Refracted Light: What’s Wrong With Baalei Teshuvah?

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38 Responses

  1. Chana Siegel says:

    Beautiful, Rabbi Adlerstein. I also read the review and thought it was pretty harsh. The Hebrew weekly, Makor Rishon, had a similar article sparked by the film, with an emphasis on the children of ba’alei teshuva and their experiences, with an emphasis on the strengths they develop and bring in.
    Personally, I thank G-d that I never romanticized the Haredi world myself, and never found anything good in it that I could not find somewhere among the dati leumi, who are accepting as a matter of principle.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    I have mentioned here and elsewhere that perhaps appreciating the best of the MO RZ and Charedi worlds would be an admirable and desirable approach for all of us regardless of whether we are BTs or FfB

  3. Alex says:

    My favorite quote from the Tablet article: “Some start understanding that being Haredi is an ethnic and ritualistic identity and has nothing to do with religion.”
    This is not unique to Israel. And the tribal aspects you mention in fact full force in America–there are Hareidi shuls that I place lots of value on “yichus” and which “yeshiva” your kids go to and even which “shiur” they are in. Which means that parents are pressured either by peers, rebbeim, or rabbonim to place their kids in institutions more intetested in preserving a Hareidi hashkafa that what is the best fit for the child.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Good advice is advice tailored to the specific person in the specific situation, not advice that only makes the advisor feel better. If you don’t know the person or the situation but would like to help and not make matters worse, find out first!

    It’s not easy being caught between claims and reality. Not every seeker is mature enough to take dissonance in stride.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3qW5QuWVco

  5. Josh Kahn says:

    Let’s not sugar coat anything about this. This is probably the ugliest thing I have read all year and this has not been a pretty news year.(Not this particular article, the underlying phenomenon).

  6. ARW says:

    As a long time Baal Teshuva (since the 80s) I could write endlessly on this topic. I became frum in America, learned for several years in Israel, before returning to America. Many of my friends stayed in Israel and Baruch Hashem have prospered, but they have faced many challenges I have not had to face and my decision was certainly best for me as I did not feel I was necessarily up to the battle of living in a society where I didn’t fit in, both as a BT and as an American. Even in America many of these problems exist, but to a lesser degree. The constant battle over getting your children into schools in Israel, which creates so much self-doubt, is almost non-existent here.

    In America there was never pressure to quit your job and the range of personal characteristics that a person could hold onto is much greater. I have also seen a great change in how BTs in America deal with the FFB world. My generation worked to blend-in and mostly did so successfully. The younger generation of BTs is much more judgemental of what they see as shortcomings in the FFB world and are fighting assimilation into the FFB world harder. I am not sure that is going so well, but the jury is still out. I don’t think my peers ever viewed the Yeshivish world with rose colored glasses and so had lower expectation.

    Some of our children are marrying the children of other BT families, which I am fine with, but many are marrying into FFB families. Roshei Yeshiva are not offering us shiduchim for the most part (unless the BTs are wealthy) but there are plenty of other quality shiduchim. The worst case scenario: Our daughters may have to consider marrying serious working boys instead of full-time learning boys. However, in reality both options are open to them.

  7. Joel Rich says:

    “They needed to hear that they should embrace their past rather than escape it.”
    —————————–
    Yet the Rambam in Hilchot Tshuva 2:2 says:
    What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again as [Isaiah 55:7] states “May the wicked abandon his ways….” Similarly, he must regret the past as [Jeremiah 31:18] states: “After I returned, I regretted.
    KT

  8. DF says:

    You can examine any community – including Frum-From-Birth, including not Frum at all, including not Jewish at all – and find similar proportions of people plagued with self-doubt about one thing or another. Self-doubt is not unique to ballei teshuvah; it is a symptom of men the world over. So to a ball teshuvah self-doubt takes the form of not belonging. To others it comes in the form of not knowing enough, or not earning enough, or not doing enough. The same problems are common to everyone, just in different variations.

    Given that, it is not wise to single out ballei teshuvah as a class, which can only serve to reinforce the notion of them somehow being unique. Let’s not imitate the disastrous identity politics of so much of secular society. Let’s instead keep our discussion of problems universal, so that everyone can relate and learn from them.

  9. Shmuel Gorenstein says:

    I haven’t seen the film but read the review. There is of course the other side to this issue. The influx of the baalei tshuva into the frum world has not all been good. They infected the frum world with some attitudes that don’t belong with yiddishkheit and the infection spread.

  10. Shmuel Gorenstein says:

    Full disclosure: I am a baal thuva.

