Build New Bridges on Shabbos Nachamu

The past two weeks have been active ones here on BBT including some spirited discussions about numerous important issues. The issues that have been drawing the most attention and comments seem to involve inclusiveness.

We here at BBT are always looking for opportunities to foster constructive dialogue on important issues and to build more bridges.

What better way to do so than to have you join us, live and in person, at the 3rd BBT Shabbaton in Kew Gardens Hills on Shabbos Nachamu, August 15-16, 2008.

This year we are co-hosting with SerandEz and are also happy to announce that Jameel from The Muqata will be joining us, from Eretz Yisroel, for our Melava Malka where we will be unveiling the latest incarnation of the BBT Jam Band (you will surely want to be present for that historic event, no scalping please) .

There will be a full Shabbos program including relaxed catered meals and personal thoughts on the themes of Integration, Inspiration and Individuality. We have kept prices as low as we can in order to encourage full participation.

The cost is $50 per person and family and individual discounts are available. We will provide housing accommodations. Hope to see you all, yes that means you, there.

Email us at beyondbt@gmail.com to register.

Spice of Life

Salty. Bitter. Sweet. Sour.

These are the tastes traditionally understood to describe the flavor receptors of the tongue and, consequently, the available range of culinary experience. However, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, there is one more. The fifth taste.

Umami.

Even if the name is strange, the savory character of the flavor is not. Parmesan cheese. Soy sauce. Roasted meat. Sautéed mushrooms. Dry wine. All of these are characterized by umami, a taste identified a century ago by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist who named it with the term in his language for “deliciousness.” Nevertheless, it was only in 2000 that scientists at the University of Miami identified tongue receptors having no other function than to recognize that flavor.

In contrast to the instant but fleeting pleasure of sweet or salty, umami provides a taste sensation that yields lingering satisfaction. The discovery that foods with umami possess high levels of glutamate, an amino acid that is a building block of protein, led Mr. Ikeda to develop and patent his method of producing monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Perhaps it was MSG’s reputation for contributing to a variety of health ailments that caused umami to go overlooked for so long. However, new studies indicate that a moderate intake of MSG poses no concern for most consumers, according to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The food industry has responded with gusto. Gourmet chefs and manufacturers of mass-produced, packaged foods are searching for ways to incorporate umami into their products. However, not for the first time, Jewish tradition is way ahead of the curve.

The sages teach that, because each seasonal festival is a time of joy, the menu of every holiday meal should include meat and wine in order to contribute to the festive atmosphere. Says the Talmud: there is no joy without meat and wine — both of which are among the classic sources of umami, which is produced by drying, aging, curing, and slow cooking.

Apparently, the sages recognized that the joy of the festivals could be enhanced not only with good food, but with the right kind of good food. Cake and pie may be delectable and filling, but meat and wine satisfy a physiological need and produce a feeling of contentment that helps foster the proper mood for helping us appreciate the spiritual distinctiveness of the holidays.

Just as our craving for sweets is hardwired, so is our attraction to umami. According to one study, babies are more likely to finish foods that contain glutamate. Paradoxically, the difficulty we have defining umami suggests a subtlety associated with acquired taste. Where children respond naturally and immediately to sugar and salt, only a sophisticated palate will appreciated the savory quality of slow-cooked meat or well-aged wine.

Perhaps this offers a clue to why the sages referred to the Torah itself as the “spice of life.” For the pleasure-seeker who thrives upon instant gratification, the notion of acquired taste must be as incomprehensible as smothering his French fries with chocolate syrup. Indeed, an approach to life defined by mere moments of sensory buzz is the equivalent of a dietary menu comprising little more than fries and sundaes. The pleasure fades instantly away and leaves one perpetually hungry for more.

The reward for training one’s palate to enjoy the finer things is an enjoyment of the finer things. This applies equally to the palate of one’s tongue and to the palate of one’s character. Perhaps Jewish culture’s seeming obsession with food reflects a deeper appreciation that true happiness derives not from momentary physical stimulation but from true inner satisfaction. Good taste extends beyond what tastes good. And it extends beyond fashion as well. The cultivated ethical palate appreciates that the finest things in life come from a commitment to doing what is right and developing oneself into the best person one can become.

Aside from the insights of the sages revealed through the maturation of science and cooking, there is an even more obvious connection between umami and the divinity of Jewish wisdom. Of all the dishes that contain glutamate, there is one that appears on every list that attempts to describe umami’s savory and satisfying character: Chicken soup.

What could be more Jewish?

How Can We Be Non Judgmental Towards Non Observant Jews?

We all know the pain of being judged and treated as an inferior. Non observant Jews often feel that observant Jews are judging them because they don’t keep the mitzvos. In fact Aish HaTorah says this is one of the four most common reasons that people don’t seek to learn more about Torah Judaism. Aish suggests that we correct this perception by pointing out that only G-d can judge people, we can only judge specific actions like murder, stealing, etc..

But at the end of the day, doesn’t judging specific actions lead to feelings of being judged. It’s interesting to note that non observant people also judge us, but its seems we are less concerned about their judgment than the judgment they feel from us. Why is that?

So what attitudes and character traits can we strengthen to be less judgmental?

How can we get to the point where our acquaintances, friends and families don’t feel judged and thereby threaten by Torah Judaism?

Healing the Rift within Orthodoxy

By Michael Freund (Reprinted with Permission. First Published in the Jerusalem Post here.)

It’s summer time, and Tisha Be’av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, is less than three weeks away.

Normally during this period, religious Jews tend to focus on themes relating to the need for greater Jewish unity, in line with the Talmudic statement that it was the very absence of such cohesion which led to our destruction and exile some two millennia ago.

But these aren’t normal days – far from it – and the mercury in the thermometer isn’t the only thing heating up.

Ever since the conversion crisis erupted nearly three months, the war of words between religious Zionists and haredim has grown increasingly fiery, threatening to drive a stake right through the heart of Orthodox Jewry.

Indeed, one of the consequences of the ruling by the haredi-dominated Rabbinical High Court retroactively annulling conversions performed by religious Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman was to swing open the floodgates of hateful intra-Orthodox rhetoric.

Spokesmen for both sides quickly manned the barricades, and wasted little time hurling insults and invective at each other.

On May 7, for example, Bar-Ilan University’s Dr. Asher Cohen wrote an article in Makor Rishon comparing the Lithuanian branch of haredi Orthodoxy to the murderous Taliban in Afghanistan, and decried what he described as “haredi halachic Bolshevism.”

Is this the language of respectful discourse? The haredi media was no less discourteous in its approach. The daily Yated Ne’eman, in its reporting on the controversy, repeatedly refused to use the title “rabbi” when referring to Druckman.

And on May 25, the editorial in the haredi daily Hamodia denounced Druckman’s conversions in harsh terms, belittling them as “one big act of clowning.”
These are just a few choice pearls of the cruel and undignified attacks that have been launched by both sides against one another in a decidedly unspiritual-like display of deprecation.

Even normally cooler heads have started to join the fray, as a growing number of moderate religious Zionist rabbis speak openly of “freeing Israel” from “ultra-Orthodox hegemony”.

As an Orthodox Jew, I find this clash deeply troubling.

WHILE THE dispute between the two camps pre-dates the establishment of the state, driven by ideological differences over Zionism, events in recent years have further heightened the discord.

Disagreements over how to oppose the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, and controversy surrounding the observance of shmita, brought to the fore a sense of loathing and even hate that simply has no place in a spiritually-oriented community.

