Erica Brown

Is Judaism for introverts?

‘Extroversion,” writes Susan Cain in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” “is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” Cain believes that extroverts represent half to two-thirds of the population. America, she writes, is one of the most extroverted countries in the world. Hey, extroverts have to live somewhere.

Most extroverts direct attention outward, are naturally outgoing and feel at home in a crowd. To introverts, the extroverts always seem comfortable in their own skins and feed off the energy of others. In contrast, many introverts don’t love crowds and can’t stay in them for long. They are more nourished in private and by time alone. Moses is a classic introvert in charge of extroverts. No wonder it took 40 years for Moses to move them.

Many Jewish activities take place in the presence of others, often a crowd. It got me thinking: Is Judaism, as it’s practiced today, built for introverts? Do we sufficiently praise and value the “still, small voice” of introversion? One rabbi believes that Judaism has room for both but tilts towards extroversion: “Purity preferences introversion, while holiness vectors outward. Since occasions for the holy are more frequent than rituals effecting purification, the collective, communal, seems more pervasive.” 

I asked some self-defined introverts and extroverts to weigh in. “There are parts of religion that are good for introverts, like prayer or mikvah, but the community aspect of religion is very much geared to extroverts. Jews love to be in your face.” Other rituals came to mind: “Pilgrimage holidays were probably terrifying for introverts. If you’re an introvert, Kiddush is a living hell. It’s hard to host people and introduce yourself to lots of people.” Someone else added that Yom Kippur, tefillin, mourning and blessings are spiritual experiences that can be particularly rewarding for introverts.

Camp life seemed to be a challenge for many introverts, although one shared that she simply gravitated to other campers who liked to disappear into books. She walked away from circles involving personal sharing. The same was true of school: “School is fine because you find your smaller group. I never raised my hand in school. It’s an extroverts’ world.”

Others felt that weddings, most holidays, communal responsibilities like board service and even being called up to the Torah can be a struggle if you find the presence of a lot of people intimidating. One summed it up with “exhausting.” A mother of introverts shared that the bar/bat mitzvah can be hard but a real growth experience. “Recognizing what makes your child comfortable is important before deciding how to observe the bar/bat mitzvah. It can also be the moment that an introverted child can practice being a little more extroverted, but you need to recognize that you are taking the child out of his or her comfort zone, and the child needs to be willing.”

A convert/introvert shared that her journey often left her feeling isolated. “People are instantly interested in your story, but you don’t want to tell it over and over again. People can ask you a lot of questions, and if you’re an introvert and a convert, it’s a double whammy.”

“Everything is more raw to you,” struggled an introvert trying to explain himself. “You can perceive something as embarrassing or uncomfortable, but others don’t see it that way. You recharge by being alone. If you’re not an introvert, you simply don’t understand what we go through. People perceive you as being rude, shy or socially awkward. There’s too much judgment of introverts.” Someone who loves a crowd can’t always understand those who don’t. But one introvert confessed: “If introverts got their way, there might not be community. You have to learn to make sacrifices to live in a community. You don’t want to miss out on experiences.”

Maybe we need a Jewish introvert/extrovert inventory, looking at events and activities through the lens of these two personality types and interrogating experiences to make sure there is a balance of small and large group activities. Do we have sufficient reflection, writing, meditation, one-on-one and processing time to balance out large and noisy Jewish settings? We need to help children within camp, synagogue and school settings understand and value introversion and introverts. Emphasizing relationships with God and others and not only community helps. We give introversion more value when holding up models throughout Jewish history of those who walked in the world quietly with immense authority. If, as one respondent wrote, “A richly furnished inner life is what makes inner-directed individuals into more influential leaders,” then maybe our Jewish extroverts would help their own inner lives by slowing down, listening and spending more time alone. 

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).