Conforming to Conformity — or conforming to G-d!

For those of you not yet familiar with Herman Wouk, he is a master storyteller.  However, it is not the plays he wrote that became blockbuster movies or Broadway shows that I want to share with you today.  It is his book, This is My G-d[1].  Herman Wouk had a very holy grandfather, HaRav Mendel Leib Levine who arrived in NY from Minsk bringing his vast Seforim collection.  Rav Levine, not scared off of his Americanized grandson, pulled out a Talmud and instructed his Bronx-born-Bronx-raised-Bronx-acculturated progeny to realize “this is our work”.  The work of a Jew is to learn, to study, to keep our Mesorah alive. Through those study sessions, Herman Wouk’s soul found spiritual expression and connection.  And, within his book, This is My G-d, he shares with those not so blessed to have a solid Jewish education the whys and wherefores of Judaism. (p.29)  I cite, for I cannot write as eloquently as Mr. Wouk and it would be unfair to rob, you dear reader, of his skill:

“Not long ago, in a fashionable suburban home, I fell into a parlor discussion of religion.  I try to avoid these because they almost always end with my sitting silent while my interlocutors enthusiastically explain to me what is wrong with Judaism.  The usual gist of the explanation is that pork is unhealthy only in hot countries, that religion is a matter of ethics and not of ceremonies, and so forth.  This particular argument was pleasanter than most, because the person setting me straight was a pretty seventeen-year-old girl, a college sophomore, and it was no strain to smile at her with good humor as she went about her work.

“She had been reading sociology and was full of terms like anomy, other-directedness, acculturation, and similar jaw-breakers, which she got off with athletic ease.  The burden of her tale was that Judaism meant ritualism, and ritualism meant conformity, which was a great evil….. “The interesting thing was that my charming enlightener, while she delivered her philippic against conformity, was dressed in garb as ceremonious as a bishop’s, from the correct wrinkles in her sweater sleeves to the prescribed smudge on her saddle shoes.  She spoke her piece for autonomy in a vocabulary of the teens as rigid, as  circumscribed, as repetitious, as marked in intonation, as a litany.  Her gestures, her haircut, her paint, were wholly stylized. [ …..] “…the case is no different in intellectual circles.  I have heard sophisticated litterateurs, men of a sharply critical turn of mind, explain that the conformity of religion made it unacceptable to them.  Their dress has been as markedly literary as the girl’s was adolescent; their haircuts and their vocabularies have been no less special and predictable…. [They are] as generically uniform as one finds among the Hasidim.

“[…] The only true non-conformists are in the asylums…”                  

Readers, read it yourself, for I had to omit some parts so we can get on with this post and not reprint the amazing book here.  Do yourself a favor and try to get your hands on a copy of the book and read it in its entirety. So why am I quoting this?  Because of our Haftorah.  The Haftorah is the coronation of King Saul, the first Jewish King and the lecture given the Jewish people by the Prophet Shmuel. First, the reason why this is the Haftorah – two reasons – the first is that Shmuel Hanavee was the great-grandson of Korach, who made the mistake of thinking he was invincible because he knew Shmuel would be around in the future and, therefore, thought his life would be spared.  He erred.  We cannot make wrong decisions based on what we know about futures.  Wrong is wrong.  That is a period after that statement.  No other considerations can come into play.  Korach died.  His sons repented…and that is how Shmuel came to be in the world.  [2]  The second connecting theme from Parsha to Haftorah is the concept of us challenging G-d, ever since Adam ate that fruit.  We always think we can choose how our rituals and observance should be.  No, no, and no, again.  Korach and his followers wanted no leader when G-d said designated leaders.  Now, in history, there was a different issue.  G-d had the Jews led by a prophet…and that didn’t sit well with the Jews. They wanted to be like every other nation…and since all nations at that time had kings, they only wanted a king.  Which is why they requested one.  They got one all right…and with kings eventually came civil wars. Conformity.  Human people will always conform to something or someplace or some idea.  Even those folks in weird neighborhoods in Brooklyn (take the L train, my friend) all look the same trying to look like they are different.  Same weird piercings, same over-the-top-tattoos, same mismatched outfits – you can spot a hipster which means they conform to something though they think they are nonconformists. Therefore, we must always ask ourselves, what are we conforming to?  Let us remember to conform to G-d’s Torah and instructions.  For when we don’t, we become just another mistaken generation, swapping up a meaningful conformity to become just another, yawn, ho-hum, ordinary nothingness.  Who are you?  Who or what are you conforming to?     [1] Wouk, Herman. 1959. BackBay Books, Little, Brown & Company. [2] Potiphar’s wife is another person who erred in looking into the future and justifying her sin.  She saw she would have grandchildren with Yosef and thought that gave her license to be with him. What she saw, though, were the offspring of her adopted daughter who married Yosef.

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About jewishspectacles

Jewish Spectacles-the kind you look through, not the kind you create!
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3 Responses to Conforming to Conformity — or conforming to G-d!

  1. Princess Lea says:

    My mother always begged me to read “Winds of War,” but it did not appeal to me. What I did adore was “Inside, Outside,” Wouk’s semi-autobiographical novel. The problem is that it is kinda on the raunchy side. But I lent it (forcefully) to a woman who insisted that she only read “clean” books, and she then took the book hostage, sheepishly confessing that at it’s end, she was crying.

    A rabbi, a family friend, a baal teshuva who is in the kiruv field recommends “This is My God” to his students. When I saw it at a library book sale, in pristine condition, for 50 cents, I pounced. However, I have not yet read it, savoring it like a box of hoarded chocolate. But it is apparent from the above that I must read it sooner rather than later.

    Regarding the point on conformity, yes yes yes. The world is so large and there are so many “individuals” on it that no matter how one tries, there will be someone else who is the same. I used to fight who I was in the name of individuality, but that’s ridiculous.

    Sometimes I am made to feel I have to apologize for my beliefs. But today I try to be aware of what is my intrinsic truth, and I don’t deny it. The Eibishter is my focus.

    • The other one of his books that I keep either buying for folks or lending or making them read is Marjorie Morningstar. How he captured the emotions, mindset and turmoil of a gal’ when he’s a guy is a wonder to me. But, I think plenty an enlightened teen has decided to not become a. victim of jaded guys based on my pushing them to read this book.

      • Princess Lea says:

        Did I read that? I don’t think so. Must add to reading list.

        The more I observe others relationships, I am still surprised how many women happily fall for such men. We need more cautionary tales. I slogged through the “Kristin Lavransdatter” trilogy, which would scare any girl straight. Shiver.

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