Living in two worlds
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 19, 2005
Articles on ba'alei teshuva in the chareidi media tend to fall into a few easily recognizable categories: the inspirational – relating the amazing concatenation of events leading the protagonist from a life completely alienated from Torah to one of full observance; the sympathetic – calls upon FFBs to recognize the special travails that ba'alei teshuva face.
I have no problem with either message, as far as they go. I also cry over the inspirational stories. And it is true that ba'alei teshuva do face certain issues particular to which the broader Torah community should be sensitive. But articles tend to emphasize the extent to which ba'alei teshuva require our sympathy and concern, and downplay the major contributions that they have made to Torah world.
Ba'alei teshuva have played an important role as defenders and expositors of the Torah world to the broader Jewish and secular society. Wendy Shalit is a classic example. Her recent essay "The Observant Reader" in the New York Times Book Review, where essays from an unabashedly chareidi point of view are about as frequent as sightings of the extinct dodo bird, generated a good deal of buzz.
In her original piece and in a follow-up essay published on-line at Jewish World Review, Shalit showed a sharp eye for absurd distortions in fictional portrayals of chareidim in popular fiction. One telling example: a 1995 story by Tova Reich about a chareidi girl lost on a school trip. In the story the girl's principal tells a reporter, "We went into the woods with 300 girls and came out with 299. . . [O]n a final exam that would give you . . . a sure A, maybe even an A plus."
Reich's story was based on a real life incident that took place the year before when a chareidi girl was lost for two days in a forest on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. Except in the real life case, hundreds of chareidim traveled for hours to participate in the search. Thousands more joined prayer vigils. Reich's portrayal of chareidi indifference to a young girl in danger constituted an authorial hate crime.
Shalit followed with a number of astute observations about the qualifications of the novelists surveyed to portray the chareidi world – a matter of great importance when the novels are being marketed as insider's view of a hitherto inaccessible world.
Of course, Shalit is not exactly a chareidi insider either. She has been fully observant only six years. But having lived in the chareidi world, she knew that the veritable rogues' gallery of shallow, hypocritical, mean-spirited chareidim in most popular fiction do not bear the slightest resemblance to the Jews who attracted her to religious observance.
Shalit may be a newcomer, but she has already made a major contribution to the chareidi community, both as its defender and as an eloquent exponent of Jewish values to the broader Jewish world. Indeed her contributions are inseparable from her status as a ba'alat teshuva.
Without her secular credentials – a major article in Commentary while still in college and a best-selling book, A Return to Modesty, written before she was fully observant -- and the ability to spice her discussion with references to Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and James, the New York Times Book would never have given her the time of day.
Similarly, it was the incongruity of a chareidi writer citing Dante that led the editor of the Jerusalem Post to immediately offer a regular Friday column to the current "chareidi columnist" when the latter's first column appeared. That column has allowed chareidim in Israel to speak for themselves for the first time rather than simply being spoken about as anthropological curiosities in a zoo.
The ability to speak two languages – that of the secular academic world in which they were raised and that of the Torah world which they have joined – has uniquely suited ba'alei teshuva to present the chareidi world to outsiders. And that same ability explains why so many of the most prominent outreach professionals come from secular backgrounds.
By virtue of their ability to convey the deepest Torah ideas in a modern idiom, ba'alei teshuva have proven to be some of the most successful expositors of Torah in our time. The Jewish Self by Jeremy Kagan, a Yale-trained philosopher, and a series of books by Dr. Akiva Tatz – Worldmask, Living Inspired, and Letters to a Buddhist Jew – are among the most important works of Jewish thought in English in the last decade.
Nor has the impact of ba'alei teshuva been confined to their role as communicators to the outside society. They have also made important contributions to the Orthodox world itself. The first is demographic. Without an influx of ba'alei teshuva, Orthodox life as we know it in many out-of-town communities would be inconceivable. Ba'alei teshuva constitute up to 70% of the Orthodox community in many cities.
The contribution of the ba'alei teshuva has been qualitative as well as qualitative. 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 who struck them as qualitatively superior to anyone they had ever met, and who remain for them the standard of a Torah life. Thus they are far less likely than FFBs to tolerate deviations from the Torah standards, or to excuse those deviations as just the way things are.
Because most ba'alei teshuva came to their religion as adults, 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, ba'alei teshuva have 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 ba'alei teshuva.
Every ba'al teshuva views his new community not only through his or her own eyes, but also the eyes of secular family and friends. For them, Kiddush Hashem - sanctifying God's name by demonstrating the beauty of His Torah - remains the overriding goal, and they have helped sensitize the larger Torah world to the imperative of Kiddush Hashem.
In short, ba'alei teshuva, like Shalit, have found ways to use their previous lives to enrich the Torah community in which they now live.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, World Jewry
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