November 13, 2006

Why The Baal Teshuva World Irritates Me

I am not FFB, but I have a number of friends who are. I am not BT and not real likely to go that route. I have watched many friends go down that path and haven't had the most pleasant reaction to what I have seen.

The internal struggle that many of them has gone through has created so many tumultuous situations. Time after time I have witnessed terrible fighting with their relatives and the complete severance of decade long friendships.

I understand and appreciate that they have found a spiritual calling. I can respect that. I don't have any problem with people choosing to find the derech. But I cannot condone the bridge burning that many of their supporters encourage them to do.

When the only way that you can find security in your new place is to rid yourself of all of your old world ties there is a problem. It comes off as being cultlike and I think that it is sad.

Not all of my friends growth resembled Sherman's march through Atlanta. Some of them found a path that allowed them to do what they had to do without badmouthing their friends and relatives. Some of them were secure enough to accept that not everyone was going to be like them.

And some understood that you attract more flies with honey. They recognized that patronizing comments were unwarranted and that building bridges made more sense.

I suppose that part of what bothers me about this stems from their refusal to accept that there are those of us who have chosen to maintain our level of observance. Just as they feel like they have come to a place of spiritual growth so have we.

I recall one friend who grew up in a completely secular home trying to teach me how I could be more observant and become a better Jew. The former three day a year Jew thinking that 18 months of learning meant that he knew more than 25 years of practicing Judaism.

Why? Because the people he was surrounded by taught him that any Judaism that was different from their own wasn't real. Quite shameful and quite sad. A real chillul Hashem.

I don't want to belabor the point. I don't have a problem with BTs in general and applaud their decision. All I expect is that they open their eyes and look around. In spite of what some say, it is a big world and there is no one singular path to Hashem.

Just as they say they'll daven for me, I daven for them.

16 comments:

FrumWithQuestions said...

I agree and disagree about your observations. I have seen friends that have turned frum over night and stopped talking to old friends because of it but I have also seen people gradually turn religious and continue to speak to their old friends and act as a role model. I guess the underlying reason behind this has to do with each individuals reasons as to why they became religous. Many people who become religious become that way because of problems that they have and think religion has an answer. There are others who just appreciate what religion has to offer which is why things are done more gradually and friends are not lost. Since becoming more religous, the only thing that has changed about me is that I will no longer daven in a conservative or reform shul. I will still enter them since I have friends and family that attend and don't wan't to insult. If i need to go into one for a family event I try and find an orthodox haschama minyan which will allow me to go into a non orthodox shul without having to worry about participating.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your thoughts on this subject, Jack. I grew up with a minimal degree of traditional observance and a yeshiva education, and as far as I knew there were no others like me at yeshiva. But because I was always surrounded by "frum" people who assumed I was one of them, I still feel like I don't really fit in with standard BTs. When I think BT, I think of people like the mainstream American BTs I know (our family was kind of old-world European) or of my husband who grew up in Russia without knowing aleph-bet or having heard of Shabbos until he was 15. We have extremely close ties with both sides of our families, and it really is a shame when some BTs cut off ties. Sometimes this is not due to self-righteousness on the BT's part but on a great deal of antagonism from family members, or a combination of the two (chicken or egg?) In light of a lot of the extremist BT stuff I feel is out there lately, this post really spoke to me.

Shoshana said...

Excellent post. I think many BTs (and I'm saying this because yes, I went through it) do go through such a stage as the one you are describing, where all you can see is the life you have newly chosen and feel like it is the only way to practice Judaism. But...there are also many BTs who realize that while what they chose is right for them, what others choose is right for those people, and to have the respect of others requires respecting them as well. I like to think I've moved to a place in my life where I respect each person for choosing the life they feel is best for them, without judgment or superiority.

Anonymous said...

Jack,

BTs are frequently taught to break with their former lives and networks, as Charedim are quite like the Christian fundamentalists with their "before I was frum" rhetoric instead of "before I was saved."

