A common perception of a significant part of the Orthodox world is that it is narrow, monolithic and stifles 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: 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 the crushing of 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 surely 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 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 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 reject it as mumbo-jumbo. 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 by stifling 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 appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.