Frankly speaking, this is not the Torah way.

And if cooler heads don’t prevail, and soon, it could cause lasting damage to the inner fabric of Orthodox Jewry, potentially tearing the community apart.

The dangers inherent in such a split are obvious. As it stands now, Orthodox Jews are a minority among world Jewry, and there is nothing to be gained by a division among the ranks.

Moreover, so much of what Orthodox Jewry believes in, from traditional values to public decency, is currently under assault. Can we really afford to be expending valuable time and energy excoriating one another when everything we hold dear is under attack? We must find a way to mend the schism within Orthodoxy.

• Step number one in healing the rift: tone down the rhetoric and turn up the respect.

After all, on nearly all the major theological issues, from the centrality of Torah to the primacy of Halacha, we basically agree with one another. Sure, there are differences, and they are far from insignificant, but personal attacks and insults, public humiliation and disgrace, must be banished once and for all from our civil discourse.

• Step number two is surprisingly simple: create an exchange program between religious Zionist and haredi yeshivot. Once a month, on every Rosh Hodesh, students from religious Zionist and haredi academies should get together and study Torah and Talmud.

Let them pore over biblical passages in unison, grapple with the complexities of the medieval Tosafists and stretch their minds together trying to figure out the meaning of Maimonides. That experience alone would generate newfound mutual respect on both sides, and would regularly serve to underline just how much the Torah can bring us together.

It would also tear down the prejudice and preconceived notions that prevail, and in communities that value scholarship, no one could possibly object to the simple act of learning and studying together.

• Step number three: bring pressure to bear on public figures in the religious Zionist and haredi worlds to take active steps towards forging greater unity.

These can include organizing annual summits of leading rabbis from the various streams of Orthodoxy, the issuance of joint declarations, and the publication of compilations of halachic works by both Zionist and haredi rabbis.

JEWISH HISTORY is replete with heated disputes. But now especially, as Tisha Be’av nears, and the embers of the conversion crisis continue to burn, Orthodoxy’s varied adherents would do well to recall the words of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the famed Netziv of Volozhin. In his introduction to the book of Genesis, he cites one overriding reason to explain why the generation that endured the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans warranted such punishment nearly 20 centuries ago.

“Due to the baseless hatred in their hearts towards each other,” the Netziv wrote, “they suspected that those who disagreed with them on religious matters were Sadducees or heretics. This brought them to misguided bloodshed and many other evils until the Temple was destroyed.”

At this critical point in our nation’s saga, it should be clear, we can ill afford to replicate that fatal mistake.

The Most Important Sefer to Learn

by Rabbi Boruch Leff (Reprinted from Yated Ne’eman 06.20.2008)

This column has always been devoted to how we can maintain growth in our avodas Hashem, even as adults. We mentioned in our very first column that the Ribbono Shel Olam wants us to be people who are constantly growing, always raising the bar of our spirituality. Most of us went to Jewish day schools, Bais Yaakovs or chadorim, and continued our Torah education by attending yeshivos or seminaries. We all grew tremendously with each passing year, with each passing shiur. We grew in learning, in davening, and we also refined many of our middos and derech eretz from hearing the tens and hundreds of shmuesen in yeshiva and internalizing them.

At a certain point though, tragically, most of us gave up on dramatic changes in our spiritual lives. But this is not how we are supposed to live. As long as we are still breathing, we have much to accomplish. Every day of our lives, nay, every moment, we are to be growing, developing, improving. Whether we are 8 years old or 88, we must always be growing up

Allow me to suggest an improvement of a vital area of transformational growth that we can start to implement today.

B’ezras Hashem, I am nearing the end of what is probably the most important sefer I have ever learned. Now, I don’t mean to say that this sefer is more important than the Chumash, or Shas. But I do say that if you are looking to truly and sincerely grow close to Hashem, if you are looking for real, practical guidance in how to live with Hashem on a constant basis, if you are looking to live with the Ribbono Shel Olam as your Friend, your Father , and your King, you must go to your neighborhood seforim store today and buy BILVAVI MISHKAN AVNEH-Volume 1.

Why do I feel so strongly? Never before has a sefer been written that is simple, clear, and practical in its instruction as to how we should live our daily lives-and it’s only 135 pages. I do not mean chas v’shalom to denigrate any of the classic seforim of mussar and chasidus. Of course, the sefer is built on all the wonderful and amazing seforim that our gedolim have given to Klal Yisrael throughout the ages. However, anyone who starts to learn Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh will see clearly what a transformational work it is. The sefer was printed maybe five years ago by a tremendous talmid chacham, tzadik, and true oved Hashem, Rav Itamar Schwartz, from Eretz Yisrael. It has been translated into an English sefer, as well. To order online »»

We have mentioned the sefer in this column many times before but I felt compelled to mention it again now in the strongest of terms since I have grown tremendously from learning it in recent months. Hence, I share this realization with you.

What makes Bilvavi so special? We would all like to have the Shechinah live with us. What does that mean? It’s not as lofty and beyond us as it seems. Rav Shimshon Pincus explains that whenever we think about Hashem we bring Hashem’s Presence, His Shechinah, to us. Yes, there are vast ways and holier levels of experiencing the Shechinah, but just thinking about Hashem does truly bring the Shechinah down to us.

We all want Hashem to be with us closely at all times. How can we accomplish this? Imagine a relatonship with one of your friends. Why are you friends? The answer is that you make him feel comfortable to be around you and he makes you feel welcomed to be with him. You share things in common with your friend-you enjoy his company. It works exactly the same way with Hashem. If we want His Presence, we have to live our lives in such a way that He will feel comfortable to be with us. We have share things that in common with Hashem. Like a friendship, when we do things that make Him feel uncomfortable, He leaves.

Bilvavi teaches us how to live with Hashem and how to make Him feel comfortable with us. The more we talk to Him and think about Him in all that we do, the more we relate to Him as if He is truly there with us, the more we treat Him as a friend, the more He feels comfortable spending time with us.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe (as recorded by his students) quoted a Zohar, “My children, [I swear] by your lives that there is nothing closer to Hashem than a person’s heart, and He is happier with it more than all sacrifices in the world.” One’s heart is the “holy of holies” of his spiritual makeup (Alei Shur vol. II pg. 65). If we would direct our desires and thoughts toward Hashem, He would be closer to us than anything else in the world. As the Zohar says, the heart is the location of His closeness, within the heart lies a natural attraction towards the Creator.

This is what is meant by the Targum on “And if you behave with me “keri” and you do not listen to me, I will continue to smite you seven ways like your sins” (Vayikra 26, 21). Onkelos says that keri means with hardness because “they harden their hearts to refrain from coming close to Hashem.” Rav Wolbe notes that it is within the very nature of the heart to strive for closeness to Hashem. Only if one deliberately chooses to harden his heart will he succeed in silencing this inherent drive!

Most people are of the opinion that longing for Hashem is solely the lot of spiritually lofty people. However, this is not the case. The basic nature of the heart is to crave Hashem’s closeness. The most fundamental sin is to suppress this innate yearning of the heart, and it is around this failing that the entire tochacha revolves.

When can we feel this closeness to Hashem that the heart desires? Rav Wolbe suggests that we can feel it during tefilla. Our tefillos are “dry” at times because we do not have a true desire to come close to Hashem. We have in effect hardened our hearts and refrained from coming closer to Hashem. Our first step is to truly want a relationship with our Creator, and then, through our tefillos we will strengthen our natural inclination for kirvah and bring ourselves closer to Hashem.

