Sunday, October 28, 2007

Conformity's Lament

Guest-posted by Nice Jewish Guy:


In our High School Halls

In our shopping malls

Conform or be cast out


In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

-Rush, Subdivisions

"Conformity is an obsession with me." -George Costanza, Seinfeld

I'm about half way through reading Shalom Auslander's latest work, Foreskin's Lament. For those of you living under a literary rock, Auslander is the Philip Roth-esque writer of "ex-frum" fiction and nonfiction. He shares the genre with Nathan Englander, but Auslander's writing is much more bitingly funny and satirical. His latest book explores his dysfunctional relationship with God, fueled by a dysfunctional relationship with his parents, as he expects the birth of a son-- whom he wonders whether or not to circumcise. Rather than being an atheist or one who turns his back on God and forgets Him, Auslander can't stop obsessing about God, even as he abandons observance. To him God waits vengefully around every corner, at every traffic intesection, and at every prenatal doctor's visit. Auslander grew up ultra-frum in Spring Valley and Monsey, and manifests the axiom that, "you can take the boy out of frumkeit, but you can't take the frumkeit out of the boy". Unfortunately, what's left in Auslander is only the guilt. His book's title refers to his view of himself as a metaphorical foreskin, cut off and cast out from Judaism.

The book resonates because it's authentic; Auslander shows us the inside of a chareidi world from the perspective of a native. I also spent time in chareidi yeshivas. His descriptions of black-robed and long-bearded Yiddish-speaking rebbeim, and the tunnel vision suffusing the overall chareidi Yeshiva culture ring true. I also wonder where I'd stand today if my childhood was as difficult as his was.

One hallmark of chareidi culture is conformity. One need only look as far as the local kollel-- Sh'or Yoshuv, Lakewood, Ner Yisrael-- to see that this is evident in how they dress. The uniform is black or blue pants, white shirt. Tzitzis out, black velvet kippah (no srugies or leather, Heaven forbid!), Borsalino or Stetson hat-- the wider the brim the better-- and sometimes payos tucked behind the ear. When I was in Yeshiva, in beis medrash, even the car you drove spoke to your ability to conform: the "in" car was usually an American 4-door sedan, like a Chevy Caprice or Mercury Grand Marquis, or if you weren't as shtotty, a Buick or a Ford. Me, I drove a 1975 Plymouth two-door with no FM radio, no A/C, or power anything. But I digress.

Chaim G., guest-posting on DovBear, talks about the cruelty of S'dom (Sodom), and mentions the well-known Talmud in Sanhedrin 109B that discussed what exactly the Sodomites' sins were.

”and they had a bed. They’d ask wayfarers to ‘climb in’. If the guest was too
long (i.e. tall) they would (surgically) shorten him.(decapitate him or
amputate his feet) if the guest was too short they would (surgically) lengthen
him.(stretch him on a rack until his bones broke).
(Interestingly, he points out that this closely parallels the Greek myth of Procrustes and his famous bed, and makes one wonder which story came first. But no matter.)

He states that whether this practice actually occurred or not (and the likelihood is that it is metaphorical), the real sin of the Sodomites was forcing people to conform. That kind of social pressure exerted on contemporaries is cruel; people are individuals, and by forcing people to mold themselves into someone else's box sacrifices some of their humanity. In Orthodox Judaism, whether its a mode of dress, a nusach of tefillah, or minhagim, differences in one's "style" can have serious social consequences; and this is nowhere more starkly obvious than shidduchim/dating. True, this is more of an issue with the younger and never-married population, but I believe that problems with younger shidduchim often cause a secondary shidduch crisis-- the divorce crisis-- later down the road.

I rather like this interpretation of the Bed of Sdom (or Procrustes, for that matter)- it goes deeper than just physical cruelty. Let's face it, people have been physically torturing one another since there were other people on the planet to torture; murder and torture, while evil, don't seem to merit special Biblical treatment. Psychosocial mischief, on the other hand, seems to be regarded by God differently. We are taught that the Noahide generation was flooded out of existence because of cheating, lying, and stealing, rather than mere physical violence- and it can be argued that the former begets the latter.

We as a people would do well to learn to celebrate our differences as well as our similarities- so that we can all learn to live together in harmony: Yeshivish with kippah sruggie, Chasid with misnagid, shtreimel with spudik, and white tablecloth and china on the Shabbos table with placemat and plasticware.


WebGirl said...

You want a taste of the ideal Jewish life, where kippot srugot, baseball caps, streimels, and velvet yarmulkes all happily sit at the same Shabbos tables? You have to leave New York. Try visiting a great out-of-town community for's like a frum Twilight Zone (but in a good way). New York is a mess of polarization.

anon1 said...

It's true -- living out of town you have everyone from the chareidim to the left wing MO or even conservodox in the same shul and school (I am not at either extreme). And there are good things about that (I know, I grew up in NY and only moved out after I got married). But utopia it is not -- there are many issues that develop from this dynamic. Not saying that the NY model doesn't create problems and not saying that there aren't really good things about living out of town -- but suffice it say there is a reason that people like to be with other people like them.

smoo said...

There, of course, is the flip side to the need to conform. Humans, by nature, are social animals and have developed many mental inference systems designed for success when functioning in a group. The ancient, lone hunter had a more difficult time battling for food and against foes. Without help, his chances of survival were reduced. Those who remained in the group were more likely to survive and pass on the genes that allowed them to function successfully in the group in the first place.

Aside from the obvious benefits of protection against enemies and food sharing, people derive great emotional benefit from belonging and being accepted by the group. Anyone who has been the odd one out can tell you how traumatic that can be, even for an adult. But even though there is a sacrifice to one's individuality when conforming, there are indeed complementary physical and psychological payoffs.

For the group to be effective in its goals, it requires loyalty. Common goals are not enough to insure group success. Loyalty and trust are integral ingredients to ensure cooperation and afford mutual benefit.

And remember Monty Python's famous words: Group-"...WE ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS.."
lone man: "I'm not!"