One of the most outstanding aspects of Judaism is the great amount of details that must be observed. Judaism has what to say about what we should be doing from the moment we wake up in the morning until the moment we go to sleep. This is not merely a peripheral aspect of Judaism; the mitzvot and their meticulous observance assume a position of utmost importance in Judaism. The observance and practice of mitzvot not only are described as necessary components of Judaism, but are also presented as prerequisite conditions and a working formula towards becoming better and more pious people (see Avot 2:6).
The more thought one gives to this, however, the more perplexed he becomes. If there are so many set rules that are to be followed, then to what extent do our individual characters matter? If indeed the Jewish ideal is for us to follow a set of rules, and the better we follow it the better people we become, then what room is there for individualism and uniqueness in Judaism? Is there one golden standard for which we all should strive? This possibility does not negate or diminish the importance and significance of the individual’s struggle; there is no question that each individual has his own unique set of gifts, challenges, and circumstances. The question, though, is if there is a special path, a unique course that one ought to pursue and develop; is there place for a unique and original existence that each individual is to seek and follow?
This and similar questions were very much on the minds of young people and budding intellectuals throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were a matter of great dispute between some of the leading Jewish thinkers of the time. A most prominent voice in these discussions was that of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who caused a tumult in the traditional Jewish community by openly declaring that meticulous observance of the rules simply is not enough. He asserted that deeper introspection and a sharper, personalized, and moral compass are necessary and indispensable tools in Jewish practice, tools that are essential imperatives for all. Others, however, sharply criticized him for this approach, which they argued undermined the existing halachic system by characterizing it as insufficient. Thoughts of the opposing school of thought were articulated some decades later by the Chazon Ish in his Emunah U’bitachon.
Rabbi Salanter and the Chazon Ish agree that striving for the fullest observance of Torah and mitzvot are necessary prerequisites to becoming a good Jew. Both agree that Judaism advocates a high level of personal integrity, compassion, and sensitivity to others and that these traits are indispensable in the pursuit of spiritual success. Indeed the Torah is full of commandments that obligate us to be decent, considerate, and virtuous people (see Vayikra 19:9-19). The point of disagreement is whether following those rules is sufficient. With such powerful sentiments and arguments pulling in each direction, it is no wonder that this controversy occupied the minds and hearts of Judaism’s best and brightest.
Many times the norm teaches us about the extreme. At times, however, the extreme can teach us about the norm. There is a remarkable story we are told (see Ta’anit 18b and Rashi s.v. be’Ludkiya, based on the interpretation of Rabbeinu Gershom Bava Batra 10b) about two brothers named Papus and Lulyanus. A Roman ruler got upset at a Jewish city where a murderer was hiding and declared that he would decimate the entire city if it would not bring forth the murderer. Papus and Lulyanus, despite not being the perpetrators of the crime, nonetheless confessed, thereby incurring an automatic death penalty but sparing the rest of the city. The Gemara tells us (Bava Batra 10b) that in the world of reward and closeness to Hashem, there is no one that is on a higher level than these two brothers. This seems puzzling, since we know of many other supremely righteous people. Why is it that these two brothers gained this exceptional distinction? It seems clear from here, as well as from other stories in the Gemara, that virtue, reward, and closeness to Hashem are not always determined by a “points” system; integrity, richness of character, altruism, and sincerity play a crucial role (cf. Ya’avetz Gittin 58a s.v.nechtam). In fact, one need not go as far as the Gemara to establish this point. Tanach is full of stories where brave decisions, courage, and integrity have transformed difficulty into destiny, tragedy into trajectory, and oppression into opportunity. The stories of Pinchas’s everlasting merit, King David’s eternal throne, and many more stories of “self-made” greatness that did not go unrewarded are just some examples of Judaism’s recognition and appreciation of individual greatness (see B’midbar 25:11 and Shmuel II 7:8).
The Torah introduces us to an extensive system of detailed commandments; Judaism and closeness to Hashem are impossible without such a standardized and absolute system of rights and wrongs. Ignoring this system is, and has proven to be, a deleterious mistake. At the same time, this system of rules does not at all rule out personal and individual decisions and the infinite possibilities of unique character. Each and every person is to do his utmost to explore and express all that is unique about himself. Such pursuits can make us into better Jews and simultaneously give the Jewish people a contribution it cannot afford to lose – its own unique children.
Published in the YU Lamdan