And how can we generate this type of kirva and relationship? By learning Bilvavi Miskan Evneh

If you want to grow. . . , go out and buy (and/or read) Bilvavi today!

May this article be a zechus for a refuah shlaimah b’karov to Yehudis Sarah bas Esther.
Comments or questions may be emailed to: sbleff@yahoo.com

Boruch Leff is a weekly columnist for Yated Ne’eman and the author of three books: Forever His Students (Targum/Feldheim 2004), Shabbos In My Soul (Targum/Feldheim 2007), and More Shabbos In My Soul (Feldheim 2008). For copies click here »»»

You can read Bilvavi online here.

The Teshuva Journey: Just One Marble

If you want to know how long Mira Bergen has been keeping Shabbat, just ask to see her marble collection.

On New Year’s Eve in 1999 Mira was at a crossroads. She had been coming to the local Orthodox community for Shabbat on and off for over 10 years and loved it. She especially cherished the warmth of the Shabbat table and seeing families spending quality time together. But as much as she loved the lifestyle, she had been unable to commit to keeping Shabbat.

However in 1999 as everyone was talking about the New Millennium and Y2K, Mira saw something else. She had always been interested in New Age ideas and pop spirituality. When New Year’s Eve fell on a Friday night, Mira saw the intersection of Shabbat and the new millennium as a sign from G-d that it was time to observe the Sabbath and become Shomer Shabbat. But it was intimidating to give herself that title, so she decided to celebrate just one Shabbat at a time. She resolved to make December 31st her first one.

“I saw the new millennium and said OK, time to start being Sabbath observant. But I can’t be Shomer Shabbat. I can’t use that label,” Mira said. So she decided to keep just that one Shabbat. “I’m making a commitment one Shabbat at a time.”

Mira learned the lesson from her mother, who taught her that if you’re trying to cut a roll of salami it can be overwhelming to do it all at once. But if you slice it one bit at a time, it’s much easier to do it.

“Many people think that observing Judaism is an all or nothing action, that you must take on all the obligations at once. But growth in Judaism is really about constant baby steps, about taking on small commitments,” Mira said. “G-d appreciates anything we do to get closer.”

For Mira this meant making one commitment at a time. In every area of her Jewish growth she heeded her mother’s advice and cut off only a small bit at a time.

“If someone is not ready to keep Shabbat each week, why not try to keep it only for an hour? If someone is not ready to keep kosher full time, then try to give up only one particular food,” Mira said. “People think they have to do everything at once. They don’t know that G-d looks highly at everything we do. You’re making a distinction, you’re trying to have a relationship with Hashem.”

So on Friday night, December 31, she was sitting with a local family watching the clock as it struck midnight. It was the first time she had ever spent New Year’s Eve not watching the ball drop in New York on television. But instead of lamenting that she was missing the televised celebrations, Mira felt wonderful as she reflected on the start of the new millennium quietly and in G-d’s way. The frenzied revelry of the secular New Year had been replaced by the spiritual bliss of Shabbat.

That one Shabbat turned into two and within a short time she had kept Shabbat for a month. She kept track of each Shabbat by placing a marble into a wine decanter. By now she has over 430 marbles.

With each marble she added, the number of that Shabbat also took on a deeper meaning. Each Shabbat she looked for a connection between the week’s number and an idea in the Torah portion of the week or other current event. Every number is significant in Judaism and has a particular meaning, and members of the community began pointing out some of the deeper connections of the number of her marbles.

On Shabbat number 13, her Rabbi taught her about the 13 Attributes of Hashem. Mira’s 40 Shabbat was Rosh Hashanah. The number 40 is deeply related to birth and new beginnings, so it was a perfect timing.

On Mira’s 50th Shabbat the family she was staying with baked a special challah in the shape of the Hebrew letter Nun, which has the numerical value 50. When she traveled to Israel and spent three Shabbats there, she added three unique items to her collection: a small blue chamsah “hand,” a blue glass circle and a blue fish. For her 100th Shabbat she put a battery into the jar because “Shabbat keeps me going!” People in the community have bought other special marbles for various Shabbats, such as the handmade marbles a friend recently brought her from China.

Mira originally collected marbles as a way to make herself accountable and maintain her Shabbat observance, but soon she began looking forward to each Shabbat and especially to putting another marble into the decanter. With each new marble, Mira gained a deeper level of appreciation for Shabbat.

“A lot of people don’t understand. They think that I live the most rigid life, full of shoulds and have tos, that I have to do this and this. However my life is filled with such pleasure and joy and laughter,” Mira said. “G-d loves me so much because He gave me Shabbat.”

——————————————————————————————

Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email michaelgros@gmail.com. To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

(published in The Jewish Press April 2007)

Living with Failure

A few weeks after moving to the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, a neighbor invited me to his home, and showing me his recently re-furbished dining room with its the long oak wood table, declared ‘the shabbos table is the center-piece of family education.’ Funny, I remember thinking to myself, our shabbos table is often the center-piece of family food-fighting. So if I’ve given an overly idealized impression of my family, I’m coming clean. Though I think it’s important to weave rich and positive stories for and about the family, it’s obviously not the whole picture.

In the Torah portion of from last week, those who had been excluded from the experience of Pesach come to Moses and ask: ‘why should we be diminished? we may have been ritually impure, but why shouldn’t we also get the chance to participate in the Passover ritual?’ They felt ‘diminished’ for not having had the opportunity to do a mitzvah–an amazing notion! So they ask Moses for a second chance. Though Moses is the greatest of all prophets, these laws were concealed to him. But upon relaying the question to G-d, the laws of Pesach Sheni–the ‘second Pesach’ for those who missed it the first time around–are revealed. The laws had been withheld from Moses so that, in the divine plan, those whom Rashi describes as ‘meritorious’ ask the question leading to further divine revelation. A question, as R. Yerucham from the Mir Yeshiva explains, already shows chachma or wisdom, because through it, one cultivates the possibility of a response. A good question–any teacher or parents knows this–allows for the bringing to light of something which otherwise would have remained unsaid. This sort of question is to be distinguished from those questions which are just dressed up answers; refusals to engage seriously; or ways of ending conversations before they start. But an engaged question is the means through which the concealed becomes revealed: the whole Torah, says R. Yerucham, is actually a response to Moses’s questions!

I thought this would be a great entry point to a discussion at our shabbos table. Notwithstanding a recent NY Times piece advocating the contrary, my wife and I divide our labors (confession: I don’t know how to use the washing machine!). At the shabbos table, even though my wife studies regularly, and arranges a weekly lecture (often in our house), I’m the one who usually initiates the words of Torah. With the same theatricality that I display when tasting the challos which my wife bakes, she introduces my divrei Torah. True, there was a time when both my divrei Torah and her challos (she started, years ago, with home ground organic wheat flour–which was like making motzie on compressed hockey pucks) needed work, but we’ve both become more proficient in our respective roles. I thought the ‘Questions’ topic would make a great discussion for the kids: ‘Have any of you had any questions this week?’ My son returned that a question occured to him, but he didn’t ask because his rebbe wouldn’t have known the answer (unlikely); one of my daughters said הכל מובן לי–or ‘I already understand everything!’ (extremely unlikely). One of my other daughters was already on the couch reading a book; and my youngest was still at the shabbos table, but singing a song (though not even a shabbos song). I paused, surveyed the situation, sighed, and gave up: ‘will someone pass the cholent please?’

