Non-Membership Has Its Advantages
Wherein is described a proposal that can alleviate stress, make you happier, and help bring the geulah. Not bad for a Nine Days message.
We’ve been told before that we need to be more accepting, and less judgmental. In our hearts, we know that this is true. Intellectually, we accept the gemara’s take on the loss of Bayis Sheni, and how sinas chinam has taken longer to cure than the violation of the three cardinal sins in the time of Bayis Rishon. We’ve even seen the Netziv’s take on the factionalism at the time of Bayis Sheni, and how small ideological difference – all ostensibly l’shem Shomayim – can turn people into ugly human beings and even murderers.
We still haven’t cured the problem; the structure on top of Har HaBayis is not the one we want to see there.
For decades, we’ve pushed fellow Yidden to identify more with this and with that. Identification with other like-minded Jews was a crucial part of the growth of our community on the ashes of Churban Europe. Identification contributed to the emergence of a rich variety of mosdos chinuch and tefilah, offering people different styles of avodas Hashem, each to his or her own preference.
But identification comes with an expensive price-tag. It encourages us-and-them thinking. It leads to circling the wagons when criticism should instead lead to action. It almost dictates that people will react to certain challenges with group-think and loyalty oaths, rather than original thought. Increasingly, the membership cards have become heavier, and carrying them saps us of energy
More recently, over-identification has thrown many frum Yidden into crisis. They are routinely expected to identify with positions and statements of their in-groups and their spokesmen. Try as they do, they simply cannot regard these statements and positions as true. They are caught between loyalty to group and their own integrity. Minimally, this produces drag on a person’s progress in avodah. In worse cases, it produces drop-outs, people who feel orphaned, with no place to go. Sometimes this is reflected in deadening of affect. People reason: If this is what my group represents, how much passion can I really feel for it? Sometimes the effect is more onerous. The anomie results in deteriorating adherence to shmiras mitzos.
Identification with a smaller sub-group was once crucial. It was necessary when frum Jews were swimming against the current. When you see yourself as part of a small, abused minority, you need to find strength in numbers. You need friends to share the goals, and they need to be in the flesh, not in the abstract. If the general culture treats you as an irrelevant artifact of the past, you need to feel important to succeed. Identification empowers the small group to achieve. Part of the rise to power of the Orthodox world owes to its spawning many small affinity groups, each of which produced the institutions we take for granted today. Orthodoxy went the Baskin-Robbins route, with dozens of flavors, rather than settling on vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. Ironically, looking at the variegated mosdos of chinuch, tefillah, kiruv and social service agencies of the Orthodox world, we are more of a Rainbow Coalition (albeit usually shades of black) than Jesse Jackson ever achieved. People’s identification with “their own” was a key component of the engine that propelled us to our achievement.
Perhaps, though, it is time to claim victory, and drop what used to be an important crutch. What used to enable and drive forward has now become a distraction – at least to some of us.
Think of how liberating it would be to be able to enjoy the many brachos of ruchniyus that are available to us, without having to carry the associated baggage? What if we didn’t feel we had to explain or apologize for what people in our own in-group sometimes do or say? What if we could take what moves us to higher madregos, without having to sacrifice our individuality and creativity? What it we could reject behavior of people within our particular camp that our heart of hearts tells us is uninformed, insensitive, or uncouth, without having to explain it away with excuses we know are not true?
What if we didn’t have to conform to every expectation of other people to standards that they cannot explain or justify, other than to say, “It doesn’t pas,” or “That’s the system.”
What if we could look another Jew in the eye and see – another Jew, rather than first examining head-gear, and then reminding ourselves that he/she may be a decent person notwithstanding the difference from our own? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to skip that step?
What if we could feel the joy that other Jews have for their accomplishments, and those of their children, even if we have different goals for our own?
We could do all of this – if we did not feel compelled to toe the line – to identify with – smaller sub-groups and branded ideologies.
This is not an argument for autonomy, which in excess is completely foreign to our avodah of completely submitting to the Will of HKBH. Each of us needs a rebbi or rabbaim, for guidance as well as halacha. But we don’t necessarily need any longer to feel that the choice of rebbi also means that we have to be comfortable with his rosh yeshiva or brother-in-law or every uninspiring sefer that is part of the legacy of that group. We must carefully choose, as Chazal tell us in Avos, our rabbeim, our friends, and our neighbors. That does not mean, however, that the larger group around those key people ought to be able to dictate our politics or our preferences in dress or in what papers and magazines we read.
It seems to me that for many generations, Jews identified chiefly as Jews, without sub-titles. This was, and continues to be, an identification that can be made with pride and passion. Do we really need more? Perhaps we may be capable today of returning to the way generations lived their lives, identifying as Yidden, and nothing more.
It could even hasten the geulah.