They drive people nuts, by insisting this is the only way to be a good Jew. Charedi institutions who preach this sort of thing need to be avoided by mainstream Jewish institutions and organizations. Instead, Modern Orthodox groups like the Orthodox Union partner with them. http://www.projectinspireonline.com

Liorah-Lleucu said...

All BT's are a little (or alot) crazy, especially in the beginning. A BT is by definition, I think, a person in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis, and that can of itself, be emotionally taxing upon both the BT and upon the "normal" people in the BT's life.

Stacey said...

Great post!

Jack's Shack said...

FWQ,

I have a real problem with people being pushed away from their old identity. I understand how and why some people would need some distance to focus on themselves, but that is their choice. It is different.

Raggedy,

I understand the challenges that families present. I don't think that it is fair for families to slam the choices of family members because they do not jibe with their own. It is a two way street.

I like to think I've moved to a place in my life where I respect each person for choosing the life they feel is best for them, without judgment or superiority.

Shoshana,


That is very important. Too bad that more people haven't taken a similar position.

David,

Agreed.

Liorah,

BT's are nuts. It would make a great T-shirt.

Stacey,

Cueball said that he should have given you a towel.

Ezzie said...

While I've seen the attitude you're referring to, I've seen it more often from people who go from one "type" of frum to another (say, MO to Yeshivish) than those who are actually BT. (My mother and brother-in-law are both BTs.) Most of the BTs I know are not only extremely respectful to their relatives, but extremely connected. We just ate at my (Conservative) grandparents on Sunday, who were talking about my aunt who has now switched from Cons. to Reconstructionist. My brother-in-law had his sister and her husband for a Sukkos meal with us, though they're non-affiliated and we're all obviously Orthodox.

On the occasion where I have seen it, it's often a rabbi encouraging them to make some kind of separation to avoid "falling back" into what they feel are not good for the person religiously. Most of the time, these Rabbis will be very careful to say that this does NOT mean burning bridges at all, merely making it clear that a person has a new and slightly different lifestyle; there are those who misinterpret and/or willfully ignore this and take it to an extreme, and that's where the problem lies.

Extremes in general seem to be a recipe for disaster.

RR said...

Good post- it's interesting, I've met quite a few BTs in my day, and I don't think any of them cut ties with their old life. I didn't even realize until I was older that some BTs are encouraged to do just that, and I was (and continue to be) horrified by that attitude. Say good-bye to your family and friends? How terrible!

Sheyna Galyan said...

"...any Judaism that was different from their own wasn't real."

This line really resonates with me. I've been very fortunate to have met some wonderful frum folks online who are totally accepting and neither denigrate nor try to change my own practices and beliefs.

However, I've met far too many frum folks face to face who not only think that any form of Judaism not their own is downright wrong, but were condescending and patronizing in how they told me I was a disgrace to "real Jews" everywhere.

It seems to me that halacha itself would prohibit that kind of talk. Yet they see it as their obligation. Kinda like they have to go "witness" to and try to convert other Jews to their way of thinking.

Even my Christian friends don't do that.

Go figure.

josh said...

Jack,
One of the things that often infuriates friends of BT's is the internal nagging "am i really right in not making the change?" As long as no one "normal" does the BT thing, I'm comfortable in my complacency about my life. As soon as it hits close to home, all of a sudden I need to question whether I've really made a "decision" about religion, or I've simply avoided the decision by writing off BT's as crazy people who do crazy things.

Maybe, instead of judging how other people go through the very complex and challenging transformation of religious observance, one should introspect as to whether they've really asked themselves the critical theological and philosophical questions that lead many seekers down that path...

just a thought...

Jack's Shack said...

Josh,

Years ago I sat in a fabulous barbecue joint in Santa Barbara and considered what to eat.

Amidst a saw dust covered floor I agonized over getting the ribs or a barbecue beef sandwich. The smell of the food was quite enticing and I was starving.

