Individuality

Why Madonna was Wrong-Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 2014

We are going to continue our discussion about why many of us feel disconnected from Judaism as a religion. We may embrace “Jewishness” as an ethnicity or even a culture, but generally only show limited interest in the religious elements of Judaism. We seem to prefer to talk about Jewish history, Jewish food, or politics in Israel instead of Jewish prayer, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, etc. It is not that we are not trying to be moral people. Rather, we just prefer not to connect this sense of morality with God or something higher than us. At the same time, there are so many choices of values and identities that are available to us, that religion has become only one choice among many ways to understand the world around us. We often choose these other options.

To begin today’s discussion though, I would like to quote Esther:

Express yourself

(You’ve got to make him)

Express himself

Hey, hey, hey, hey

So if you want it right now, make him show you how

Express what he’s got, oh baby ready or not

I guess I should have explained that I did not mean Esther, the heroine from the Megillah. I meant the Jewish name the pop star Madonna goes by when she is practicing Kabbalah. “Express Yourself” was a big hit for Madonna in the late 1980’s. The video involved her crawling around the floor at some factory somewhere, but that is not what is important. What is important is that the song’s title encapsulated a concept that has had a major impact on what people value today and how they approach religion. Express yourself.

We return to our friend, the philosopher Charles Taylor, who suggests in his book The Secular Age that we are currently living in a time in which Western society prizes what he calls “expressive individualism.” Yesterday, we talked about individualism and its general impacts. Today, we are going to focus on the specific type of individualism that Taylor believes is prominent right now.

Let me explain what Taylor means by “expressive individualism.” He does not just mean that people focus on being individuals instead of being part of larger social groups like their community or society as a whole. They do that, but they also emphasize the importance of “expressing themselves.” They have come to believe that every person has his or her way of “realizing his or her humanity.” It has become a priority for each person to find and live out his or her own way of living without conforming to a specific mold imposed on him or her by society, tradition, or a political or religious authority.

You can see how we prize this type of expressiveness in the way we praise people who are considered political or cultural mavericks, unrestrained by the expectations or authority of others. We praise musical artists like Madonna or Lady Gaga for expressing their true selves without being limited by social norms. Political leaders like Sarah Palin have been able to build careers on arguing that they are mavericks who express what they believe is right without being influenced by societal pressures.

Overall, expressing one’s own individuality is considered an important goal that people should strive to reach.

Taylor suggests that “expressive individuality” only became a widely-accepted value after World War II. Its spread was particularly promoted by the revolts of the 1960s, in which young people rebelled against a “system” that was said to squash imagination, creativity, and individuality. Taylor connects this move towards “expressive individuality” to the growth of consumerism after World War II. People started to have more wealth and could buy what used to be considered only luxuries. They started to focus more on their own private spaces, their own lives, and their own immediate families. Many moved to new towns or suburbs in which they lived more on their own depending less on neighbors and the larger society as a whole. They often started to look for happiness in the growing number of options of goods and services that they could purchase. In the process of acquiring all this new stuff, they were encouraged to demonstrate their own tastes more and more. People were told that they should make sure that their own private, personal space matched their own particular desires and needs. At the same time, it became “common wisdom” that having more choices was always better than having fewer ones. Choice became a virtue itself.

Overall, people in Western society came to see what they choose to buy as a way to express and show off their individuality. Taylor points out that there is something inherently problematic about this form of individuality. The options from which people are choosing are still set by whoever sets trends and styles. At the same time, corporations are often trying to make sure that their products are being chosen as the markers of identity. For example, some consumers may decide that they want to express their own individuality by purchasing Nike sneakers. They may feel that they are connecting themselves to an idea of “just do it” and the famous athletes supported by Nike. They are expressing themselves as individuals with this choice. The irony is that millions of other people may be expressing their individuality the same exact way.

People may feel like they are making their choices that express individuality though, even when they still are kind of conforming to society. The marketplace creates more and more options and emphasizes the idea of choice so much. Also, if people see their choices as somehow breaking away from a restrictive family or tradition, they still may seem them as a form of individual expression.

I believe that we can see this cultural shift in how the demand for tattoos expanded in modern American society over the past ten years. We all know they have become very popular. Now, I do not mean to talk about the traditional prohibition on tattoos in Judaism. I am not even saying if I think tattoos are good or bad. What I mean to point out, though, is that they are clearly seen as an expression of a person’s unique identity, particularly since there are at least thousands upon thousands of designs that the consumer can choose. I may pick a picture of horse, and you may choose to get a tattoo with your favorite quote from Jane Eyre. Either way, both of us may see ourselves as breaking from the expectations of our families or our religion and expressing what is unique about us. The irony is that most of the people we know may be trying to express their individuality the same exact way, and only because somehow it has been decided by someone else that tattoos are in style. In the end, are we expressing individuality or conformity?

And, then, what are the limits to self-expression? Basically, you can be whoever you want and express that in any way you want as long as you do not impinge on the rights of someone else. That is the limit. Do what you want, as long as it does not hurt someone else.

