minutae is taking over their lives. There is also a growing number of natives who are joining the fray. As the Jewish Observer periodical pointed out in their recent expose` on “Adults-at- Risk,” there are troubling numbers of fall-outs from established Orthodox families who feel their individualism is suffocating within a religion about which they otherwise deeply believe.

Another interesting article on this topic appeared earlier this week on the this blog. The writer sums up the perspective of Reform Rabbis from first hand experience: Doesn’t abdicating so many private choices to religious authorities foster a “moral crutch” attitude, stymieing us from personally taking responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong?

Unfortunately, the answer given in that article misses the point. He describes the absurdity of a medical patient insisting on having the last word on every move his doctor makes; so too must we realize that our Torah authorities are highly qualified, spiritual doctors, simply letting us know what the holy Torah wants from us. Very nice, but our suffering questioners are asking about the HEALTHY Jewish ideal!!

In fact we have an explicit verse on the matter (Deut.6): “And you should do what’s honest and good in the eyes of G-d,” which the Nesivos Sholom (vol. I, pp 137-141) explains, in the name of the Ramb”n, to mean that the PURPOSE of Torah is to bring each and every Jew to the point of making his own, non-prescribed choices.

I respectively offer some insights from recent Torah portions about a model process for achieving that ideal.

And Avram said:

“My L-rd, G-d,
what can You give me
being that I go childless;
the steward of my home
is Damascus Eliezer?”
~ Gen. 15: 2,3 ~

Now everyone asks: why complain about being childless when already promised that your seed will populate the earth (ibid 13:15, 16)? And if the first patriarch is simply being candid, confessing his lack of patience, why bring the servant into the fray? Isn’t the point simply to underscore the torment in being childless? Finally, why specify the servant’s name and title? G-d isn’t exactly some kind of beaurocratic clerk in need of a reminder!

According to the Me’or V’Shemesh (par. Lech-Lecha), a third generation Chassidic Rebbe after the Baal Shem Tov, the Midrash which Rash”y brings explaining the meaning of the title “Damascus Eliezer” is very problematic. It claims that the Hebrew Dameshek is a contracted phrase describing his servant’s strongest qualities: doleh u’mashkeh, “drawing up (like water from a well) and watering.” That is, Eliezer impeccably retained and espoused his master’s teachings. He was renowned for his ability to give over to the masses what Avram taught without losing a proverbial drop from the bucket. If so, the MvSh asks, why in the world would that be a basis for complaint?!

His answer is powerfully incisive. Whereas the context of this prayer is the Alm-ghty’s offer to reward Avram, the latter is confounded about how that could happen. For the only conceivable reward for him is a successor to his life’s mission of spreading the light of Torah, yet Eliezer is the only viable candidate and he dispenses his master’s Torah SO exactingly that he disqualifies himself, since the essence of Torah is for each individual to UNIQUELY live it!

To which G-d responds:

“Gaze, please, upon the heavens
and count the stars
if you can count them!”
And He said to him:
“So shall be your offspring!”

I.e., you’re more right than you know. While your descendants will not only possess the capacity to uniquely teach Torah, they will do so with a distinctive shine as bright as the stars are innumerable!

Fast forward two parshas. Avraham’s life is winding down and this selfsame rejected servant is being given the most sensitive mission of finding a wife for the “competition” – the up and coming star of the next generation, the patriarch’s beloved son from Sara, Yitzchak. Sure enough, we soon learn that Eliezer is trying to set up his own daughter as a marriage candidate (Rash”y on Gen.24:39, reflecting on 24:5). Yet the master refuses to bite, telling him that not only must he travel a great distance to find the right one, but if after finding her she refuses to come to the Promised Land, he’ll be “cleaned” from his oath, i.e. no longer restricted from choosing someone from among the Canaanites while STILL not being permitted to offer from his own (Rash”y on Gen. 24: 8, as clarified by Mizrachi).

This is really quite amazing. For Eliezer is from the same, cursed stock as the Canaanites!

