BETWEEN CONFORMITY AND ANARCHY

April 11th, 2023

Sir Winston Churchill, the master of pithy political one-liners, once told the House of Commons: “The truth is that an anarchist would not be able to carry on the functions of daily life for a single week without the aid of those whom he denounces as his oppressors and enemies.”

Churchill’s utter contempt for anarchists is well-documented; on another occasion, he told the House of Commons that “anarchism is the philosophy of the vandal, the ghoul, and the assassin.”

I have often pondered over a particularly startling anomaly: most people, not just Winston Churchill, despise anarchists and anarchy. But often, these same people don’t like conformists and conventionality either. Churchill was no exception. Throughout his life, he was fiercely independent, unconstricted by conventional norms. And yet, surely conformity is the opposite of anarchy? Why would someone who doesn’t like anarchists scorn conformity and conventionality?

It is perfectly understandable that right-thinking people abhor anarchy. Whether as a political philosophy or as an individual creed, anarchism is appropriately perceived as dangerous because of its total disdain for social order, laws, authority, and for regulations that promote the well-being and safety of society as a whole.

In an idealized anarchic society, there is no recognized authority or government, and everyone is totally free to act according to their own will. Even the kind of people who subvert authority and are critical of government understand that a complete lack of regulation and control inevitably results in utter chaos, ultimately harming both individuals and society at large.

Which should automatically mean that these same people embrace conformity and conventionality. But curiously, that is not the case at all. Most people consider blindly following conventional norms and expectations as excessively restrictive and limiting, and think that being too conventional prevents a person from expressing their true selves and from pursuing interests and desires which will help them grow. In fact, conformists are widely derided for stifling creativity and originality, and for preventing innovation. Instead of promoting conformity, good educators always encourage their students to think independently and to be as creative and as innovative as they can be.

How is thinking independently, Churchill style, any different from thinking like an anarchist? Seemingly, anarchism is the ultimate form of independent spiritedness – with all restrictions and conventions removed. Shouldn’t this mean that only an anarchist can reach the zenith of human creativity?

The answer is an emphatic ‘no!’ Independent thinking, even being fiercely independent, is a positive trait, but only as long as it is tempered with an understanding of social responsibility and respect for the rights and needs of others. Independent thinkers – like Winston Churchill –make positive contributions to society by challenging established norms and advocating for change. But it only works if they also recognize the importance of compromise and cooperation to achieve common goals.

The key difference between anarchism and a healthy spirit of independence is a recognition of the need for social order and the importance of working within a framework of laws and regulations. Anarchists reject any form of authority and accepted wisdom, while a constructive independent spirit understands the value of what came before, treating it as a platform for the present, with a view to improving the future.

Remarkably, this entire idea of independent-spiritedness being a good thing, as opposed to anarchism, which is a bad thing, is preserved in a puzzling inconsistency in Parshat Shemini. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (1696-1743), in his seminal Ohr Hachaim Torah commentary (Lev. 10:19), addresses the question of whether a rabbinical student is ever permitted to rule on halachic matters in the presence of their teacher. His conclusion is that if they are asked by someone else for a ruling while their rabbi is present, they must defer to their rabbi, in accordance with the prohibition against ruling on halachic matters in the presence of one’s teacher.

However, if they make the ruling for themselves, without being asked by someone else, this is altogether different, and they can decide what to do based on what they have previously learned. To support this leniency, the Ohr Hachaim cites the example of Aaron, who independently decided – without consulting his brother and teacher, Moses— that it was inappropriate for him and his sons to eat the Rosh Chodesh sin offering (Lev. 9).

But if that is the case, asks the Ohr Hahaim, why did God react so severely to Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, when they offered an independent incense offering at the dedication of the sanctuary? According to one opinion in the Talmud, Nadav and Avihu were punished for deciding that they could offer incense without first consulting Moses. What sets apart their independent decision to offer incense from Aaron’s earlier independent decision regarding the Rosh Chodesh sin offering?

To solve this seeming inconsistency, the Ohr Hachaim distinguishes between two types of independence: anarchic independence, which is incompatible with Torah, and an independent approach that builds on the existing framework of Torah. This latter category should always be admired and encouraged, he says.

Not every autonomous halachic decision is necessarily misguided, as there are instances when acting independently is both necessary and warranted. The key is to discern when and how to exercise this autonomy, and to do so in such a way that you have not severed ties with the prevailing structure.

Although Moses was Aaron’s teacher, it was Aaron, not Moses, who recognized – based on what Moses had previously taught him – that the Rosh Chodesh sin offering should not be consumed. Aaron may not have been Moses’ equal, but there are occasions when a student can match or even exceed the stature of their rabbi, achieving equality and independence. Indeed, this is a phenomenon that should be cherished and celebrated.

Meanwhile, Nadav and Avihu had abandoned what Moses had taught them in favor of an anarchic alternative structure that ignored prevailing norms. Anarchy is always independence that has been taken too far, inexorably leading to a path of ruin.

At its very heart, Judaism is a faith that strikes a balance between conformity and anarchy, offering every opportunity for new ideas and innovation, while at the same time venerating the past and striving to preserve the existing order. Stray too far in either direction, and you’ve lost the plot.

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