[A guest post on Torah by Jonny Schneeweiss! He's better known to the Internet for his Schneeblog, an insightful treatment of writing technique, fantasy/sci-fi/otaku, and human nature. Check it out – some great stuff. --Ed.]
I've been noticing lately how there are cultural trends of values just like cultural trends of fashion and entertainment etc. People don't really think into these values, but they're just caught up in the current so to speak. It ends up being this dichotomy of either you agree with the culturally supported dogma or you disagree with it and there's no other option. If you're too swayed by the questions of the opposing side, your only recourse is to either switch to the anti version of your idea or be stubborn and irrationally stick to your guns.
A big example was something I noticed looking into Korean culture. In American culture, what's important is being "successful", which is a) something we as a culture haven't really thought out, and b) no one really knows what it means. But we want to be successful. There are only two sides to this discussion: either you are ambitious and try to make money and achieve success, OR you naively follow your dreams and passions and are not as successful but you're following your dream, so screw success and screw the man!
In Korea, NO ONE talks about success. They DO NOT care about success at all. For them, the cultural dogma is all about hard work. Every instance when, in the West, you'd hear someone use the word "success", in Korea it's replaced with "hard work". Women don't want to marry someone who is successful, they want to marry someone who works hard. In school, you're not told to do your homework so you can get a good job and be successful, you're told to do your homework because you should be working hard. Are you working hard or are you playing? Success? Who cares about that? Are you working your hardest? Even if you're not making any money or moving up in the world, are you working yourself to death? That's what matters. What else COULD matter?
There must be hundreds of examples of this, where the thesis/antithesis phenomenon as it applies to cultural values is seen as the ONLY way of thinking, when in the country next door there's a completely different thesis/antithesis argument dominating the national discource. This reality is a sign of a) how unthought out cultural values are and b) how inescapable they are when it's literally all you're surrounded by. People can't escape the binary yes/no morality they're raised in. They don't even know they're being confined. It's like Flatland.
The nation we belong to as Israelites was founded on an event where the most dominant cultural dogma of the time was completely and utterly shattered right before our eyes. Bnei Yisrael were raised in an Egypt where priests probably argued about which gods were supreme and politicians vied for pharaoh's favor. That way of viewing the world was inescapable. But then in the very forging of our nation we were shown through events that the entire foundation was wrong.
Throughout our history, we've stood as a broken nation on the edge of more powerful nations who refuse to accept us. We grow up exposed to the culture of whatever nation we've been exiled to while still knowing that we have our own system of values and our own ways of thought. Just knowing that--that there IS another way of looking at each facet of life we hear about--is the most powerful tool humans can have against being swept up in the cultural force of values and thought trends. Even if we don't understand the values of our own tradition, we know they exist, which means we never have to be confined to the thesis/antithesis cycle going on around us. We have the freedom to say "I know there MUST a different way of viewing ALL of this, there must be a third dimension in this 2-d world, so let me think some more and see if anything else makes sense." This is just an option many people don't have. They don't KNOW they can do that, because why would they? Whom have they ever seen or heard about who has done that? Our national identity IS "a stranger in a strange land." Breaking out of cultural dogmas is who we are, and even when we failed to build our own successful culture as a nation, we were exiled for the purpose of reforging that identity in the midst of countless other cultures that refuse to accept us. That's the freedom I was thankful for this Pesach.