Apparently the patriarch is insisting on driving into this extremely robotic frummie that while his external actions are highly valued, his spiritual motivation is the lowest of the low; that even under the most exceptional considerations, he just ain’t got what it takes to contribute to the soul of klal Yisroel.

On the other hand, such a put down flies in the face of a number of sources which underscore the grand heroics of Eliezer. Like when we learn that upon fulfilling this mission, he’s liberated from the Canaanite curse and becomes a free man (Br. Rabba. 59, 60; Zohar Chadash 3 ). Or how about the famously Talmudic remark about the outstanding amount of verses the holy Torah uses to describe that mission (Br. Rabba; Rash”y Gen. 24:42): “The conversations of the servants of the patriarchs are more beautiful than the Torah of their children!”

So what’s the story? Is Eliezer a model or a puppet?

The answer is both. His modeling was precisely in his ability to get beyond first being puppet like; a process so precious to G-d that He indeed invests an inordinate amount of holy ink to help us learn from it. That adage of the Sages should be accordingly understood. The word it uses for beauty – yafeh – is the most superficial of a number of Hebrew words for beauty (a subject I touched on within my last posting). It’s referring to a very transitory kind of religiosity, as in hevel ha’yofee (Prov. 30), the “mist” that initially impresses and then dissipates. Such was Eliezer’s style of devotion until learning the ideal of “the Torah of the children” – the Torah of uniquely shining individuals.

Aye, this exquisitely explains why the first patriarch allows for some Canaanites to become second choice in-laws but not others. For while those same people (which acc. to Rash”y were Aner, Eshkol and Mamreh, his loyal confederates) had already proven their deepest respect for Avram’s spiritual path, they had made no pretensions of worshipping the particular way he did. It was therefore conceivable that a daughter of theirs could enter the educational process leading up to “the Torah of the children.” But not for a child raised to be infatuated with only one style of Torah worship.


So we now have a principle for guiding each and every Jew to successfully liberate his G-d given individuality: choose a decidedly trans-yofee Torah path. In particular, aim to conclude your life like Eliezer’s, when after convincing everyone of the earthshaking synchronism behind how he found his master’s daughter-in-law, awoke in the morning to witness the family’s complete turn-around. To which his final response is, uncharacteristically curt:

Send me and I will go
to my master

Not up to AVRAHAM, but my master. THE Master.

A few verses later, after Rivka declares her willingness to go, no matter what, and they do the most unbelievable thing of blessing her (with a blessing we use to this day!), we hear the following:

And the slave took Rivka
and went…
and the slave told Yitzchak
all the things he had done

No more prostrating and praising. No more being called someone else’s slave. Just serving the one, true Master.

Now THAT’s a true individual.

Aye, it will quickly become the model for Jewish history, as we learn in the beginning of this parsha about Yitzchak’s successor, Yaacov, being “a wholesome man; a dwellor of tents” (Gen. 25:27). Why the plural? Rash”y: These were the study halls of Shem and Eiver, wherein he immersed him self in religious study for well over a decade, just like his father did. But why go to them? Weren’t there better teachers in the tents of Yitzchak and Avraham (who was alive until Yaacov’s Bar-Mitzvah)?!

It must have been that the patriarchs had learned their lesson. Never again should a Jewish leader allow a disciple to even entertain the thought of cloning his style of worship. As long as there’s another genuine scholar to be had, a true devotee of Torah should seek him out, or at least be exposed to him. That’s the model around which all Talmudic study revolves. And that’s the model within which all our “Adults at risk” should be lovingly guided to find their authentic self expression.

18 comments on “Orthodox Individualism: Is There a Model?

  1. Thanks, DK.

    I, too, am aware of where my family came from.
    In my case, it was Latvia and Poland (Lemburg).
    However, because the family was, for the most part, off the derech for quite a while, there was not a clear, living memory of where we held, minhag-wise, on anyone’s part by the time I started getting interested. I have made the somewhat educated assumption that my nice family fell to the pressures of social violence and the “Enlightenment” during the 18th/19th centuries, like so many others.
    So, for all practical purposes, I started with a somewhat clean slate to build on. The reform background that I grew up with was for me not a legitimate “bridge” from my parents. It is false, and whatever traces of Yiddishkite it offered was tainted.