After lunch, I was hoping my wife might offer some consolation. She reminded me that R. Yitzchock Hutner wrote in a letter to a distressed student that the verse in Psalms–‘A tzaddik falls seven times’–doesn’t mean that even though he falls many times, the true tzaddik will eventually emerge. Rather when a true tzaddik finally does come into being, it’s because he’s fallen. Acknowledging personal failure and integrating those failures allows–in the end–for a person to reveal the tzaddik within. We become great because of our challenges, not in spite of them. It’s almost as if, in the endless interplay between concealment and revelation, challenges are the questions which help us to reveal who we are. R. Hutner refers to internal battles, but sometimes, as my wife pointed out, the world doesn’t accomodate the idealism of our plans, and one has to learn to live with those kinds of failures as well. Things sometimes don’t go the way you want.

This article was originally posted here.

Appreciating Our Differences Together

In Michtav M’Eliyahu (Strive for Truth) in the essay on Why The Righteous Suffer, Rabbi Dessler points out that Hashem in His kindness gives us the capability to achieve the ultimate heights of awareness and experience the greatest degree of happiness possible for a created being. Not only that, but He enabled us to experience the unending delights of the spiritual world as something we can earn and therefore truly own. We can feel that we deserve it, because we earned it.

Hashem goes even further by giving each of us a unique appearance, personality, mental capacity and environment so that our individual service is unique throughout all of history. We each have the ability to give our own unique speech in praise of Hashem on a daily basis.

At the two past Shabbatons we gave everybody the opportunity to speak for a maximum of 10 minutes. In Passaic, somebody commented that this was a brave thing to do given that we hadn’t heard the people speak before- how would we know if they would be good? As it turned out all the speeches were good. Why? Because everybody shared a little about themselves. Not necessarily their “story”, but something personal, something unique, something that let us understand and appreciate them a little better.

That’s the beauty of the Shabbaton, we get to meet and connect with others. Whether by hearing them take the floor for 10 minutes or by just shmoozing for a few minutes at the meals, the oneg or the Melava Malka. We get the opportunity of becoming a part of somebodies life story as they become a part of ours.

Some people have asked why we’re doing this Shabbaton jointly with Serandez. The main reason is that participants in both communities share the common focus of discussing important topics, improving ourselves and improving our communities. That’s the tie that binds and those are the ties we need to continuously strengthen.

A close friend of mine is making a Chasana and they needed to pare down their list. They used the criteria of having at least shared a Shabbos Meal with the person or family. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of sharing a Shabbos together. It is a catalyst to enlarge our world and help others enlarge theirs.

With that being said, here are some details about the BeyondBT/Serandez Shabbaton:

– The Shabbaton is being held on Shabbos Nachamu, August 15-16 in Kew Gardens Hills, with the meals being held at Congregation Ahavas Yisroel.
– The cost of the Shabbos is $50 per person for 3 catered meals, an Oneg Shabbos and a Melava Malka.
– Family discounts and special situation discounts are available.
– We will find accommodations for those who live outside of Kew Gardens Hills.
– Please RSVP us with your email and cell phone at beyondbt@gmail.com if you are hoping or planning to come so we can plan appropriately. Also email us with any suggestions.

Crafting a New Nomenclature

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
Jewish Heritage Center

Dedication- I dedicate this post to the URL of this blogsite- BeyondBT. Most simply deconstructed as Beyond Ba’al T’shuva. The implied purpose being to transcend the societal constraints and the sometimes suffocating self-perceptions evoked by the term “Ba’al T’shuva”. In a word… let’s get past it.

Caveat- This post is intended for those who’ve been Torah Observant for 5+ years. Its message is not for those who get ruffled when old axioms are challenged. It is for those who long for their earliest heady days of spiritual awakening and who intuit that there may have been a linkage between the passion for Yiddishkeit that characterized that long-ago-far-away time in their lives and their nascent iconoclasm that allowed them to smash the idols of received wisdom and preconceived notions on a regular basis.

Among the ways of T’shuva is for the returnee …to change his name
– Rambam Laws of T’shuva 2:4

I’ve always been a bit of a stickler about semantics. G-d convinced the angels of Adam’s profound wisdom based on his ability to assign names. The name changes of such great figures as Avrohom, Sorah, Yisroel, Binyomin and Yehoshua signaled momentous, historic metaphysical modifications. The bard may have said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” but his was not a Torah-informed sensibility. I believe that when the words we use to clothe raw concepts are skewed, wooly or unfocused, our conversations become the communicative equivalents of a fashion faux pas. Kind of like wearing gloves on our feet. At best an unattractive look and at worst a recipe for a pair of really sore feet.

In my estimation the acronyms BT and FFB have done incalculable damage to all parties concerned. Here’s why: T’shuva presumes being accountable for ones life and taking responsibility for repairing those parts of our live’s that we have damaged. What the term “Ba’al T’shuva” has meant historically is a person who had previously been an avaryon AKA a Rosha who had undergone the demanding and rigorous service of T’shuva until (s)he had “mastered” it to repair all that was broken. Hence the term Ba’al T’shuva = “Master of Repentance”.

According to the classic Torah literature on the subject the engine that drives T’shuva is sincere, profound and, according to some, lifelong remorse over the sin. In the historical model even the resolution for the future and behavior modification aspects of Avodas HaT’shuva hinges on the depth and intensity of the remorse. Ever tortured by the memory of sin, reminding a historically defined BT of their past sins is considered onoas devorim (insulting and hurtful speech) because it is the verbal equivalent of picking a painful and unsightly scab. According to Rabenu Yonah, the centrality of remorse and taking personal responsibility is also why “shame” (#6) and “one’s sin being constantly before him” (#18) are among his twenty fundamental principles of T’shuva.

While perpetual remorse and shame may not be the way an FFB relates to his/her past it is also not an apt description of how a representative modern-day BT relates to theirs. Nor should it be. How can we regret or be ashamed of choices that we did not make? If our great-grandparents chose to abandon Torah, if we were not afforded the barest rudiments of a Torah education or upbringing, if we were nurtured in a culture that is mostly antithetical to Torah and it’s ideals, in short if we are indeed tinokos shenishbu what, precisely, are we regretting? Is it our natures or our nurtures? How can this be when we were responsible for neither? G-d alone is responsible for the former and He, our parents, teachers and society for the latter. When doing T’shuva are we supposed to regret and be ashamed of what G-d has done or failed to do or of what WE have done or failed to do? This may be the subliminal message of the Rambam in placing the doctrine of human free will in his Laws of T’shuva rather than in the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah. He may be trying to teach us that T’shuva= remorse must always be about our own choices and never about HaShem’s providence and his administration of His creation. Far from engaging in a holy Avodah contemporary BTs who place too much emphasis on regret are in fact indulging themselves in a good old-fashioned fist shaking at G-d.

