Conformity In Judaism

By Moshe Schonbrun

“If Hashem needed an Avraham Avinu, he would not have created Bunim”

-Rebbe Bunim of Peshischa

In a recent article in the Mishpacha magazine, a Menahel of a renowned seminary in Eretz Yisrael casually claimed that “conforming is a middah tova”, and that we need to develop in our children “a value for the middah of conforming”. This is wrong and harmful.

(The sole “source” provided for this brash claim was a Mishna in Pesachim stating that a visitor to a town where the custom is to observe the halachos Yom Tov beginning on Erev Peach, should refrain from doing Melacha there publicly to avoid machlokes. It is quite a weak hook to hang the claim on.).

Conformity is not only not a middah tova. It is a middah ra that touches Avodah Zara, a worship of externalities. It is the root cause of why more and more young people are growing disenchanted with our schools and community systems. What type of community are we if we’re a community of conformists? If one needs to be a specific type to gain social admittance into a community, where the material of your yameka can matter more than the material of your heart? Where personality quirks and eccentricities are cause for marginalization? Where there’s a cultural conformism influencing the model of your car and the brand of your shoes?

Through the incessant education of norms and “shoulds”, our generation’s childish innocence is being systematically suffocated and destroyed. Required social conventions and behaviors prevent genuine relationships from flourishing- with loved ones, with friends, and with Hashem.

A wise person once remarked that “unity without diversity is conformity”. When we speak about ‘achdus’ and unity, are people who may strongly disagree with you included? Or is it comparable to the empty platitudes of politicians calling for unity in the desire for everyone to support their agendas? 

When your daughter is taught that conformity is a middah tovah, how likely will her Jewish observances be passionate and authentic? Encouraging conformity to arbitrary social policies and ‘frumkeit rules’ will turn off our children, silence their spirit, and mute their independence.

Hashem built Klal Yisrael through shevatim, representing the multitude of paths and ways to develop our individual identity within the framework of halacha. Accolades of society and approval from other people or parents are all distractions from the primary goal of education and self-discovery. When the individual does not have space for self-expression, the community becomes a community of hollow shells.

To be a Jew is to challenge the consensus. Dead fish go with the flow. Avraham Avinu forged a path for us that remains more relevant than ever- be an Ivri! Be someone who lives on your own side of the river. Sing the harmony that only you truly understand. Avraham left behind all the things that make us someone else. It is the reason for the reverse order of the call of Lech Lecha “leave your country, community, family– although physically one has to first leave one’s house, then the city, then the country, an inner spiritual journey is the reverse: leave behind the external influences of your culture, circles, and upbringing to discover your authentic self and reach your personal Eretz Yisrael. 

In a renowned experiment, Solomon Asch showed people two cards, one with a line on it, the other with three lines of different lengths, and asked which was the same size as the line on the first. Unbeknown to one participant, Asch had briefed all the others to give the right answer for the first few cards, then the wrong one for most of the rest. On a significant number of occasions the subject gave an answer he could see was wrong, because everyone else had done so. The power of the pressure to conform leads us to say what we know is untrue.

We admire children for their spontaneity, for intuitively expressing themselves without filtering for other people’s opinions. Let’s not stomp out our children’s individuality or personality. If our system and educators promote conformity as a “middah tovah”, the result inevitably will be a cookie cutter mold that every kid must contort and adapt to. Not quite the “al pi darko” chinuch model.

The builders of the Tower of Bavel all “spoke one voice” in a desire to build a society where everyone looked and thought monolithically. Let’s build scintillating towers in our homes, schools, and communities that honor and develop every single person’s unique individuality. 

A deeply valued content contributor for Meaningful Minute, Moshe is a husband, father, and espresso enthusiast. He is Executive Director at Avenues Recovery of Maryland, a residential addiction treatment center, and co-founder of The 13th Gate, an innovative platform for contemporary spiritual engagement in Silver Spring, MD. A talmid of Rabbi Meir Stern and Rabbi Asher Arielli, Moshe previously served as Rabbi at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the University of Maryland in College Park. He is the artist behind @farbreng_ink and the Chavrusa Podcast.

Moshe can be reached at Moshe@meaningfulminute.org

8 comments on “Conformity In Judaism

  1. I disagree with the message this is giving.
    We live in a society which has put such an extreme emphasis on conforming but on the other hand the pushback has been “do your thing” hashem loves each jew the way he is…
    When klal yisroel was in the midbar there were twelve shevatim surrounding the mishkan…our centrality was hashem his Torah and mitzvos….we are obligated to conform to hashems will…. albeit not all in the same way.
    Learning Torah is a must Tznius is a must Shabbos is a must Kavod to talmidei chachamim is a must…
    We must not push the anti conformity without pushing it to some degree….so In a world when there is a lot of chatter that conforming is bad it is important to remember that conforming is also good.
    I hope you all properly understand what I am trying to say.

    1. Absolutely, Hashem loves each of His children the way he or she is.

      There are a multitude of paths and ways to develop our individual identity within the framework of halacha.

      Ultimately, the question boils down to if Hashem prefers for you to conform to His will, or to follow His will to enable you to become the greatest Shimon possible.

    2. Yershar koach! You’re right. Btw since the Jewish spiritual tradition is predicated on harmonizing opposites, the idea that one is either a conformist or not is inappropriate! You’re on the one hand the strictest of conformists and on the other hand, you push the envelope far and wide often in radical and novel ways, yet still being constrained by the limitations which define truth.

  2. Conforming to the Torah way of life, and all that it includes, is NOT ONLY a MIDAH TOVA but an absolute necessity in order to succeed in our mission here in our lifetime. The ERRONEOUS thinking of always blabbering your thoughts and opinions and to go against the groove is an extremely faulty and VERY DANGEROUS conclusion !!!

  3. “Conforming” by itself is neither good nor bad. It depends on what one is conforming to and why they are conforming. Additionally, even the idea of non-conforming IS, in essence, conforming to an idea. [I remember a cartoon in a newspaper years ago which showed 6 students – 3 wearing the same school uniform and 3 wearing the same t-shirt and jeans. The caption said “I’m so glad that WE don’t have to wear a uniform!”]
    The ability to conform is not what drives people away from Judaism, but the pressure to conform to actions and ideals that either don’t make sense to them or (they feel) are put in place just to give someone power.

  4. There needs to ba a balance. There is a concept of al tifrosh min hatzibur. There is a concept of doing something individual & not following the masses ( especially if they are doing wrong). Like I said its a delicate balance.

  5. If you complain about the lack of sources in the original article, would you please follow your own advice and bring us some sources? Otherwise it’s just opinions vs opinions.
    Sorry but mentioning the 12 Shevatim paths isn’t enough to describe precisely the Torah view on diversity and conformity.

  6. It’s true. Many young people are turned off by all the focus on conformity, and they can’t connect to yiddushkeit. It becomes an excuse for other bad choices in the realm of shidduchim, education, etc. It is a middah that has a usefulness within a limited context like any other middah, but we always need to use sechel and not be afraid of what might happen if we choose not to conform. I have seen so much damage from overemphasis on conformity.

    Yiddishkeit is about using our brains, and there is too much emphasis on “but what if”. People are healthiest when they are informed, loved by those around them, and empowered to make good decisions. That’s what we need – healthy people, not confirming robots.

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