It is too bad that place doesn't exist any more because it would have been perfect for this.

One of the things that often infuriates friends of BT's is the internal nagging "am i really right in not making the change?"

That doesn't bother me. Never has. I don't wear a sweater because someone else is cold. I have never considered becoming Xtian or Muslim because billions of others have done so. I do what I do because I choose to do so.

Maybe, instead of judging how other people go through the very complex and challenging transformation of religious observance, one should introspect as to whether they've really asked themselves the critical theological and philosophical questions that lead many seekers down that path...

Here is the thing, you are really avoiding the meat of my post. I don't have a problem with people going BT, provided that they have engaged in this sort of introspection.

As I said I understand and appreciate that they have found a spiritual calling. I can respect that. I don't have any problem with people choosing to find the derech. But I cannot condone the bridge burning that many of their supporters encourage them to do.

When the only way that you can find security in your new place is to rid yourself of all of your old world ties there is a problem. It comes off as being cultlike and I think that it is sad.

Not all of my friends growth resembled Sherman's march through Atlanta. Some of them found a path that allowed them to do what they had to do without badmouthing their friends and relatives. Some of them were secure enough to accept that not everyone was going to be like them.

And some understood that you attract more flies with honey. They recognized that patronizing comments were unwarranted and that building bridges made more sense.

I suppose that part of what bothers me about this stems from their refusal to accept that there are those of us who have chosen to maintain our level of observance. Just as they feel like they have come to a place of spiritual growth so have we.


Some of us are who we are because we reached this point through our own introspection. Maybe the nagging feeling you describe is your own insecurity.

You tell me...

Ben-Yehudah said...

B"H

Jack, I also agree and disagree.

Isn't it possible you've just encountered the worst of the worst case scenarios?

I'll bet there are a few BT's out there who you know, but don't know that they're BT's. Well, it's possible anyway.

I hear quite a bit of the opposite approach here (I hope you are please to hear of such approaches), when young men are returning home to N. America from yeshiva for a simha, vacation, or plain ol' visit.

They are often told to keep their mouths shut about various things, go to the Reform kiddush for cousin's bat mitzvah, be nice, etc.

Leniencies are also recommended for kashruth. Honoring mother and father do not apply when asked to do something assur by them, but there's no reason to be shmucky about things, and be all frumer than thou.

But the bottom line is that, IMHO, there is a right and a wrong, and these kids are trying find their ways on the right path.

That necessarily IMHO means not being a shmuck, but it also means not getting into dad's car on Shabbath just because dad wants to make a point, nor eating the BLT mom so lovingly prepared.

Yehsiva students talk to their rabbeim about their specific circumstances, and are sometimes helped to find Shabbath options in their parents areas, to avoid unnecessary conflicts, etc.

There is a great booklet (which gives permission to reproduce and distribute) called "How to get deeper into Torah, without going off the deep end."

I recommend it, and xerox it for guys every time I sense a case of BT-itis.

A final note: IMHO there is NO reason for others to go around taking your or anyone else's inventory/heshbon nefesh, BT or not. There are specific rules which apply to tochaha, when to give it and when not to.

On the other hand, if someone is just sharing about his personal experience, you may be interested or you may be bored out of your mind, but as long as he's not telling you what YOU should or shouldn't do, and you're just talking, why not be a good listener (but not for an unreasonable length of time), just as you'd expect a friend to be a good listener to you?

Anonymous said...

I have to be blunt here and state that, when I dated a Jewish girl, I have never met a more close-minded group of friends and family in all my life, and I've dated people of many faiths.

I am not a Christian. I consider myself Agnostic. That means I am without religion but I do believe in a creator. To me, that's something I share with anyone who follows a faith, I just do not practice or observe a faith.