The arithmetic is simple; if pre-observance we were Tinokos Shenishbu but never reshoim, then we can’t be Ba’alei T’shuva in a traditional sense. Of course we can and do modify our thoughts, speech and behavior. We can also regret and DO T’shuva for those of our youthful indiscretions that we already knew were wrong in spite of our non/anti-Torah upbringing. (I don’t think anyone gets a “Tinok Shenishba” pass for shoplifting or harassing homeless people.) But that is hardly unique to non-FFBs. FFBs for the most part do T’shuva as well (at the very least during Elul and the Yomim Noraim =Days of Awe). Some obsess over T’shuva and really work hard, smart and effectively at it. But I’ve yet to meet one who would say that (s)he’s earned the moniker BA’AL T’shuva. Most FFBs are also fully aware of the beautiful Chazal that “Even the completely righteous (tsadikim g’murim) cannot stand in (i.e. attain) the [exalted spiritual] place that the Ba’lei T’shuva stand in”. So, for most everyone, to perceive oneself as a BA’AL T’shuva is at best pretentious and at worst self-delusional. Imagine a fellow fancying himself a Talmid Chochom or even a Gaon having studied only one or two Talmudic tractates or someone practicing halakhic stringency or two considering themselves a Tsadik or a Chosid. When such exaggerated self-assessment is conveyed to others it, unsurprisingly, evokes reactions of skepticism, defensiveness and mockery. These self-perceptions will not earn anyone friends or integration into a society of “just plain folks”.

Those who fail to discern the qualitative difference of the pre-T’shuva states of having been a Rosha and having been born a Tinok Shenishba run the risk of diffusing an even more destructive fallout, one that strikes much closer to home. For many contemporary BTs who fall into this category, having no real sin to regret the focus of the remorse shifts to the putative sinner(s). Conflating the traditional and contemporary concepts of Ba’al T’shuva makes us regret and feel ashamed of people (including ourselves), experiences and friends we have no business feeling ashamed of or about. It leads to tortured relationships with friends and family, to suppressing rather than sublimating our pre-observance education, talents and accomplishments and, worst of all, it causes us to fixate and waste our energies on “passing” as an FFB rather than on becoming an Ehrlicher Yid. To conclude- the mostly inaccurate and hyperbolic appellation, BT, manages the slick semantical and psycho-spiritual trick of being both devastatingly self-deprecating and ridiculously self-aggrandizing.

FFB is hardly a benign word either. The first “F” which expands to “Frum” is never to be confused with “ethical” or “spiritual”. In it’s contemporary usage Frum has, almost exclusively, come to mean a soulless adherence to the letter of the law and a negation of its spirit. There is an innate putdown in the “from birth” portion of this acronym as well. It implies that whatever “religion” (but never spirituality) the FFB does have is an accident of birth. Whereas BTs might fancy themselves self-made millionaires FFBs deserve no admiration or respect because, as the name implies, they were born with silver spoons in their mouths. I’ve actually seen the term retooled on other blogs to “Frum by accident”. The fact is that we are all, BT and FFB alike, JFCs =Jews from (matrilineal) conception. No one is frum from birth. Jewishness=the potential for achieving the sanctity of Torah and Mitzvahs, is our bio-spiritual birthright. For want of a better word Frumkeit, i.e. actualizing that potential, is not. Even those born and raised in Bnei Braq, Meah Shearim or Lakewood are endowed with free will and, as Rav Dessler articulates in his famous Treatise on Free-Will, cultivate their relationship with G-d davka by those positive exercises of free will that they were not predisposed to doing by their parents, peer groups and teachers.

Any FFB that considers the term a compliment must have forgotten the Chazal that reveals the underlying meaning of the name of our evil uncle Eisov. According to the Midrash he was named Eisov (alliteratively Osu =done) because he was “done” and physically complete at birth. On an overt level this means that the newborn Eisov was hirsute and had a full set of teeth. But what it also implies is that he was spiritually/metaphysically finished immediately post-partum. The balance of his life here on earth was an entropic downhill slide toward the grave and represents the dross of his father Yitzchak’s holy middah of being conceived and born in kedusha. An FFB who luxuriates in that name shares more in common with the cartoonish Richie Rich than with any true Oved HaShem. Such FFBs are spirituality’s snooty and spoiled rich kids and about as attractive and inspiring as the socioeconomic kind. As it is in chronology so must it be in spirituality. Birth is the starting gate not the finish line.

None of this is to say that contemporary BTs have not had to work harder than their FFB compatriots to attain comparable levels of observance. Pain exerted to achieve spiritual gain is the main (but not exclusive) yardstick by which G-d determines reward. I may be overreaching but IMO part of this “extra measure” of reward manifests in the incredibly swift strides that BTs make in their Torah Study and Mitzvah observance vis a vis FFBs. BTs are to be admired, respected and celebrated for all the pains they took to become, stay and grow ever more observant. But we run the dangerous risks of hubris and divisiveness when we presume that one group in Jewry has a monopoly on the pain/ gain correspondence or on HaShem’s affections.

Make no mistake there are, in fact, many groups and factions within Jewry and the onus for ending the lingering feelings of otherness and alienation many veteran BTs endure still rests squarely on the shoulders of FFBs. To date FFB culture has done a comparatively superb job of being friendly to their non-observant and BT brethren but not as good a job of actually becoming their friends (or Mechutonim!). That said there are the larger questions and challenges that lie before all groups and factions. Among others: Must BTs forever remain a sub/counterculture in Yiddishkeit? As the Kiruv movement moves into its third generation are we any closer to true integration, equality and unity than we were 40-50 years ago? I believe that positive solutions to these questions will begin with our liberation from the inaccurate, pejorative or pompous labels “BT” and “FFB” and their attendant warped perceptions. I dream of a Jewry in which terms such as these will be considered unacceptable in polite conversation. How about replacing BT and FFB with “late beginner” and “early beginner”? “Observant from childhood” and “Observant from adulthood”? “Having religiously supportive parents” and “lacking religiously supportive parents”? Or, best of all, how about one single term that aptly describes all of us- Yidden! Perhaps then as in the days of yore at Simchas Bais HaShoayva in the Bais HaMikdosh all factions can join together in the exultant dance singing “Lucky are those that never sinned and those that did, let them return and be forgiven!”

First Posted 0n 2/21/2006

Life Cycle Events: The Bar Mitzvah

The Bar Mitzvah is a very exciting time. However there are a lot of details. Can the Beyond BT crowd share some insight on the event and the following questions:

1) What are the factors in determining how much or little pressure to put on the Bar Mitzvah boy in terms of leining (Torah and/or Haftorah) and davening?

2) What are the options for the learning and siyum that usually accompanies the Bar Mitzvah?

3) Should I or someone I know, write a pilpul-like drasha or is a solid Dvar Torah more appropriate?

4) What are the considerations in inviting secular friends and family for Shabbos and for the Party?

5) What are the considerations on spending on Tefillin?

6) What should I expect to spend if I have the typical party and Shabbos meals?

7) What other advice would you give to make the Bar Mitzvah successful?

No Fasting This 17th of Tammuz & Tisha B’Av

Riding the wave of recent holydays has been a rush. In dizzying succession there’s being fueled by Pesach to relive the exodus from Egypt, gaining freedom from self-limitations, the journey of self-improvement through “Sefiras HaOmer”, breaking the barrier between Heaven and Earth with the Revelation at Sinai, receiving the Torah joyously anew and the humbling privilege of being chosen as Hashem’s nation by the advent of Shavous. Like an adrenaline junkie – I mentally scanned the Jewish calendar for the next signpost that will provide my next “fix”:

The “3 Weeks”.

I was jarred by the shock of being unexpectedly splashed by a stream of mental cold water. My euphoric balloon burst and I felt like I had slammed full force into a brick wall. Darkness. Silence.

The “3 Weeks”.

