Colour Among The Black Hats?

The students of a prominent Eastern-European rabbi were about to join him to light the Chanukah lamp. The rabbi noticed a broom near the window next to his Menorah and asked for it to be removed; apparently, he was concerned that in their zeal to emulate him, his followers would place a broom by the window before lighting their Menorahs too. There is a humorous (and definitely fictitious) end to the story: having visited the rabbi, each of his students went home, placed a broom by the window and then removed it before lighting his candles!

A common perception of a significant part of the Orthodox world is that sometimes it seems monolithic and may stifle individual expression. Detractors often point to the restrictive nature of Jewish law, conformity in dress-style (this criticism is levelled especially at those visible communities with distinctive garb) and the seemingly limited range of educational and other life-choices available to its adherents. There is a sense that the ‘men in black’ all think the same way and live cloned, indistinguishable lives.

There is some truth to this, something for which we make no apologies: traditional Judaism is predicated on a belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of halachah. Its followers will create communities that share religious aspirations, educate their children in a certain way and where religious and social needs can be met. This may create a certain narrowness of experience, but devoting one’s life to a complete system of belief and practice involves accepting that some of the wider experiences of an unfettered life must be surrendered to a higher ideal. The intensity of experience that the religious crave may also lead them to form tightly-knit groups with their own exacting standards and social norms and look to charismatic leaders for guidance in their quest for individual perfection and constant communion with the Divine.

The Modern Orthodox world has attempted to combine serious commitment to Mitzvah observance and Torah study with aspects of contemporary scholarship, culture and engagement with the modern world. But for the rest of the Orthodox world, must fervour and spiritual ambition lead inexorably to conformity and restricting individuality, or is there room for personal expression and creative thought?

There will always be those who take refuge in the crowd, preferring to follow rather than to think for themselves; choosing to evade personal responsibility by relying on others. The Orthodox community harbours no fewer such people than any other group, but certainly no more.

One can certainly observe those within the community who fear individual expression to the extent that they try to suppress it in others. There have been a small number of unfortunate high-profile examples of this. They include banning of books that deviate from a narrow ideological line, attempting to limit higher education, abolishing concerts and other forms of entertainment, and restricting access to even the unobjectionable parts of the internet. Is it just possible that some feel threatened by the very individual expression that is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths?

Yet despite these regrettable attempts to recast Judaism as a system requiring all its adherents to think and behave identically, most Jews are pretty resilient in their individual expression! Despite the superficial appearance of conformity and group behaviour that delegitimizes individuality, one readily finds a vast range of ideas, aspirations, ideologies and modes of religious expression. These differences are evident both between and with Orthodox groups. In traditional Jewish teaching, there is a spectrum of opinion on nearly every subject: the nature of God, Man’s free will, how to understand human suffering, the appropriate attitude to art and music, secular studies and even modernity itself, as well as about virtually every area of Jewish observance.

This multiplicity translates into diversity of lifestyle and belief. Even in the most Orthodox of circles, there are those who visit art galleries, love classical music, tour China, learn Arabic and even consider these essential to their religious experience. Others prefer to incorporate ‘secular’ modes of expression into Jewish contexts; in recent years, some highly professional and innovative music, art and literature have emerged. Among the ostensibly monolithic Orthodox, there are staunch Zionists, political lefties, recycling macrobiotics, DIY enthusiasts, aficionados of Kabbalah and those who question its authenticity. In my own experience I have come across a Chassidic university chancellor and a number of Charedi avant garde musicians.

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) observes that God makes each human being different from every other; as such, everyone should be able to say with confidence, ‘the world was created just for me’. A great Chassidic thinker understood this to mean that each of us has strengths and weaknesses that distinguish us from every other person; consequently, each of us has a unique spiritual task. Indeed wrestling with one’s own relationship with God is a Biblical role of the Jew. When Jacob was attacked by an unknown assailant, his name was changed to Israel, ‘because you struggled with God and with Man and you prevailed’ (BeReishit 32:29). ‘Struggling with God’ to forge a religious identity that is individualistic, yet firmly within the portals of tradition, is intrinsic to Judaism. The paraphernalia of Jewish life exist to facilitate this lofty goal, rather than stifle it. On its own terms, Judaism thrives on and celebrates individuality.

Fusing staunch commitment to a specific version of traditional Torah life with a tolerant attitude to the range of valid alternative views is a challenge which has its successes and disappointments. Yet respect for the multiplicity of views and lifestyles that the Torah accommodates is central to its system. We fail the Torah itself if we attempt to stifle genuine creativity and individuality; but when we validate the legitimate religious choices and ideas of others, we not only create a harmonious and tolerant Orthodox society, but confirm the beauty and breadth of the Torah.

A version of this article first appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle

Share It:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Print

10 comments to Colour Among The Black Hats?