    • David says:

      So you’ve infected the frum word with your lisp? But to be serious – that’s a horrible word to use, even were I to agree that the phenomenon exists.

  11. Ruchama K says:

    Some BTs struggle as religious Jews because for them everything is a big deal (cleaning for Pesach, navigating shidduch rules, raising a million little kids) while FFBs just expect to have these challenges. I have BT friends who are overwhelmed with their kids and they don’t have that many!
    BTs also know they are the models for rejecting their own parents way of life…not the message they want to pass on their kids, but they also don’t want to hide Grandma in the attic, so the whole notion of choosing your own path is right there for the kids to see.
    Some BTs are too extreme. Maybe the goal should be MO not Haredi for BTs

  12. Weaver says:

    I heard that Rav Hutner would always make sure that baalei teshuva maintained their hobbies and outside interests as they were becoming frum.

  13. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, If every Ba’al teshuva understood the difference between sin and prior behavior that is acceptable as you, the problem would lessen significantly. Unfortunately, in chareidi society where various religious symbols take on halakhic status, I feel sorry for a Ba’al Teshuvah who enters that world. What Joel Rich pointed out is accurate practically; your correct response is true, but not in the actual world in which chareidim now live. Halevi, it returns.

  14. dovid says:

    As a BT who has tried to embrace the charedi lifestyle while being smart enough to the issues of modern charedi society, I really do not think that joining a more modern or zionistic version of Orthodoxy would ever do it for me. Yes, they are certainly more welcoming and less judgemental, yet frankly exposure to the ‘balanced’ lifestyle of these groups never have provided me, nor does it seems to for others, an attractive life-changing alternative for those who were raised secular. The pursuit of truth, the shunning of material excess, the interaction with spiritual giants – are all factors that have made many give up so much for spiritual ambitions. The key is to recognise that it may be challenging, to accept that certain shidduchim will not be red to our kids; but rather to carve out one’s own individual path, even if it doesn’t quite match the norm. And with time, charedi society is aware enough to admire you for it.

  15. Ellen says:

    What about that story they taught my daughters in beis yaakov, of the opera singer who was told to never sing again when she married, and their son grew up to be, I forget who, a gadol hador….?

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    BTS should be advised to look for communities where they can network into the FFB world via friends and mentors which you acquire as you join a shul, attend simchas , go to shiurim, find chavrusos, share Shabbos meals and enroll your kids in the local yeshivos. I don’t think that the well known kiruv programs programs in the US advocate severance or separation from families of origin for BTs. Unfortunately, more than a few who look to sever or separate are using “frumkeit” as a weapon to disguise their own isssues with their own families .

  17. Steve Brizel says:

    The key IMO for BTs is finding a community where you can find mentors, friends, role models, rabbanim etc that appeal to you and inspire you. Once you find a community with shuls, yeshivos, shiurim for both genders and opportunities for chesed and become socially integrated by going to simchas, etc , then a BT will find a home.Maintaining contact and at least a semblance of a relationship with your family of origin can and should be done even if it is socially difficult and you are faced with skepticism if not initially with some measure of ignorance based hostility to your path of life. The key is being a mentsch. I would add that family simchas are a great way of bridging such residual feelings by involving siblings in such kibudim such as walking down a grandparent, dancing with siblings, etc

  18. Steve Brizel says:

    On the much discussed issue of Shidducim, none less than R M Sternbuch writes in Teshuvos VHanhagos that Midos are far more important than Yichus and R Asher Weiss emphasizes that there is no obligation or even a midas chasidus for anyone in the FFB world to demand that BTs publicly affirm their chezkas kashrus. What ARW mentions may be true in Israel, but learner-earners in the US are not a bdieved and R Asher Weiss thinks that the Israeli Charedi world would benefit by the development of learner earners in that world

  19. Shades of Gray says:

    “Their job was to eat the fruit and discard the shells – but not to disown their essential selves or their self-confidence. ”

    The “Beyond BT” website has a section of articles called “Integration”, with titles like “Where Do You Put Your Old Time Rock and Roll?”.

    As DF pointed out, the topic can be universalized. For example, rather than yeshivah bachurim being forced into a Sedom bed, they can be individualized and retain hobbies(see “Let’s Create Outlets”, by R. Henoch Plotnik in a recent Mishpacha).

  20. Leah K says:

    You only need to find one shidduch for one child. Lots of FFB s struggle to marry off their children too. And people are rejecting shidduchim for all sorts of reasons so who cares if someone rejected someone for being BT? My friend was rejected by a BT who said he doesn’t want to date an FFB because she won’t be a spiritual seeker type like he was. Why is that OK?