    I “shopped around” for years, and visited many different kehillas. I believe I’ve found my place amongst our colorful derachim, and have turned out to be a bit of a grab-bag. We each have a derech, and if you feel that MO is yours, then I have no argument with you. We each need to focus on our own derech in this world, and not spend so much time defending it or critiquing other derachim. Time is too precious to waste on such trivia.

    Wouldn’t it be cool, though, to be able to do some time-travel and check out those dark and mysterious generations of our families that are so close to us in time, yet so far? :)

  2. Let me work from the bottom up. Dk, your angst over all those ‘not ME nor my family’ minutia that are encroaching on your life is very understandable. No idea what your comment abt Bris has to do with all this, but let me offer, in the spirit of this article, that if our aim is truth and not perpetuation of religious / cultural inertia (no matter how nobel that might be in certain cases, then we need to ask ourselves whether we, too, might be slipping into the earlier-Eliezer style of worship. Are we seeking a yafeh avoida or “the Torah of the children?” According to this article’s definition (which I think is really quite compelling; honestly it bowled me over as I was uncovering it!),then your issue should be to look far beyond waht the grandparents did and focus on learning from how the gdoilim of THIS generation are guiding us to be true individuals. Granted, many s-e-e-m limited to their clubs (let us not judge what actually their intention), so it takes a sincere effort to find those with whom you can speak out your personal needs. But the pt is that it’s NOT a vaild need to merely perpetuate what the Lithuanian ancestors did, unless they clearly had a derech that was supported by gdoilim then and now. What can I say? It seems that many of the generatons of the recent past were subtle versions of the earlier-Eliezer…

    The issue abt the M. Brura fits in accordingly. The heligeh Ch. Chayim did not compose his sfarim as a “chareidi,” but as Rav Bulman zts”l would put it: He was one of the “walking seifrei Torah” of his generation!We need some basic emuna here. When those giants who live and breathe the Torah maneuver their generation a certain way, we must see it as heavens directive. *NOT* to clone them, but to stimulate each of us to channel our individuality within the new framework they’re presenting / clarifying.

    Re. Individuality vs Individualism, I appreciate the diyuk. Actually, I put alot of thought into my choice of words. Originally I wanted to use Individuation in the title, which refers to the PROCESS of becoming an individual. But it ended up sounding too psychologically heady. I agree that the standard def. of individualism is not Jewish, however there is a subtle pt this Torah brought out that you guys don’t seem to be catching. TO BE A TRUE INDIVIDUAL IS IN FACT THE AIM OF TORAH. From the very beginning. But it takes time to do that “in the eyes of H’,” which means to strip our selves of so many other eyes with which we view the world.

    Finally, Dixie — my apologies. I should’ve said you were missing “a crucial point” as opposed to THE point. I actually think you made a good case for how indiviuality can be cultivated withIN halacha. Still, I believe our Reformist brothers (who also were some of my first mentors)are striving for the ultimate ideal — which is to be individuals BEYOND halacha. They just have it backwards.


  3. Dear DK,

    I appreciate you sharing some of that private information about your family. That is really helpful to me as well because I trace my family on one side also to Lithuania, however, this was far earlier than WWII. Thus I have no inside information about minhagim or even what remnants of it survived to the one generation (well 1/3 of that generation – of their kids) that stayed orthodox in America.

    As much as I would love to talk about these topics with my grandparents (about my great grandmother, and her parents who immigrated as young adults to the US), and as much as I want to learn about my family’s history and our heritage, I have no choice but to keep away from those subjects, as any “Jewish” topic or mention of anything related to Judaism now that I’m a BT will only be seen as an insult. And I wouldn’t want to open up old wounds, whatever they may be. It’s truly unfortunate.

    One question I have to the general group here, is how strong was the ‘learning’ aspect of people’s observance before this “yeshiva movement” got started. And is it possible that so many of the Orthodox first and second generation immigrants in US went ‘off the derech’ because their observance consisted of a plethora of rules and regulations on how to live kosher accompanied by a serious lacking of actual Torah learning that is also a necessary component? The infrastructure of a Torah observant community and its communal aspects surely were not in place and flourishing when people arrived off the boat. It must have been a huge challenge.