Images of no music, the sense of foreboding as I plan where & when to travel, rushing to get clothes washed and pre-worn, no showers, the acrid taste of an egg dipped in ashes, hunger pangs from fasting, isolation, shifting in constant discomfort on a hard, overturned bench; breaking my teeth on the unfamiliar and seemingly endless recital of Kinos, looking wearily for the clock to strike “chatzos” (afternoon) and the worst – not being able to greet or smile at the person in front of me as we silently lock eyes – all surged to the forefront of my mind:

The “3 weeks”.

Don’t get me wrong, one of the advantages of the “3 Weeks”, culminating with Tisha B’Av, is to be shaken out of complacency. We could travel through the Jewish year from one Rosh HaShannah to the eve of the following Rosh HaShannah, proverbaily pat ourselves on the back after weighing the preceding years observance of Jewish life – finding ourselves majority on the side merit while beseeching for mercy for the minority of our shortcomings. We could then proceed into the New Year and every year on the same cycle. Tisha B’Av is a disruptor, the litmus test, a reality check – did we really do what we needed to do? If we do not have the Temple, if we are not gathered from exile and have the ability to observe the entirety of the 613 mitzvos – then the answer is and the mirror of honesty we look into reflects a resounding “NO”; we’ve utterly failed despite good and accomplished efforts. Its not about evaluating how well did we live Jewishly but bottom line – did we end our exile? This bitter “failure” creates a fuel for a passionate return to Hashem during the days of Elul, slichos and the 10 Days of Teshuvah.

Despite that “perk” – the images come fast and strong – creating a visceral cringe. Even the Torah readings leading up to the “3 Weeks” seem to re-enforce this foreboding and serve as a preparation for these somber days of historic tragedy:

· Shelach – The sin of the spies & the source of our historic tragedies.
· Korach – the rebellion against Moses.
· Chukas – the death of Miriam & Aaron.
· Balak – the sin of idol worship.

Yet, it needs to be asked – does it really have to be this way? Do we have to resign ourselves to fasting this year as in previous years?

The Rambam (“Maimonides”) writes in his compilation and rulings of Jewish law that “a person should always view the world as evenly balanced – the next mitzvah to be done can tip the scales to bring the world to merit & bring the Redemption.”

Clearly, from a legal perspective – the answer is a resounding: “NO” – we will not have to fast this year if we choose to do something about it.

Do we have to wait for the “litmus test” and the 10 Days of Teshuvah? Is there a way to make a “pre-emptive strike”? What does the Torah empower us to do NOW? What are some of the catalysts based on our Sages recommendations?

· Return to Hashem with a feral intensity in increased learning, prayer, charity and mitzvos observed to the highest standards possible.
· Make a “siyum” during the “9 days” by completing the learning of a Tractate of Talmud.
· Observe Shabbos with accuracy & stringency.
· Learn the Rambam’s laws concerning the Building of the Temple (“Beis HaBechirah”).
· Learn the Prophets concerning the rebuilding of the Temple.
· Actively seek to create unity and peace.
· Perform self-less acts of kindness.

So the choice is really ours to “tip the scales” and there’s an opportunity that stands before us. True, while this choice is offered year round, the “3 weeks” are in actuality an auspicious time. Just as in the month of Nissan our Sages state “In the month of Nissan the Jews were redeemed, so to in the future will they be redeemed.” – similarly the Sages state:

(Yalkut Shimoni, Yermiyahu, 259 ): “The lion [Nevudchanetzar, who is referred to in the Bible as a lion–Yermiyahu 4:7] came on the month of the lion [Av] and destroyed the lion [the Temple, which is referred to in the Bible, especially with regard to the alter, as a lion], in order that the lion [G-d, of Whom is said ‘the lion roars, who shall not fear’–Amos 3:8] come on the month of the lion and rebuild the lion.”

The Rambam also brings the verdict “the days of fasting will be transformed to days of joy”.

So, if you have similar images of Tisha B’Av – let us be rebellious, fight history and use the empowerment of Torah and its mitzvos to bring the complete and true Redemption – NOW!.

Beyond BT/SerandEz Shabbaton

You are cordially invited to the Beyond BT/SerandEz Shabbaton in Kew Gardens Hills on Shabbos Nachamu, August 15-16, 2008. Please join us for a full Shabbos program including relaxed, catered meals and personal thoughts on the themes of Integration, Inspiration and Individuality. There will also be a melave malka with the BBT Jam Band (in its newest incarnation).

Pricing to follow. We will find accommodations for those residing outside of Kew Gardens Hills on a first request – first serve basis. Please e-mail us at beyondbt@gmail.com with questions, comments, or to rsvp. We look forward to seeing you all there.

Some Great Free Torah Audio & Video Sites

Naaleh.Com
Naaleh.com will be offering a series of beginner level classes, called Fundamentals of Judaism. This is a video course focusing on practical Halacha. Now, a newcomer to Jewish observance will have the ability to learn the basic practices of an observant Jew via our new course, “Practical Judaism”. The course will cover all daily observances, from how one wakes up in the morning to how to keep kosher and how to daven.

The course will be taught by Rabbi Jacobson, a leader in beginner’s Jewish education for over 20 years.

If you are not already familiar with our Naaleh.com, here is a brief description:

* 100% FREE, thanks to generous sponsorships and grants.
* Staff consistes of top notch teachers such as Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Rabbi Avishai David, Mrs.Shira Smiles, Rabbi Hanoch Teller, Rabbi Hershel Reichman, Rabbi Shimon Isaacson, and others.
* Classes are given as part of a series, not isolated lectures, so students have the opportunity to cover a topic in depth.
* Classes are exclusively given for our site, so they are recorded with online viewing in mind.
* The classes can be enjoyed in a variety of formats, including online streaming, mp3 and ipod downloads, podcasts, and RSS feeds.
* Covers a wide range of topics, such as Tanach, Mussar, Jewish Philosophy, Chassidut, Gemara, Halacha, and more.
* Forums and chat rooms to approved students, to foster a spirit of community learning.

Give Naaleh.com a visit.

———————————————–

Kol Halaloshon

Kol Halaloshon has over 120,000 free shiurim available for free download.

Speakers include
Rav Ezriel Tauber
Rav Mordechai Finkelman
Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum
Rav Dovid Cohen
Rav Yisroel Reisman
…and many more

———————————————–
Torah Anytime

Torah Anytime
has free audio and video from:
Rabbi Label Lam
Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
Rabbi Mordechai Becher
Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein
Rabbi Jonathan Rietti
Rabbi Paysach Krohn
…and many more

———————————————–
Teach It To Me

Teach It To Me
has free audio from:
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer
Rabbi David Botton
Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro
…and more

Chumras in Perspective

A couple of weeks ago in my Gemorah shiur we got into an aside about Chumras. The Rabbe mentioned that he had once been approached by a gentleman who was asking for Tzedeka to help him buy a set of Tefillin for his grandson. As the discussion unfolded it turned out that this grandfather was seeking assistance in buying a $1500 set of Tefillin! The Rebbe, originally inclined to assist, declined to contribute. He said that it’s one thing to help with a mitzvah, but this gentleman should not be asking others to support his chumra.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine shared a D’var Torah with me at a Shalom Zachor. It was around Parshat Vayakel. He started by posing the question, “What was the difference between the Keilim (vessels) that were in the Beit Hamikdash vs those in the Mishkan”? The answer is that in the Mishkan there was only one of each vessel and they were smaller than the ones in the Beit Hamikdash. This was so in spite of the fact that the B’nei Yisrael offered Moshe enough to have larger and multiple vessels in the Mishkan. In fact the B’nai Yisrael were offering so much of their possessions that Moshe had to tell them to stop. Why did he stop them? Surely, he knew that their destiny was to build a Temple large enough to accommodate whatever they wanted give. The answer given was that since the Mishkan was portable and carried by men, Moshe did not want the B’nai Yisrael to think that they could satisfy their desire to do extra (be Machmir) on their brothers’ backs.