    • Not sure. What Ellen meant may have been closer to a very different story, of which I have personal familiarity. A recent Baalas Teshuvah with operatic background was told by a certain rebbe that her talent was a nisayon. It was given to her for that purpose alone. She would pass it by giving up all manner of public performance, including singing for women. I have no idea what moved that rebbe to give such advice. He likely knew something that I don’t know. That’s probably the reason he is a rebbe and I am not. But in general, it is the polar opposite of what I would advocate, which would be channeling the talent into a form that is halachically permissible.

  21. Raymond says:

    There was a time in my life when I tried to be religious, but it just did not work out. For one thing, it made me far too arrogant and unfeeling toward others. Once I had identified myself as religious, I somehow felt that I was part of the elite who could look down on others, even my own mother, whose feelings were hurt deeply. I saw this in one of my siblings as well, who used her newfound religiosity to mistreat and look down on my parents, and continues to this day to do that to me as well.

    Also, I just don’t see how anybody really can presume to be religious. For to make a kind of pledge to oneself that one will, from this moment on, live according to Torah law no matter what, presumes that one can foresee all future predicaments, and is fully confident of overcoming them all. Well, maybe some people find a way to have that degree of control over their own lives, but in my experience, being religious put me in a kind of box, keeping me from doing what would have benefited me in certain situations that I found myself in. It seems to me that any Jew living outside of Israel is subject to the dominance of the non-Jew, and thus compromise is inevitable.

    And yes, as a matter of fact, when I was more religious, it did feel very artificial, as if I had imposed some kind of artificial identity onto myself. To my way of thinking, that is almost the opposite of what life should be all about. Life is so precious, with our time on this planet so limited. We have so few years on this Earth. It seems to me that we should make the most of each moment, not live a life so uptight that we wear suits with ties in 90 degree weather, turn our back on even the best offered by secular culture, and abandon common sense. Part of life involves breathing easily and just relaxing and enjoying the miracle of our existence.

    And finally, I am not religious in part because of certain negative experiences I had with allegedly very religious people, including some Rabbis and Rebbetzins. I sometimes wonder if those people who so turned me off from ever being religious again, would feel even the slightest sense of regret, if they knew how their words and behavior so negatively affected my behavior. Unfortunately, I don’t think even one of them would even admit to doing anything wrong to me. But if there really is a G-d, then perhaps that famous Talmudic story is true, the one where that man dies, gets revived, and tells what he saw in Heaven, only to his surprise, everything was upside down there, with the people high up in this world very low there, and visa versa, to which his Rabbi very astutely replied that no, it is our world that is the one that is truly upside down.

    Then again, I do not want to give the impression that I do nothing religious at all. Rabbi Akiva famously said that the good deeds of a Jew are as numerous as the seeds of a pomegranate, and of course in our Jewish tradition we are taught that that particular fruit has 613 seeds in it, corresponding to the number of Torah commandments each of us are obligated to fulfill. Rabbi Akiva clearly had great faith in our spiritual potential. However, the few commandments that i make at least some effort to carry out, really stem from my childhood. My parents basically kept kosher, for example, and so I also try for the most part to keep kosher. That may not sound like an accomplishment, but my point is, that growing up with something greatly increases the chances of it feeling totally natural and therefore doable. And so despite my rather voracious appetite for food, I will simply not touch the non-kosher food shared by my co-workers. Also, my love of learning is so great, that I often think that it is my strongest motivating force for keeping on going in life. Well, while chances are that I will never be a great Talmudic scholar, I am fortunate to live at a time and in a place where so many wonderful Torah books in English are available. For me to read or study them, is not only no burden at all, but perhaps my single biggest pleasure in life. Nobody has to push me to be more religious when it comes to this most important of all of the commandments. I just regret that time will eventually run out on me, and I will not be able to read and fully absorb all of the Torah books I own.

    The Rambam famously spoke about following the Middle Path in life. Perhaps he might have suggested to the newly religious to take things slowly, gradually, not more than one can handle, just do what one can, no need to get too extreme about it. And in fact, I may be onto something here, as that is at least my understanding of his stance regarding the nazir. Once a person’s month of being a nazir is over, he has to bring a sacrifice to repent for taking things to too extreme of a level. And let us not forget that one of the questions we will be asked when it comes time to meet G-d, is why we did not partake in all of the permissible pleasures in life. It just seems to me that if being religious does not greatly enhance one’s enjoyment of life, that the person is simply not doing it right.