    If my life was to be governed by lots of stipulations and rules without any explanation and only to fit in with other friends and family doing the same thing without reason, I could see rejecting that as a strong possibility. ie, mitzvahs without any Torah. Is it possible this could have been happening?

  4. Dovid, you wrote,

    “Unless I’m mistaken, the whole concept of Chareidim, Yeshivish, Modern, etc. never existed until recent generations.”

    That’s a debate to some degree. There were prototypes as well…I would argue that MO is closer to the dominant strain of traditional Jewish life, and others here will disagree.

    I can’t go into my family in its entirety, but you brought out an interesting point.

    “I thought ‘I have no minhagim, I don’t know what Rabbi’s my great grandparents paskened by, I don’t know if they wore black hats or shtreimlach…now what am I supposed to do?? :(”

    Ahhh. Well, I had something close, but a little different. I could trace my family to Lithuania on two sides, including the paternal line where we establish minhagim. And there is one of my greatest points of contention with the haredi BT institution I studied at.

    I was taught that my minhagim were essentially yeshivish. That meant — if I was willing to “return” to them, a disengagement from secular knowledge outside of strict parnassah (assuming I chose that lesser path) as well as a lot of other “hashkafas” and lifestyle issues were necessary to fit into my own ancient paradigm of traditional Judaism.

    As I learned more, I slowly came to learn that this was absolutely not true for my family. That was never ever their minhagim, this was never their approach. Never. But the haredi approach is to conflate “Litvak” with “yeshivish.”

    Not only were most pre-war Lithuanian Jews not a part of the small yeshiva movement which only began in the latter half of the 19th century, they absolutely rejected it if they came to the “treifa medina” during this period. The yeshiva and haredi laws forbade it. If you were religious, and came to the U.S., you were simply not haredi. Even if your ancestors were religious. Even in the off chance that they spoke yiddish, or if they wore a long coat in Poland during the winter, or if their clothes look black and white like the haredim in those faded black and white photographs.

  5. DK,

    Could you clarify further regarding your family history? Sounds sorta’ like my feelings when I was a beginning BT. I thought “I have no minhagim, I don’t know what Rabbi’s my great grandparents paskened by, I don’t know if they wore black hats or shtreimlach…now what am I supposed to do?? :(

    Unless I’m mistaken, the whole concept of Chareidim, Yeshivish, Modern, etc. never existed until recent generations. Other than the revelation of Chasidus, there was little that differentiated Yidden except for mostly geographic influences. And these days, the whole Chasidish/Misnagdish “split” from the 18th century CE has softened and is fading into oblivion..one simply need to enter a local shteibel and look around at the interesting mixed minhagim folks have…I think it’s really great, too. True, our families may have abandoned Torah many years before the Chafetz Chaim authored his magnum opus, Mishna Berurah, but our families were always living according to the Shulchan Oruch and relied on their local Rabbi….

  6. Is there any orthodox rabbi who would publicly state today that the Mishna Berurah as a whole is not binding on orthodox Jews, on the basis of its “haredi” origins? I know that many poskim disagree with particular piskei din of the Chofetz Chaim, but DK’s approach is sure a novel one to me.

    By the way, DK, the Mishna Berura is not a collection of chumras on top of the Shulchan Aruch. Remember that to a large extent the Ramoh softens many of the halachos of the Beis Yoseif. But the Mishna Berurah frequently relaxes them further, as well as offering approaches for “baalei nefesh” — i.e., haredim.

    With all due respect, I find it hard to believe you seen a lot of Mishna Berurah “inside.”