The message seems clear. As much as we may desire to go above and beyond in our service to Hashem we must always balance this desire against its affect on those around us. Even when dealing in areas of normative halacha there is room to be lenient when it comes to issues of Shalom Bayis and Darche Shalom. How much more so must we be careful when dealing with that which is not required of us. Whether BT or FFB (and sometimes this can even be harder for FFBs) we can be faced with people, situations and environments that are not always, shall we say, receptive of our latest “development”.

Though so much in our observance seems black and white, this is one area where we can really modulate our observance to fit the environment. A kashrut Chumra, for example, which might work well in our kitchen, may prove to be onerous in our parents’ kitchen. One that works well in the New York Metro area might be really hard for the kids to keep while on vacation in Orlando. Something that makes sense in our community might be ridiculously out of place in our grandparents’ condo.

I guess another way to look at this is to weigh our desire to do a chumra against the chumra of being extra sensitive to those around us; whether they are spouses, children, parents, friends, or colleagues.

About a year ago I posted a piece about my teenage daughter’s decision to adopt a couple of chumras of her own when she was 14. One of them was to stop going to the movies. At the time, I wrote back to her that I was proud of her growth and a hope that she would, “… also know that Frumkeit is not just on the outside, but also the type of person you are and how you represent Yiddishkeit to other Jews and even non-Jews.”

A few years later, after we had moved to Israel, my daughter went back to the states for a visit. There, she spent a few days with my father. There’s not all that much for a not-so-mobile 70 something man and teenage girl to do down on the Jersey shore. My father suggested they go to a movie and my daughter, understanding the nuances of the situation, agreed. She did not “fall off the wagon” nor was she giving into some deep seated urge to see a flick. She maturely assessed that her chumra need not be carried on my father’s back.

My daughter’s ability to put her chumra in perspective showed me that, not only had she become “frum” on the outside, but that she had integrated her Frumkeit in a way that made her both a better Jew and a better person. That, I believe, is the essence of what our Rebbe was saying to us and what Moshe Rabeinu was saying to B’nei Yisroel.

Teshuva After Marriage

If you were already married when you made teshuva, did you decide to have another wedding that complied with halacha (i.e. an Orthodox wedding)?

Also, did you or your wife wait until having an Orthodox wedding to observe taharas hamishpacha and cover your hair?

Conquering Bad Religious Experiences

By Yakov Lowinger

There has been some discussion regarding the reversion of some from religious observance due to a “bad religious experience” (BRE), which seems to cause the sufferer to swear off involvement in organized religion much like a bad omelet will repel one from associating with eggs in a pan for a good while. I personally feel strongly about this discussion and find many of its assumptions to be misplaced, and I hoped to share some of my insights gleaned from inside, then outside, then inside the frum world if I can be so presumptuous.

1. Being rejected is no cause to reject

The problem is that the lovable eggs in a pan that we encounter every day in the frum world, the ones that often drive us crazy and perhaps even give us real indigestion, are our fellow Jews who we are commanded to love and accept. Why are we so concerned on the contrary with their love and acceptance of us as ba’alei teshuvah, so much so that we take their little acts of rejection as proof of the error of our ways? There is a bit of the parable of the sour grapes in an ex-BT who turns away from observance mainly because he/she didn’t feel accepted. You don’t want me? Well I didn’t want you anyway. Unfortunately little of this dance gets either side closer to the questions of finding the Emes that becoming religious was meant to represent. The BT is no less obligated to respect and tolerate those in the community where he lives, as the community is obligated to respect and tolerate him.

2. The derech ha’emes is not contingent on our experiences, good or bad

The story of the aspiring BT who rushes toward ever-increasing levels of observance as long as it feels good, and then backs away once reality (i.e. other people) sets in, has a disturbing undertone. I would argue that Rabbi Jacobson’s comparison to Nadav and Avihu is nice but in the end, there is no distinction between the two brothers’ fate. A more apt comparison is to Rabbi Akiva and R’ Elisha ben Avuya, who went into the pardes together to learn the secrets of Torah. Rabbi Akiva came out unharmed, while R’ Elisha became a heretic and was henceforth known as “Acheir,” the other. In other words, a person’s greatness or lack thereof is defined by how he/she responds to a real challenge to emunah and a genuine exposure to holiness. In the case of the modern day BT, it is in response to a BRE, or even an overwhelming religious experience, that the title ba’al teshuvah is earned or forfeited. It is irresponsible to suggest that the choice between being a Rabbi Akiva or becoming an “Acheir” is ever in the hands of other people, regardless of how insensitively they may sometimes treat us. Those challenges are there for us to use in order to grow, not to become bitter like Acheir, who gave up completely and considered himself beyond repair because of his experience at the pardes.

3. No such thing as an FFB

Unless we take it to mean “filtered from birth”, there is no usefulness to the term FFB as it is generally used. In the first place, as it is meant to be the residual category of BT, it de-individualizes those who happen to have parents who gave them the gift of frumkeit. The argument then almost makes itself – those FFBs are anti-individual – much like saying that anteaters are anti-ant. The term ba’al teshuvah has an exalted status in Torah, considered in some respects higher than a tzaddik. The term FFB in contrast enjoys no comparable prestige, highlights no distinguishing feature of those so categorized except accident of birth, and therefore tells us nothing about those who supposedly bear this title. The label should be discarded, in my opinion, as the terms BT and FFB are in no way commensurable. The former is exalted and laden with meaning, the latter a mere statistic. The term FFB just gives frustrated ex-frum people something to bandy around, some identifier that we all supposedly understand and relate to and toward which we can direct our complaints. By relying less on these labels, we can more easily identify the real source of our challenges, which is more often than not in ourselves and not in those ______s out there.

4. Cluelessness and misplaced meticulousness

That said, it is not as if there are not prevalent problems in certain frum communities that might drive a sensitive person away from strict observance. I will just point out two that I think are important. Compared to what they are used to, BTs are likely to encounter a certain clulessness about the world at large that may make them uncomfortable. The reality is that the strong filters that we grow up with as frum yidden foreclose the possibility of relating to a BT on most things of interest to them, and thus create that familiar dynamic where we look quizzically at the BT as he tells his/her story at the shabbos table and make him/her even more uncomfortable. This would normally lead to some sort of alienation on the part of the BT who just can’t be understood, whereas a healthier approach might be to accept this limitation and even offer to give some background on the topic in question, in a way consistent with the decency implied by a Torah lifestyle, instead of rolling eyes or sighing knowingly. This cluelessness should be treated with sensitivity and understanding, and the BT should take the acharayus to educate his or her new friends and family in a way that establishes the basis for mutual understanding. Those in the frum community in turn should take it upon themselves to listen and learn from the BT. Their strong filters should be more than adequate to the task.

A second difficulty is the misplaced meticulousness displayed by many in the frum community. This goes for BTs and non-BTs alike. In short, it goes like this. I am frummer than you in outward appearance. This causes me to displace my concern for my own frumkeit (what should I do to be more frum, which I may not know) onto you (because it seems that I do know what you need to do to be more frum). I nitpick on your appearance and seeming observance in my head rather than on my own faults which may not be so visible to others on the surface, because it is easier and seems equally valid. The problem is that nobody benefits from this arrangement. I don’t improve and neither do you. If I became as meticulous in my observance as I was in staring down/talking down to the BT on the other side of the shul we would both win. When we self-professed frummies see someone whose appearance makes us uncomfortable in some way, we should see it as a wake up call to fix what’s lacking in our own avodah. Because anyway, I can only be meticulous on my own account, not yours.