Taylor suggests that now we have a situation in which young people may actually base their own sense of self more on particular styles or products they use than larger social entities like their country, religion or political party. When they think about whom they are, they may first think about the fact that they are an Apple user, a gamer, or a BMW owner. They may think in these categories before thinking about themselves as an American, a Catholic, or a Democrat.

But to get back to our real topic of how we connect to religion, how does this “expressive individuality” affect our approach to religion? How does this emphasis on “expressing who we really are” impact how we see religion? Well…we expect our religion to express who we are. And if it does not, we feel that it does not make sense to follow it and basically drop it. We assume that our texts, our books, and our prayers should match what we already believe and feel, not that they should help determine what we believe and feel. If they do not match our already decided thoughts and beliefs, our first instinct is to close the prayerbook and wait for the service to be over. We decide that it just does not work for us.

Overall, we have stopped believing that there has to be a framework to spirituality.  In the past, we made choices, but they were limited choices. Jewish people would choose a movement, really a denomination, of Judaism. They may have decided to align with the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, Orthodoxy, or the Recontstructionist Movement, etc. They many not have always known the tenets or principles that were the official platform of each movement. But they at least associated with these larger structures that were known to each “believe” something. However, the religious climate has changed. I think if you ask many Jewish people, particularly younger ones, including in Des Moines, they do not care much about movements or denominations. The ones I meet are not necessarily looking for a Conservative or a Reform synagogue, rather a place they feel comfortable regardless of movement. This has probably been true for a while.

But the culture shift towards expressive individuality discussed by Taylor has had a deeper impact. Everything has become about each person’s own spiritual path, what insights he or she has gleaned from the world and finds meaningful. What is in his or her inner self.

Religion has become about the individual’s spiritual path. Not the spiritual path of Conservative Jews. Not the spiritual path of American Jews. Not even the spiritual path of the Jewish people. Your spiritual path. And if it is all about your spiritual path, how much do you need anyone or anything, like a rabbi or a prayerbook, to tell you what that path should be? In the past, people would be willing to follow the dictates of the larger religious group instead of following their own religious instincts. They would want their beliefs to fit into a larger accepted belief system. Now though, most people would think it was absurd and wrong to follow a form of religion that did not reflect their own spiritual path. They could not imagine a type of spirituality in which they gave up their own innate beliefs and path to match the dictates of some outside authority, regardless if that outside authority is a group of rabbis or a list of laws written on a scroll. Religion and spirituality no longer need a bigger structure or involve me having to fit into something bigger than me.

In this view, my religion should express who I am. It does not make me. It does not command me. It does not guide me. It expresses me. And if it does not, then I will look for what else I can use to express me. In the rest of my life, I do this all the time. If my car does not express who I am, I buy a new one. If the way my house is decorated fails to match who I am on the inside, then I redecorate the house.

We do this within Judaism. Keeping kosher does not express who I am, so I am not going to do it. However, I am a person who would study Kabbalah, so I will study it. Never mind the fact that the ancient Kabbalists all kept kosher and never expected anyone to study it that did not keep kosher. Or I may say Judaism does not express who I am. It is old. I am modern. So, I will keep it at a distance and look for something else that does express who I am.

But what is the problem with this? Maybe it is good that we have thrown off the restraints of structured religion, particularly since it is pretty easy to feel that Judaism has gone too far in creating structure. Here is the problem though: what about wisdom? What if our ancestors did have something to teach us? Maybe they knew that not taking a break each week was a bad idea. Maybe they figured it out that it was not always good for us to eat whatever we wanted. And maybe our religious lives do not need to be all about self-expression, but rather can still be about learning a better way to live. Maybe it is worth the trade-off.

I am a Conservative Rabbi and still a Conservative Jew. I am not these things because I dislike intermarriage or patrilineal descendent. Those are not really my issues. I am a Conservative Jew because I think that our ancestors were not dumb or backwards, that maybe they had something to teach us, even when those things do not already express who we are. I am not saying that I believe they always got it right. I am willing to question what they said. Perhaps, though, we still can learn from them. Try things on. Even when they might not be part of our self expression. And maybe this will enrich us and help us grow to have even more to express.

This year, I would like to suggest that we spend some time opening ourselves up. Not in terms of opening up in expressing more of our individuality, who we are inside. Rather, focusing on receiving. Opening up to receiving the wisdom of our tradition. Then, we may be able to connect more and grow as individuals, as a community, and as a people.

Speaker: Rabbi Edelman-Blank

Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank has been the rabbi of Tifereth Israel Synagogue since 2009. He received his Ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. Previously, Rabbi Edelman-Blank graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies. His eclectic experience includes interning at Burbank Temple Emanu El in Burbank, California, directing youth programs at Congregation Beth El in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, assisting with research in the field of psychology at Boston University, serving in AmeriCorps and an array of community service. His passions lie in community development and making Torah meaningful in our daily lives.