In 1927, the German expressionist director Fred Lang created the now iconic film called Metropolis. In the black and white film, industrialists ruled over a million-acre city from skyscraping towers while lowly workers toiled below. The haunting imagery in the film attempted to show that society had to conform to the larger machinations of the elite through mind-numbing factory work and the constant menace of political violence. While the film is celebrated as a triumph of expression today, what is amazing to me is that when it was first released it was widely panned. None other than the Hollywood legend H.G. Wells called the film, “the silliest film,” saying that it was “filled with foolishness, cliché and platitude.”
The core criticism against Metropolis was that machines are good, not bad, and mechanical reproduction frees the human spirit not to trap it in drudgery. Wells and others liked conformity and mechanics, because they brought comfort and ease. You don’t have to think so much when everything was already given to you made of cheap, perfectly regulated replicas. In the 20th century, it was not just machines that inspired conformity and simplicity – it was everywhere. If you went to a farm, you would see that only single, perfectly repeated crops were grown in perfect rows, in systems called monocropping. If you moved to a neighborhood, you would find a single story, perfectly replicated and prefabricated home to move into; if you went to a fast-food restaurant, it didn’t matter if you were in St. Louis or St. Louis Park, McDonald’s Big Macs looked, felt, and tasted the same, not just because they had to, but because that’s what consumers wanted.
Psychologists beginning with Muzafer Sherif showed us that there’s a deep part of us that needs to conform. It soothes. It sanctions. It makes us feel as if we are part of a greater thing, whether it’s a knitting club or a book club, a country, a sports team, or a culture. In that sense, conformity can bring us to a sort of transcendence, going beyond ourselves to something a bit bigger.
Predictability. Simplicity. Conformity.
The problem of conformity is that it creates “in-groups” and “out-groups.” This is true of all systems, be they recreational or spiritual. While the consistency of prayer, dress, and behavior work for the “in-group” in religious circles, there are so many that feel on the outside because of their beliefs or orientations and in some cases because of their ethnic backgrounds. I’ve worked with so many people who don’t feel they have a home in a synagogue or church because the spiritual spark inside of them is not ignited by what they experience from their religious tradition. Instead of feeling swept up in faith, they feel swept out the door. This is the shadow of conformity: unless you conform to the standards, you can’t be included. We are guilty of giving ourselves over to conformity and when we do overly much, we hurt other people.
God, on the other hand, does not like conformity. Over and over again in the Torah, we find God trying to teach humanity that moral standards are important, but religious conformity, less so. God separates light and darkness, wet and dry, the week and the Sabbath, but it is both the polar opposites that are called ‘good.” When Cain and Abel give the first sacrifices, God is dumbstruck as to why Cain is so jealous of Abel’s offering. (Genesis 4:5) God essentially tells Cain not to be enslaved to the expectations of his brother, for each person should be judged on their own merit. (HaEmek HaDvar, ad locum) Later, when the world’s first metropolis arose in the valley of Shinar, God was dismayed that humanity was using its technology for the wrong purposes — achieving great power — instead of bettering each other. (Sforno) The primary tool was not brick and mortar but the power of speech itself. God saw in their conformity the ambition to unseat divinity itself, and scattered humanity globally, creating different cultures and languages. The sin of Babel was power through conformity; God’s punishment was a blessing in disguise.
And in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we see the interpersonal expression of God’s critique of our urge to conform. We find Isaac at the end of his life, blinded in old age and wishing to set his affairs in order before passing away. He requests that his son, Esau, go to the forest and bring back game for a ceremonial dinner in which he would give his son the covenantal blessing. At the request of Rebecca, Jacob, the younger of the brothers, cooks a meal for Isaac and places the hides of a sheep on his arms in order to “steal” the blessing of the father. (Genesis 27:21) Poetically, the Torah makes Jacob conform to the physicality of Esau.That is except for his voice. Isaac says, “These are the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob,” perhaps indicating that Isaac knew what Jacob was doing all along. (Genesis 27:22)
When Esau returns, he too prepares a meal and brings it to Isaac. When it’s discovered that Jacob had tricked his father, the Torah brings us to an incredibly sacred moment. Isaac trembles violently and Esau, the stoic hunter, sobs openly, imploring , “Bless me too, Father!” (Genesis 27:34) Isaac could simply have said, “No, I can’t.” Like God with Cain, Isaac finds recompense by pushing the veil of blessing outward. In the very last act of his life, Isaac gives Esau a blessing as well, one fit for his lifestyle as a hunter and outdoorsman. When it comes to blessings and moments of the sacred, conformity simply does not work. It is entirely human and entirely short sighted to think that everyone is created ineffably to conform to a mechanistic view of the world. The highest expression of God’s will is your own expression of your deepest, most authentic self. Isaac embodies this by his willingness to recognize that each of his sons need something different from their father, He is willing to listen to God’s voice flowing through him, to give blessings to both sons. For a man who is blind, Isaac sees very well.
When religion and society accept conformity in the hopes of reaching transcendence, we will ultimately confuse simplicity and similarity with sanctity. Instead, we must understand that the holy part of ourselves can express the Infinite in infinite ways. God does have a blessing for each and every one of us, and it’s our task to find out what that blessing is. As institutions, we must try to not force conformity as much as we should create a platform for the highest moral and spiritual expression of each person. We don’t need more religious metropolises; we need more sacred moments that shake us, bring us to tears in both sorrow and joy.