  22. joel rich says:

    The nuance of the difference between sin and everything else in their world is one that I am not sure is communicated.
    KT

  23. Steven Brizel says:

    Take a look at the American Charedi media and you will see a huge difference called work as a factor in the American Charedi world . That is why learner earners are viewed as role models because they work hard set proper role models for their children and learn as much as possible in their spare time thereby not just talking the talk but walking the walk.

  24. M Cohen says:

    First of all (although I am sure this is obvious to most on this forum), Tablet magazine is complete and utter garbage. They love to write about every perversion and the Jews who live and promote them. Ever notice how many ads they have? Zero. They do not make a penny and are funded by some left wing nuts with a “jewish heart”. In one day Matzav makes more money in advertising than they ever will. They have fancy graphics and look successful but no one reads it. Therefore be very wary of anything you see on that website. Its a sad, sad scene over there and I would love to spend a few weeks in their office giving shuirim.

    As for the movie. I have not seen it but everyone knows Israeli BT’s have it much harder.

    There are many nice inexpensive homes outside of NY area in growing Torah communities, Cleveland, South Bend, Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, etc… I would urge all mechanchim of American BT’s in E Yisroel to urge them to move to the US (preferably out of town) to raise a family. (OK stop rolling your eyes…I know that probably won’t happen). Nonetheless, the US Charedi system although not perfect is a lot easier to integrate into if you are a BT. Especially if you are serious about continuing to learn and advance constantly.

  25. Ben Bradley says:

    @Joel Rich
    Part of the problem is the term Baal Teshuva itself. It’s a misnomer when applied to people who become observant, which is why your quote from Rambam is irrelevant to the situation under discussion. A Baal Teshuva is someone who knew perfectly well they were sinning but either didn’t care or was actively rebelling, then changed their attitude and stopped. That’s who the Rambam is describing. The contemporary Baal Teshuva doesn’t fit that bill at all, since they are almost universally tinkos she’nisbu by most poskim’s reckoning. The question as to their culpability for previous actions is complex, but they aren’t baalei aveira or mumrim.
    As I once heard a wise man say – You’re not a Baal Teshuva, you’re a late starter.
    So go and find a better term, but Baal Teshuva is at best inaccurate and most likely actively counter productive.

  26. D K says:

    Once again, a great cross-current article is destroyed by those who take every opportunity to bash Torah-true Jews.
    Rabbi Adlerstein finishes off with the perfect ending:
    “Baruch Hashem, this grim analysis did not apply to everyone. Many, many baalei teshuvah were fortunate enough to have mentors who realized that their job was to do a modest refurb, not a tear-down. Reading the review might just help a few more people who know and care about baalei teshuvah to realize the right way to go. And it might help some other baalei teshuvah realize that they need different mentors.”

    I understand that what he is saying is that the ones who start doubting 15 years later have put too much faith in their FFB neighbors and friends and have not had the proper Hadracha in what to drop, what to continue, and what to strengthen. Rabbi Freifeld and Rabbi Weinberg were famous for telling Baalei Teshuva to continue in their non-destructive, “secular” passions. But some “shmoe” FFB who just doesn’t understand where a BT is coming from, would easily tell his BT friend to drop it all.
    The way to success is not how some here commented; to not fully be Chozer B’Teshuva or too get turned off by the not-as-perfect-as-angels, human role-models, but as other’s commented, to go at one’s own pace with proper guidance from those who know your unique situation.
    Just like one wouldn’t (hopefully) do a major investment without proper guidance, so too one’s religious choices should not be made by some snide comment about one’s hobby. But in the end of the day, one must know that the Torah is the source of all, the blueprint of the world, and our way to a happy life, both in this world and the next. As much Torah learning and closeness to a Talmid Chochom as one possibly can, this should be the goal of everyone, BT or FFB.

  27. dr. bill says:

    M Cohen, I read cross-currents and tablet, some would say religiously. The diversity of opinion, even opinion you find objectionable, is good for the soul that learns to be more tolerant, albeit slowly. However, the words of my rebbe, RAL ztl, ring true – “do not confuse tolerance for lack of principle.” Perhaps I am :).

  28. Steve Brizel says:

    M Cohen- I read Mosaic and Tablet every day-Mosaic has excellent content. Tablet hassome excellent content there and some content that should not warrant a click.

  29. a yid says:

    First, why are we giving any credence to “Tablet” magazine? Really? As if they have the knowledge, sensitivity and awareness to really comment on this? I like what R’ Adlerstein said he wished he could tell BTs. Truthfully: I am very glad and thankful to be a BT, wherever I happen to be on the path. Being a BT should be celebrated and not looked at as missing something. Trying to be a wanna-be Haredi what is that going to help? Be who you are! You’re a BT? BH!!! It’s an incredible thing. Maybe (I don’t know) the Haredi world needs to be more embracing of BTs? Personally, I hate the word “Frum.” Sorry, but it sounds extremely constricting to me. Maybe I’m not understanding it? If you are very religious, very observant, good for you! If I can learn from you I will. I just think all BTs at any level should simply be b’simcha about returning, period! To me, this is a great way to live: you are grateful to be returning and, ideally, be grateful about it every day, B”H.