  • etti rubin

    It will be wondrous indeed when our societies choose to “validate the legitimate religious choices and ideas of others” rather than vilify them. Thank you for this uplifting thought!

  • Charlie Hall

    Arabic is actually a good language for a serious frum Jew to learn. Among the great sages of past who wrote seforim in Arabic were Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pekudah, and Rambam.

  • LOberstein

    “a harmonious and tolerant Orthodox society, but confirm the beauty and breadth of the Torah.”
    There is a scandal that cries to Heaven .There are those within our orthodox world who are so narrow in their view of who is a proper Jew that they won’t let little 3 year old girls whose parents are from the West sit in the same classroom with little 3 year old girls whose parents are Eretz Yisroeldike chareidim. I spoke to Rabbi Moshe Heinemann and he informed me that his own granddaughter is not attending class at Bais Yaakov Hatzfon in Yeushalayim because her parents won’t put her into the “American andSephardim” class. How in the name of all that is holy can we be silent and ignore such sinas chinom? Rabbi Heinemann told me that he has tried to contact everyone who has any influence on this school’s prinicpal but she won’t budge. He believes this is only the opening volley in an attempt to seperate Americans in other schools. He told me that this is a public school that gets 97% of its funding from the government and that it is illegal. Yet, it seems everyone in Israel is powerless to do anything.
    Platitudes about mutual respect don’t fly when there is real discrimination against our own children and grandchildren . It should be at the top of everyone’s agenda to let our “sisters” in Israel know that they can’t tell us their needs have priority over even local poor and at the same time segregate our children for being born in the USA. It is a disgrace.

  • lacosta

    when you delete the Twersky family, and Baal Tshuvas [ whose past sins now give them careers/interests that are hasbara plusses] what are you left with?
    when yeshivas teach that < 168 hr of gmora a week [whether other tora, parnasa, and certainly ch’v anything goyish] is somehow a failing, how does this jive with your thesis?
    ….not well, i’m afraid…..

  • dr. bill

    Excellent Post. Two(supporting) points:

    1) A few weeks back R. Alderstein quoted Chief Rabbi Sacks accurately identifying Averroes as a rebbe of Rambam. if one were to recast Averroes in modern garb, it would provide a strong philosophic basis for what you are arguing. Traditional jews have a mesorah, a mimetic tradition to be precise, to which we must remain consistent. How different groups within the broader community accomplish that, including the “truths/beliefs” they may espouse, creates a broad spectrum. I use the word “consistent” as opposed to true or provable deliberately. When the set of “truths” becomes either too broad or too precise, tolerance for other members within that spectrum suffers. While I fully realize that consistency is too low a standard and can easily be abused, the abuse of “truth” is likewise very real.

    2) God created us with different skills. To assume we can maximize ourselves (halakhically) in a uniform way, is like trying to apply the law without fully examining the case. Chanokh al pi darcko, ia broader than normally applied. modern psychology only revalidates what the gemara recorded generations ago.

  • Joseph

    >Even in the most Orthodox of circles, there are those who visit art galleries, love classical music, tour China, learn Arabic and even consider these essential to their religious experience.<

    Doesn’t sound like any of the Chareidim I know!

  • YM

    The problem is that the Torah calls for constant devotion to Torah. Our Torah leadership, who sit 18 hours per day and learn (or did when they were younger) sometimes cannot see that not everyone can do this. They sometimes see time spent going to art galleries or classical music or visiting China as something they are not going to give a public, blanket endorsement to.

  • tzippi

    Not to get hung up on a detail, but I could see expanding one’s minds in many ways, but art galleries are a problem. I’ve done some offbeat things with my kids, including taking them to a local art gallery to see a medieval armor exhibit. That was our first and last trip to any art museum, the reason being all the paintings, interspersed through the building, some as large as a wall that were well-crafted, but beyond immodest.

    So when we expand our horizons, but only to a certain degree (like eschewing art museums) where on ROYGBIV would Rabbi Belovski put us?

  • YM

    when yeshivas teach that < 168 hr of gmora a week [whether other tora, parnasa, and certainly ch’v anything goyish] is somehow a failing

    Iacosta, where do you get this from?

  • Roman

    2) God created us with different skills. To assume we can maximize ourselves (halakhically) in a uniform way, is like trying to apply the law without fully examining the case. Chanokh al pi darcko, ia broader than normally applied. modern psychology only revalidates what the gemara recorded generations ago.

    -Very insightful Dr. Bill. In normative judaism we should all have our own rav who personally knows us to guide us according to whats best for us. The conformity issues arise when a large community subscribes to one leader who cant distinguish between his followers. Thus learning <168 hours might be bittel torah for some (few) but not for others. Some leaders often tend to institutionalize excellence (learning 168 hours) at the expense of most.