  7. Dear DK, you said “my ancestors were not haredi.”
    If you don’t mind my asking, what were they?

    Also, the shulchan aruch is widely accepted by sephardim and ashkenazim alike (with different input for each). I believe the mishna brura has come to be a widely accepted authority as well, unless I am mistaken. Are you suggesting that Modern orthodox, or hassidic, or some other branch of frum yidden don’t except the Mishna brura as authoritative? If not, then isn’t your question a lot like asking, Well, my great grandparents lived during the time of the Amoraim, right when they completed their works, but they weren’t distributed enough yet for my grandparents to get a hold of them, and my grandparents were not under their teachings, therefore not ‘amoraic,’ so now that I am living in the age of the gaonim, I simply can’t hold by gemara or anything amoraic… ?

  8. “bris mila (representing the individual sacrificing part of himself)”

    No — usually, in customary circumstances, that represents other people sacrificing a part of a different individual.

  9. Bob, more than that — I’m not just being a schoolmarm here. I am asking the house to consider the question of what interest are we being jealous of here? Americans are very enamored of individualism per se. I am challenging that here and I wonder if the author of this piece means individualism or individuality in his own analysis.

  10. Great shtikel Torah. I recall a wonderful shiur I heard many years ago from Rav Nota Schiller of Ohr Somayach on this topic involving korban pesach (eaten as a group) and bris mila (representing the individual sacrificing part of himself). Without going into all the sources and details, his message was that one need not give up his individuality to belong to the community. In fact oftentimes, when does dedicate himself to the common cause, there is ample room to express himself in that cause as an individual.

    Sadly, that article about adults at risk needed to be written, because for many, this whole notion is merely academic. Just a nice shtikel Torah.Too many folks looking around to see if they’re wearing the “right” clothes, swaying the “correct” way during davening…

  11. “Well after accepting the theological and emotional rewards involved in performing the “big Mitzvahs” like holidays, kashrus and daily prayers, these often very intelligent, critically thinking neophytes find themselves questioning (if not panicking over) why so much legal minutae is taking over their lives.”

    Okay, what do you think of the idea that long-term, BTs are often asked to allow such minutia to be dictated in ways their ancestors never, ever were, and to a level they never were holding by?

    For instance, I was taught that the Mishna Brurah was a definitive explanation of the Shulchan Aruch. Only two problems. One, the Chafetz Chayim was a haredi leader, and my ancestors were not haredi, and had mostly left Europe decades before this work was published.

    Do you see the problem?

  12. Ron makes an important point. We need to understand a word’s connotations before using it.

    This takes me back to the Beyond BT discussion about the writing and editing of recent books of Jewish interest. I often see the almost right word being used instead of the right word.

  13. Is “individualism” a Jewish value at all? I doubt it. I believe that Judaism does indeed recognize individuality as a fact and perhaps even something to be embraced. But individualism is primarily defined thus: “Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.” The first clause is key. I don’t believe traditional Judaism shares this concept of “primacy” of the individual. I believe that concept is, in fact, anathema to Judaism!

  14. Being an individual in the context of an established derech is a lot like finding new meaning and insight each time in the same Amidah we say three times a day.

  15. Cloning a leader’s avodah is to me personally inconceivable, though mainly because it’s too hard. Yet it is a well established form of discipleship in every strain of Yiddishkeit, and many stories and traditions attest to it. This article though makes that sound almost sinful I like the droshos but in their originality they seem to lack an appreciation for how rebbes and roshei yeshiva frequently are followed.

  16. R’ Bar-Chaim,

    Thank you for your very valuable contribution to the understanding in orthodox individualism.

    However, your comment about my post missing the point unfortunately misses the point. The point about recognizing religious authority was the necessary point preceeding what I spent most of the post writing about, which was the fact that most of one’s time and way in doing mitzvos is up to personal choice.

    There are so many ways in which it is true that orthodoxy fosters and strengthens individual expression as one’s personal way of giving to Hashem. B”H, you have brought out yet another way and I’m sure we could both write several more articles laying out even more ways that this is true.

    I was bringout out one reason why orthodoxy fosters and is the best expression of maximized individualism, and you were bringing out a differnt point. The fact that we were not speaking about the same answer doesn’t mean that one of us missed the point, but rather that we were brining out *different* points.

    Yasher koach on the point you brought out and tizku l’mitzvos!

    -Dixie Yid

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