Frum and Frei

Ex-frum bloggers often seem to divide the world into “The Frum World”, a narrow and narrowminded tribal mini-world, and the GREAT BIG WORLD OUT THERE WHERE YOU CAN DO JUST ABOUT ANYTHING. Why stay frum when you can this, and this and that too!

But of course the frum world is really a lot like the rest of the world, which isn’t one big magical realm full of possibilities with no more rules of expectations, but a collection of subcultures and mini-tribes, each with its own set of rules and expectations. Humans are naturally tribal. We clump, we build treehouses and then we post rules on the treehouse, elect a treehouse committee and say who is and isn’t allowed in our treehouse. Unless you’re going to be a hermit, there’s no opting out, without also opting in. Leaving one tribe and its rulers, means joining another and following its rules.

Every single social subgroup has its own power structure and social rules which you’re expected to obey. It has standards of dress and beliefs that you can and can’t have. With some social subgroups, particularly the ones ex-frum people love, those can be subtle, which just means you can’t buy a sefer to tell you how to fit in. Not having official rules, but ones you have to pick up from the cooler people, is of course what makes those subgroups “cool”.

No matter how open or loose or free you think a subgroup is, all of them have their taboos. Try being a right wing bohemian artist, wearing clothes at a nudist colony or suggesting that religion might not be all bad at phyrangula. Each tribe has things they’ll toss you out on your ass for. Thou Shalt Nots. And of course the key Thou Shalt Not in every subgroup is Thou Shalt Not Challenge the Men in Charge or the Queen Bees, and Thou Shalt Not Change the Way We Do Things. Sound familiar?

Respect for the people on top and the local minchag is built into every single group. It’s one of those things that make humans what they are. Being non-conformist just means finding a new more creative standard to conform to. “You should think for yourselves.” “Yes, we should think for ourselves!”

Take the ex-frum girl blogger who has happily left Frumstania behind. She no longer spends lots of money shopping for Kosher food and checking Hasgachas. Now she spends lots of money shopping at Whole Foods and checking for Fair Trade Hasgachas. She no longer dresses to meet a standard in some sefer and the social expectations of those in her high school. She dresses to meet a standard in a whole bunch of magazines and the social expectations of the people in her office. She doesn’t have to worry about supporting a husband who learns in Kollel. Instead she gets to support her boyfriend who’s a struggling artist.

Welcome to your old life, with a cooler label on it. Sure you can be more things, so long as you’re willing to give other things up. There’s no free lunch and no open book. The world can seem like a big place, but it quickly breaks down into smaller social groups that still require conformity as the price of membership. Yes you can be an artist, a ballerina or a crazy homeless person, if you’re willing to learn and abide by the social survival skills of your new tribe. If you can’t, then you’re off the derech or a problem person who has no future “with us”.

Dissatisfied people see those expectations as the bars on a cage. Adjusted people don’t see them at all and wonder what all the fuss is about. But there’s no yellow brick road away from social expectations, conformity and seemingly arbitrary rules. There’s no opting out of one system, without opting into another. There’s no frum and frei. Only different flavors of frum.