5. Living in a frum community requires a thick skin

We are all growing, hopefully, and learning every day. A BT should try to make him/herself sensitive to this and apply it across the board when confronted with the dreaded BRE. Because that BRE is going to happen. And it may even be horrible (I’ve heard some downright Jerry Springer ones — I bet he’s had a few himself). Here’s where the thick skin comes in — tough up and remember that those people responsible for your BRE are having one too. Rather than have it prick at all your sensitivities and throw you off, which in all likelihood it’s designed to do, remember that it’s also put there by Hashem to make you a stronger, more serious and committed Jew. I know people who have actually gone as far as to thank those who threw really terrible BREs at them, because they couldn’t be who they are now without them. Once your done being carried away with all the fun frills of being frum (I’ve heard there are a few), stare down that BRE in the face and become who you really are meant to be. And as for those bitter acheir’s out there, it’s not too late either. I hope there’s something here for all to take to heart.

You’re Invited

Beyond BT Contributor R’ YY Bar-Chaim invites all BBTers who live in or are visitng Yerushalayim to join in the simcha of his son’s wedding.You could fly in too, if you wish.

The chasuna will take place, iy”h, this Wednesday at the Prima Palace Hotel,formely called “Mercaz”, Rechov Pinnes 2, Kabbalas Ponim from 9:15 pm.

Mazel Tov!! 

A Call to Freedom

A few years ago, I received this anonymous email outlining the fate of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence:

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.

Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured. Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in rags.

Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.

Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton. At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart. Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.

Such were the stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution.

Two centuries later, few of us ever contemplate making sacrifices for what we believe in. Perhaps we are too preoccupied profiting from our freedom to bother thinking about what we owe to the system that enables us to prosper. It is a deplorable failing for an American.

It is even more deplorable for a Jew.

Our patriarchs Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov suffered alienation and persecution for the sin of rejecting paganism and moral anarchy. The generations in Egypt endured 210 years of escalating oppression, slavery, and infanticide. The generation of Moshe wandered for 40 years in the desert to merit entering their land. The generations of the judges and kings fought against internal and external enemies to build and preserve the spiritual integrity of their nation.

And generations of exiles have struggled against religious persecution, genocide, and assimilation at the hands of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, against pogroms at the hands of Crusaders and Cossacks, against holocausts at the hands of Hitlers and Stalins. They sacrificed their lives, their fortunes, and their children — sometimes willingly, sometimes forcibly — for no other reason than because they were Jews.

What have we sacrificed?

It’s easy to credit ourselves with having sacrificed cheeseburgers, shrimp scampi, mixed swimming, Friday night movies, Saturday golf games, and sleeping in late on Sunday mornings. But do we dedicate enough of our time and energy to learning, to chesed, to showing respect to our parents and teachers, to being patient with our children, to conducting ourselves respectfully in shul, and to guarding our tongues from gossip and slander?

It’s a good time of year to reflect upon the responsibilities of freedom. It’s a better time show our appreciation for the freedoms that we have by recommitting ourselves to using those freedoms the way HaShem wants us to.

Stained Holiness – An Educational Issue

By R’ YY Bar-Chaim

“And they should make for them(selves) fringes On the corners of their garments,
Throughout their generations…
And you shall see it And you shall remember all the Mitzvos of G-d and do them”

~Num. 15 ~

My youngest recently had his Bar-Mitzvah and was proud to mark the occasion, among other things, by wearing his tallis katan (garment to which we attach the tsitsis fringes) above his shirt. It was particuIarly sweet for me to see him take on this Mitzvah with such uninhibited demonstrativeness, since the following Torah portion ended with that Mitzvah, as quoted above. Still, I cautioned him to not get too attached (no pun intended) to wearing the entire garment out since it will probably become a magnet for filth.

“Oh, Abba – really!”, he grunted. “I’m not a little kid.”

“No question,” I reassured, “but the nature of the beast is that outer garments get dirty quickly. Besides, just like your older brothers wore their bigdei-tsitsis in until Yeshiva, and like Abba does during the week, so too do I think it’s davka a grown-up consideration to do like your elders.”

“But Abba, that will seem sooo strange!”, he cried. “We’re Chassidim now, and that’s what most Chassidim do…”

“EXCEPT for a few, with me among them!”, I retorted. Then as a compassionate afterthought: “Still, I do respect that you’ve grown up in this community, in contrast to me and your brothers, for most of your life. So if you’d like to try and keep it clean, I’ll consider letting you wear it out. But if not, you’ll have to wait til Yeshiva.”

I think he decided that it would be strategically wise to not say more, because he quickly slipped away with a knowing smirk. As in saying, “alright Abba, I’ll lay low and you’ll probably forget all about it!” Indeed, with the other boys I probably would have pursued the debate til we got mutually clear on the right thing to do. But this one is different. He’s five years younger than the “first generation” and respectively has fallen into an entirely different role in the family. I have also aged, of course, and gotten past the keen sense of being a newbie in this holy community and the attendant fear of deviating.

Still it bothered me to not be seeing eye-to-eye with my son.

I was thus pleased, a couple of days later, to have another opportunity to address the issue. I had just spied numerous “decorations” on his tallis katan, which he had tried to keep out of sight by draping the front part over his shoulder but which now came clearly into sight as he bent over.

“Alright kid,” I funlovingly chided, “it’s time to face the facts. HOW many stains have you managed to get?”

“NU Abba. What do you expect?”

“Precisely that,” I smiled. “It’s totally normal. But that’s why I’ve been preparing you.”

“But you CAN’T make me tuck it in!”, he protested, with a vehemence that pinched the core of my paternity. “They’ll laugh at me. It will be sooo embarrassing…”

“More than walking around with a filthy cape?”

“YES. EVERYone tends to get it dirty…”

“Ah, THAT”s what I feared. It’s for that reason that I DAVKA want you to tuck it in. You don’t have to be one of the crowd in EVERYthing, after all, no matter how holy they generally are. Aye, we didn’t make all those sacrifices to enter such a holy community for you to take on all their vices…”

Uh-oh.

I could hear myself guilt-tripping. The plug holding back my long-held anxieties about the “dirty bathwater” in which the “baby” of our Yiddishkeit was sitting had now been pulled. I surely didn’t want to throw the baby out, but I’d be damned if I was gonna let my kids get comfortable in that bathwater!

“Your RIGHT, Abba,” he suddenly said, jolting me out of my reservations.

“What? You agree?”

“No, not exactly. I just said you’re right that it’s not the best part of this derech (pathway of piety) that boys walk around with filthy talleisim ketanim. Still, I ask you to let me keep it out, because the embarrassment of being different will be worse!”

Whew. Now THAT’s one honest child. It certainly stymied the flow of my reproach. Could it be that I was also right and also wrong? And was the right part tainted by my own, projected horror at the possibility of living a life of stained holiness? I mean, perhaps the thought of holiness equaling cleanliness is one big fantasy schlepped over from the Xn culture in which I was raised??

These are questions I haven’t yet resolved and I’d be most pleased to hear some thoughts on the matter from others who’ve grappled with it.