Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Doing Your Own Thing

Back when I was religious, and struggling to fit into the frum worlds norms and mores, I would have many discussions with people about the problems that I saw and the difficulties I had in fitting into that society. Very often, people would say to me, "So don’t worry about what society does. Do you own thing!" Similarly, during the years that I lived in the Modern-Orthodox community, I was constantly judging myself by the standards of the chareidi world. When I spoke to people about this tension, they would say to me, "You shouldn’t judge yourself by what others think! Do what you think is right!"

As much as the idea appealed to me, I never really could take it too seriously. I used to think that was because I just didn’t have the backbone to be so independent. That might have been partly true, but another way to look at it (although I didn’t realize it at the time, and I doubt that those people who gave me that advice realized it themselves - since they were quite religious themselves) is that the idea of "doing your own thing" actually goes against one of the basic tenets of what my frum upbringing had taught me: The community (i.e. the torah, God, etc) sets the rules, not you. You can’t just do what you think is right, you have to follow the torah. If, back when I was in yeshiva, I had ever responded to my rebbe’s insistence that I observe some halacha with, "No, I truly don’t think it’s right, and I should do what I think is right!" rest assured, it wouldn’t have gotten me very far. Of course, it was understood that whenever people gave me such advice, they meant for me to stay in the realm of what halacha considers acceptable and that I should have chosen an option from within that spectrum of choices. But even within that range, the idea contradicted something much more fundamental: It suggested that I could somehow make a decision for myself in regards to my life, when all along I had been taught that I had to follow the advice of my rabbeim, or the gedolim, or da’as torah, or whoever it was, since they obviously knew much better than I did what was right for me. I suppose that if I had possessed any critical thinking skills at the time, I would have responded with, "No, I’m not allowed to do what I think is right! I have to do what my rabbeim tell me is right!" Of course, if they had possessed any of those same critical thinking skills, they probably wouldn’t have made the suggestion in the first place. (I guess it’s just one more example of the dual and contradictory messages that the frum world sends out, yet which very few people actually pick up on.)

The real irony is that, when you think about it, I actually did end up taking that advice very seriously! I do live my life now by what I think is right and not what other people tell me is right. Yet, I have yet to meet a frum person who thinks that’s ok!

10 comments:

zach said...

I do live my life now by what I think is right and not what others people tell me is right. Yet, I have yet to meet a frum person who thinks that’s ok!

I think it's ok. (But if I'm prax and not dox am I still considered frum?)

The Hedyot said...

Thanks Zach. I stand corrected. :)

Anonymous said...

I found what you wrote very interesting. I think many of us feel a strong desire to break free of restrictions, and even now that you've removed your religious ones, you still live in others. And other people who grew up in the system that you're in now are probably looking to break free of that. No one can really "do what they want".

Other than the significant difference of one set of rules being partially G-d given, in my opinion, and the other human, you're really talking about quantitative differences and not qualitative ones.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

I think the "do your own thing" advice should be well taken. Look, Judaism isn't an all-or-nothing religion; it's an all-or-something religion. Everyone, whether they like to admit it or not, picks and chooses. We do this because it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to rigidly adhere to everything always. Most people don't have the personality. Some people do have that kind of rigid, "detail-oriented" (read: anal) personality, and strive to keep everything as scrupulously as possible. Many, or even most, however, find a more comfortable (or less uncomfortable?) pattern of observance to fall into. Keeping Halacha to the letter of the Shulchan Aruch is exremely hard, so people find their own comfort level. And the face that one presents to the world or the community at large may not reflect the exact level or "frumkeit" of that community, either, and that doesn't necessarily mean that that person isn't generally frum, either. For example, someone living a modern orthodox lifestyle may keep scrupulously kosher and Shabbos, wear a kippah always and appear in Shul on Shabbos and some weekdays; but he may also forget mincha and maariv, rarely wear tzitzit, shave with a safety razor and engage in premarital sex. I know many such people. Does that negate their overall frumkeit? Or does it make them human beings? Does it really matter? Does G-d care in the big picture? All questions to ponder.

Many such people have made peace with their lifestyles by approaching their observance from the perspective that their practice gives meaning to their life spiritually, while the things they have eschewed would have been overly burdensome and spiritually dampening to them. These
are individual choices which we all make and which are frankly not the business of the community. But just because someone "feer zach" (conducts himslef) in a certain way, that doesn't mean that the baby has to go with the bathwater.

Again, I think that to a certain point, people do need to pick and choose. Not the fundamentals, but the ceratin day-to day minutiae.

Lisa said...

go hedyot

do your own thing and dare to define your jewish observance and affiliation as you want to anyway.

or as the great rebbe of new york says (billy joel)

"do whats good for you or you're no good for anybody"

rumor has it you're doing well so am v pleased to hear. we're actually n the west coast right now (2 week vacation/family simcha) so i'll pretend i feel closer now that we're in the same country.

fondest...

Anonymous said...

"Of course, it was understood that whenever people gave me such advice, they meant for me to stay in the realm of what halacha considers acceptable and that I should have chosen an option from within that spectrum of choices. But even within that range, the idea contradicted something much more fundamental: It suggested that I could somehow make a decision for myself in regards to my life, when all along I had been taught that I had to follow the advice of my rabbeim, or the gedolim, or da’as torah, or whoever it was, since they obviously knew much better than I did what was right for me."

those giving the advice must have had a different experience of the same frum world.

The Hedyot said...

> those giving the advice must have had a different experience of the same frum world.

Or maybe they were just telling me oft-repeated cliches to make me (and themselves, I'd surmise) feel better.

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

DH, always great to see a new post.

Maybe there's really a place in Judaism/Haredism to "do your own thing". I'm guessing that it's just "marketing". Years back, I noticed some kiruv groups presenting t'shuvah as being "open minded". OK.

I notice the opposite of "do your own thing" in Haredi culture. Some examples:

- The universal warning to "consult your rabbi" or every question.
- Groups like "Dor Yesharin" (genetic screening). You take the test, you don't get the results, Rabbis say "yea/nay" for spcific shidduchim. (Contrast with the frei community, which has also eradicated Tay-Sachs, but provides individuals with their results and lets couples make their own decisions.)
- The recent institution of "Internet Accountability Partners" in frum communities, with the slogan, "if you have nothing to hide..."

Yes, there are rules, customs and norms in the greater world, but there's also more leeway, there's respect for different choices and there's the notion of individual right to some privacy.

Veganovich said...

The people that told you to do your own thing, obviously meant it within the range of what halacha finds acceptable. But what they ignore is that the orthodox jewish community demands conformity, and imposes social consequences on non-conformism, even if you stay within the range of behavior that complies with halacha.

Being frum, means always having to concern yourself with how your actions affect you shidduch prospects, what schools your kids will get into, ultimately your children's shidduch prospects, etc.

The Hedyot said...

> ...what they ignore is that the orthodox jewish community demands conformity, and imposes social consequences on non-conformism, even if you stay within the range of behavior that complies with halacha.

Well put. That's what I was getting at, but you said it much more succinctly than I.