Who are the baalei teshuva?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 6, 2000
I often find myself puzzled by those who claim to be religious but whose every word consists of carping about the failures of the religious world.
I don't mean criticism; both religious and non-religious Jews should know that we have not yet created Gan Eden on earth. I mean those who exhibit some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder that allows them to talk about no other subject.
What puzzles me is how they live with the fact that their words provide so many of their fellow Jews with an excuse never to inquire more deeply into their Judaism. It is not much of an advertisement for "our holy and pure Torah" that those most committed to its study and rigorous about the observance of its precepts have created the most depraved society on the face of the earth. The society's males are all sadistic misogynists whose every waking moment is devoted to conceiving new tortures for women; its women hapless and witless victims who submit to those tortures, and in turn perform the spiritual equivalent of Kikuyu rituals on their daughters, as they are inducted into lives of misery and servitude; its children uncared for and unloved, raised in ignorance.
One of the genre's most devoted practitioners has now answered my question: Better that the ba'alei teshuva not become religious than that they be "kidnapped" into this dark cabal. The ba'al teshuva yeshivot in which students are taught to hate themselves and reject every aspect of their former lives as valueless, to wave goodbye to their critical intelligence and their very humanity, must be shut down. (The only worthy ba'alei teshuva, it turns out, are those ready to proclaim Moshe Morganstern the undisputed sage of our generation and every Orthodox rabbi on the face of the earth an ignorant, cowardly bloodsucker).
Does this picture of the education of ba'alei teshuva comport with reality? Are ba'alei teshuva, for instance, taught that everything in their past lives was
I remember learning at Ohr Somayach before Yom Kippur that there are two types of teshuva (repentance) - teshuva through fear and teshuva through love. The latter is much higher, and it requires taking every aspect of one's personality and redirecting it positively. When one does that, not only are one's past transgressions erased, they are accounted as mitzvot.
We were also taught that in some ways the task of identifying our unique role in creation, upon which every Jew's thoughts should be focused at this time of year, is easier for the ba'al teshuva. There must be a reason that he or she was raised in a non-observant home, and therefore his or her life task involves using all that they learned and all the skills that they developed before becoming observant.
Are ba'alei teshuvataught to reject their parents? Before my wife and I returned from Israel to visit our families for the first time, we spent three hours with a rabbi going over every possible leniency that would reduce tension in our parents' homes. One of the leading halachic authorities of our generation told the son of a Conservative rabbi that he should not pray in an Orthodox synagogue in his hometown on Shabbat so as to not embarrass his father.
And I will never forget hearing the late Rabbi Simcha Wasserman tell a packed auditorium at Ohr Somayach that when we visited our parents we must explain to them that the Torah is based on transmission from one generation to another, and show them that our becoming religious should only intensify the parent-child relationship. (After the Return, written as a guide for ba'alei teshuva returning home by two rabbis at Ohr Somayach, fully captures this philosophy).
Far from being absorbed as mindless drones, ba'alei teshuva are having an increasingly large impact on the religious community. Outside of the New York metropolitan area, ba'alei teshuva constitute up to 70% of the Orthodox community in many cities. In Passaic, New Jersey, there are more than 200 ba'al teshuva families. Among the recent students from the small ba'al teshuva yeshiva down the street are an assistant US district attorney, one of America's leading property managers, and top Wall Street professionals, all of whom were able to resume their careers after years of intense Torah learning.
By their nature, ba'alei teshuva are idealists. Each, at some point, reexamined the assumptions upon which their lives had been based because they were exposed to a vision of life far more powerful than any they had known. In most cases, they met Jews whose lives struck them as qualitatively different to those of anyone else they had ever met. Those teachers and mentors remain for them the standard of a Torah life.
The ba'alei teshuva are far less likely than those raised in the Orthodox community to tolerate deviations from the Torah standards, or to excuse those deviations as just the way things are. For them, Kiddush Hashem - sanctifying God's name by demonstrating the beauty of His Torah - remains the overriding imperative. Because most of these ba'alei teshuva came to their religion as adults and after sophisticated secular educations, they had to search the full breadth of Torah sources for the answers to their questions. They could not be satisfied with answers that suffice for a five-year-old who is first learning the aleph-bet. As a result, the study of ba'alei teshuva has played an important role in opening the Torah world to a broader range of classic texts. Go to any lecture of the most profound Jewish thinkers of our time, and you will find a high percentage of those in attendance are ba'alei teshuva. Ba'alei teshuva have themselves proven to be some of the most successful expositors of Torah in our time due to their ability to convey deep ideas in a modern idiom.
It is the season of teshuva. No Jew can come closer to the Torah just because someone else has done so. For each the struggle must be an individual one. But no one should be prevented from embarking on the path because of lies told about his or her predecessors.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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