  30. dr. bill says:

    a yid, Tablet, Hamodia, Cross-Currents, you or I, etc. have a narrative in which stories about events are placed; in fact, we all do. over 50 years ago, as a philosophy student, we had a much more sophisticated way of saying that. narrative is a way to dummy-down that observation of early 20th century philosophers.

    i use the word religious / frum as both the Rav ztl and the prof. Katz did, consistent with old yiddish expression, the galach is frum, a yid darf zein ehrliche. ehrliche, ethical and halakhic. always remember what the Rav said, halakha is the floor not the ceiling.

  31. Bob Miller says:

    We don’t only have stereotypes about BTs; we have dueling stereotypes! Everyone who pays attention has run into all sorts of BTs, with differing personalities, life histories, and emphases in living. Many FFBs, even rabbis, have also been free spirits with their own individual ways.

    Communities also have special characteristics. Those demanding absolute outward conformity don’t match up well with some Jews, whether BT or FFB. Joining a community requires a lot of advance work to determine fit—hashkafah, standard of living, you name it, just as any shidduch does. This can even apply to staying vs. leaving the specific religious community you grew up in.

  32. Shades of Gray says:

    “For the vast majority of people I really can’t see the transition from secular to BT as a modest refurb…I can never stand it when kiruv people make it sound like become frum is a smooth, simple transition”

    There was a Cross Currents article, “Hormonal Judaism”(July, 2008) , responding to an article in the Jerusalem Post( “You’ve been Aish’d” ). R . Adlerstein wrote there that baalei teshuvah should find out at the appropriate time about problems within Orthodoxy. R. Benjamin Hect wrote an article on the Nishma website called “Kiruv: A Paradox of Hashkafa”. One of the points he mentions is that if taharas hamishpacha, for example, is only presented as improving romance(this could apply to FFB’s as well),what happens if it creates difficulties?

    R. Menachem Nissel has an article on the Mishpacha/Family First website about “Rav Moshe Shapira’s seven principles of kiruv”(“Moonlight: Reaching In, Reaching Out”, 11/17). Principle # 2, “Tickling”, is attracting people, and should be kept to a minimum, while Principle # 3, the “The Real Thing” is teaching both men and women Torah which is the ” healthiest form of kiruv and directly connects to building gadlus ha’adam”.

    R. Steven Burg similarly said at the 2017 AJOP convention(“A Vision for What the Kiruv World Should Focus On in These Tumultuous Times”) that one of Aish Hatorah’s touring programs now follows this approach with half of the day spent in the Beis Midrash. Regarding FFB’s, R. J. David Bleich, who has written on Jewish philosophy, also said in a March Inyan(Hamodia) interview that “I believe that the best way to teach hashkafah is to teach Ketzos Hachoshen and Nesivos Hamishpat”( see link in “Open Orthodoxy Update, Parshas Tazria-Metzora”, April 2018).

    The Mishpacha article I referred to by R. Henoch Plotnik about the importance of hobbies is also available online(“Let’s Create Outlets”,December, 2018). He quotes there a Sefer Hachinuch regarding simchas Yom Tov to make the point that ” the Torah is very sensitive to our emotional needs”.

  33. As an American chareidi “second-generation bt” myself, I have to say that I have a very hard time relating to the negative sentiments described in this article. My parents never expressed such attitudes nor have I found them to be widespread amongst the many other baalei teshuva and their children that I have known over the years.

    While I will readily acknowledge that the Israeli chareidi world is different from America, my observation has been that there is also a great deal of diversity in the Israeli chareidi world and that there are any number of chareidi communities in Israel where baalei teshuva and their children are quite comfortable. (My brother resides in Israel and seems quite happy.)

    As at least one other commenter has pointed out, self-doubt and a sense of alienation are extremely commonplace problems in the modern world. As such, the fact that one can find many baalei teshuva that suffer from these ills does not mean that there is any causal relationship. Obviously, the way such problems manifest amongst baalei teshuva (and Orthodox Jews in general) will differ from how it manifest amongst people who are not Orthodox Jews, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t the same underlying problem. Viewing the problem as somehow unique to baalei teshuva may actually exacerbate the problem by putting the focus on outside forces rather than on the individual.

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