Individuality, Conformity and Being Jewish

There are no clones in God’s world.

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Each of us is an individual. We each have our own personalities, our own genes, and our own histories. We each have our own minds, emotions, and natures. We each have our own ways of being and of experiencing the world. Most important, we each have our own souls. And we’re free to form our own educated opinions.

Discovering and expressing who we are as individuals is part of what God wants from us.

But what does it mean to be an individual? I remember a flyer advertising one of my talks on individuality. It showed a crowd of identical penguins, with one in the middle wearing a big smile – and a large, funky purple hat. Cute. But this image missed the point.

First, no matter how identical people may appear, deep down, everyone is an individual. There are no clones in God’s world; it’s just that some people’s uniqueness is more obvious than others.

Second, true individuality doesn’t mean standing out externally – it means being who you are internally. Looking or dressing differently can never define your individuality; it can only reflect it.

The Sages teach that when the Torah was given, Moses told each person exactly where to stand in order to witness the event from a unique distance and angle. Every individual experienced revelation differently, emerging with his or her own personal knowledge of God.[1] Our unique connection to God is the basis of our individuality, including the uniqueness of our own soul, the spark of God within us that wants to shine goodness into the world.

Recognizing our individuality means realizing that we have a unique mission to accomplish. This, of course, requires knowing who we are and who we can be. Some of us realize this when we’re still in school, while others of us discover it only after being out in the world for many years. Exposing yourself to a variety of experiences – including study, work, travel, and more, in different places and with different people – can open the door to increasing self-knowledge.

But at some point in our lives, nearly all of us have an experience in which we realize: “This is me! This is what I was meant to do!” Suddenly, we have a vision of the great individual we can become. [2] “Great” needn’t mean achieving something extraordinary – there are quieter kinds of greatness, which may go unnoticed by humans but not by God. We must be open to the moment we see the greatness we’re destined for and then make it happen.

At the same time, life does entail a certain amount of conformity. The truth is, conformity serves a purpose. True self-actualization requires that we be not only individuals with our own goals but also part of a larger group with a larger mission. Conformity strengthens that group identity. It gives us a greater sense of belonging and connection to our community. It keeps us aligned with the people we respect and the values we believe in.

Many Jewish practices create precisely this type of constructive conformity. Shabbat is one example. Every Friday before sunset, religious Jews don special attire, light candles, cease creative work, and go to synagogue. Returning home, they recite blessings over wine and bread, eat a festive meal, sing traditional songs, speak words of Torah, and then give thanks for the food they’ve enjoyed. While customs vary among Jewish communities, we’re all celebrating the same day in basically the same way, experiencing a beautiful and powerful oneness with the entire Jewish people.

Yet doing the same thing as Jews all over the world doesn’t mean surrendering our individuality. There are no laws governing what clothes we wear on Shabbat (as long as they’re modest and what we consider to be nice), what food we eat (as long as it’s kosher), or what melodies we sing. This freedom suggests that God wants each of us to celebrate Shabbat our own way – and that’s what makes the Jewish world so colorful. My family’s Shabbat table, for instance, features a wide range of dress, a whole-food, plant-based cuisine, and – most significant – my husband’s original, soul-stirring melodies for kiddush, making our Shabbat table uniquely ours.

I love meeting people who are “out of the box.” Despite being “different,” these individuals believe in themselves. They trust the inner voice telling them how to live. As a result, they experience the profound satisfaction of being true to who they are. They demonstrate how to be yourself – and how richly rewarding that is. That’s a message that all of us – including those of us whose individuality is more subtle – need to take home.

The beloved Chassidic personality Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli famously said: “In the next world, I won’t be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ I’ll be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Zusha?’”

In the future, looking back on our lives, may we be able to say, “I was myself.”

Gila Manolson’s new book, Finding Ourselves in the Crowd: What 18 Out-of-the-Box Jews Can Teach Us About Individuality in Orthodoxy, is available at your local Jewish bookstore and at FELDHEIM e-shop.

[1] Sarah Yehudit Schneider, citing Torah Sheleimah, Yitro, footnote “re’u”; Mechilta 19:24, Mechilta d’Rashbi; Zohar 2:82b.
[2] Rabbi Yaakov Haber, citing Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen, Tzidkat HaTzaddik.