When I met up with my ex, I was quite clear in who I was and steadfast in what I believed. I expressed that I did not follow Judaism, Christianity, etc., and that I would never convert. Not out of stubbornness, but out of respect. I would be living a lie and dishonoring traditions to do so. At the time, she said it was OK as she was not observent. Basically, a non-practicing Jew. That was great, as I always saw her, and not her background.

Little did I know, and little did she inform me ahead of time, but her family and many friends were Orthodox and/or quite observant. Enough so, that many tensions could be felt on family visits. I had to endure hearing about how her father was insisting on more than one occasion that she break up with me. Imagine how you deal with someone like that on family visits? My ex even went so far as to ask if I would convert, just to make her family happy. That really pissed me off. You don't ask someone to change, just to appease a family. You either love someone for who they are, or date someone else.

On top of her father, she had more than one close friend that openly objected to me as I was not Jewish, even though it was her choice and I was non-confrontational to their faith. This was really disheartening. No matter what I did, or how I tried to "join in", I was at many times made to feel as an outsider in some exclusive club. There were one or two who welcomed me with open arms and no prejudice - and to those I am most certainly thankful. To the others I wish to tell them to shove their snubbed noses and close-mindedness where the sun does not shine. - continued...

Anonymous said...

In the end, I think my lack of religion forced my ex to reexamine her own position on her faith - to which she realized she was more religious than had once thought. I recall a discussion about how she believed in the story of Adam and Eve. I told her I felt it was an interesting metaphor, but that I didn't follow that. Not good in her eyes.

Christianity is quite different than Judaism in that there doesn't seem to be any religious/class like personal battles between the followers. Someone who's Catholic, Protestent, or any other offshoot of Christianity, isn't generally (at least these days) going to make greif amongst one-another. You might get the odd old screwball ultra-religious Grandmother, or one very secluded bible-thumping family, but that's about it. There's never a mass consensus who will make you feel as though they're working against you for your slightly different Christian-based views. Heck, even as an open Agnostic, I've never felt rejected by Christian friends or felt pressure to convert.

I would be doing a disservice if I didn't point out the fact that I fully understand that, once couples marry out of their family's faith, that faith wanes in 1 to 2 generations completely. However, this was her choice, and not the first time she dated "goy" (a term I generally object to). If her family had a problem with it, it should have been a contention between them and their daughter. I wasn't forcing her or anyone against their own free will.

Based on what I've read here and observed, Judaism seems like it's very fractured and clan-like, with some Jews even hating other Jews. Heck, my ex would go on about how much she hated Russian Jews with a passion. Just nuts. It really upset me. I guess I had had this preconception that such a group that revels in how it's been down-trodden by others in the past, would be the first to find unity with their own brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, I only witnessed the opposite.

I still think Jewish women are beautiful and intelligent, and I like the culture. But I'd never date one again that wasn't secure in having released herself of all religious constraints, and had realized the difference before getting involved out of her own background.

Anonymous said...

I am a baal teshuva myself and understand many of the challenges that you bring up. I would caution you, though, not to become irritated. There are many souls, many paths, and many kiruv organizations which become better and better at preparing their students to become closer rather than farther from friends and loved ones.

I had the privilege of going to Mayanot Institute, where they taught me to transition slowly, to respect all Jews, to respect their right to interpret Torah as they see fit, and to honor my parents as outlined in the Talmud (they taught us that tractate :] ) . Through my teachers' advice and through G-d offering the discernment that I attempt to pray for daily, I am now 8 months later, almost as observant as I know how to be, in an even deeper relationship with my family (all of whom were originally very opposed), with my non-Jewish and reform Jewish friends, and with my girlfriend who lived for her reform temple but has begun to become observant herself.

I hope that to any whom have harmed you in the process, you find it in your heart to forgive them and find the courage to offer them much-needed advice. One huge act of kindness is to assure one's parents that they will be known as the greatest grandparents in the world regardless of their observance or kashrut level. It's also super important not to pressure a significant other, family member, or friend to change.