Posted on | January 26, 2009 | By Guest Contributor | 77 Comments
Rabbi Francis Nataf, Executive Director of David Cardozo Academy
Many BTs in the 70s and 80s felt that the ba’al teshuva movement was going to change the world by providing the bridge to bring back the lion’s share of world Jewry to a vibrant Orthodoxy. Unfortunately many of the framers of the ba’al teshuva movement were not interested in hearing some sort of new synthesis of the ba’al teshuva. Even if the BT continued his Torah studies to a higher level, one of the keys to his success in the system was to stop being a ba’al teshuva.
The BT movement, even more than the rest of Orthodoxy, values conformity and subordination. Letting the movement attempt to reach it’s potential involves risks and Orthodoxy is not prepared to take these risks. Judaism is in need of serious creativity and the author invites ba’alei teshuva as well as non-BT’s to seek to realize their true G-d given creative potential, not only for your own good, but for the good of the Jewish people and ultimately for mankind as a whole.
Given the recent events in India, I think it would be inappropriate to discuss the BT movement without mentioning the critical and pioneering contribution of the Lubaviticher Rebbe z”l and his shlichim. (Of course, when I say z’l, don’t mean to make a political statement)Though many people in the movement are unaware of it, or would prefer to be unaware of it, the idea to bring mass numbers of non-Orthodox Jews back to Orthodoxy has its origins in Crown Heights. Perhaps that is the main reason that last year when we asked our students to choose who they would describe as the greatest Jew of the previous century, to my surprise, they overwhelmingly choose the Lubavitcher rebbe. This, even though we had not a single Lubavitcher and we had many who were heavily impacted by the teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik and others who might well have been alternative choices.
But well beyond providing the impetus for the movement’s origins, it is the Rebbe’s vision that assured the viability of much of Ba’al Teshuva life by sending out his shlichim to all the places that Ba’alei Teshuva would find themselves. I can only give you an example from my own journey to Orthodoxy. Intellectually, I was never really attracted to Chabad (I don’t know how many times I learned the first page of Tanya and still can’t tell you what it’s about) and so started my own path at a non-chassidic yeshiva in Israel. Still, when I came back to my college in Portland, Oregon, Chabad shlichim were the only ones around to nurture my continued interest in Judaism. Nor was there anyone else near my home in Santa Monica, California. These shlichim and their families, black suits, chalav Yisrael and all, bore the discomfort of moving to the most challenging places imaginable to sustain our connection to Jewish tradition. I found them in Portland and in Santa Monica, and on my travels to Berkley and Florence and, had I joined many others with such an interest, also in Mumbai. Had they not been there, I can’t be sure that I would be in front of you now.
All Jews owe a debt of gratitude to Chabad but we ba’alei teshuva owe more than anyone else.
No doubt, some of the things that I have to say will sound similar to thoughts of my friend Dr. Malamet. They will certainly be variations of the same theme. At the same time, I want to be sure that you won’t come out of this session saying that I basically said the same thing, if only not as well. For one, while I feel that Dr. Malamet gave the impression that things could be different, I will be a bit more pessimistic and suggest that the problems about which we are speaking are intrinsic to the movement, as it is currently structured, and thus unlikely to change. Moreover, if Dr. Malamet focused on the clash with Western ideology as the central ideological issue that has prevented the ba’al teshuva from making his proper contribution, I will focus more on the sociology of mistrust that pervades the movement. I will also seek to understand how it is that the ba’al teshuva has accepted his or her subservience as dictated to by the movement’s architects. Thus, fear of ba’alei teshuva by others on the one hand and the fears of ba’alei teshuva themselves on the other underlies the title of my talk, “Fear Within, Fear Without.”
Though we’re all interested in a good story, I will spare you the biographical notes of my return, especially since they are very similar to Prof. Malamet’s. One difference that I think is relevant, however, may be in our more recent connection to the movement. As opposed to what Dr. Malamet reports about himself, I have kept a foot in the world of the ba’al teshuva. Both as an on-again off-again teacher in one of Jerusalem’s ba’al teshuva programs and as a Shabbat host for just about every ba’al teshuva program in the holy city, I have been able to keep my finger on the pulse of this movement. That being the case, most of my talk will be based on my personal experience as an educator as well as a participant in this movement over almost thirty years.
Before I speak to you about why the movement is not doing what some of us here tonight would like it to do, I do want to take you back to the promise that some of us felt when we first joined it. One of the things that drew many people like me to the ba’al teshuva movement almost thirty years ago was the feeling that we were going to somehow change the world. (Remember, being a college student in the late 70’s and the early 80’s usually meant looking up to the protest movements of the 60’s as some sort of ideal – we still believed in social justice and in ideals.) This was not the only, nor even the most basic, reason – I think most of us at the time were what Faranak Margolese calls truth-seekers. And yes, we were also attracted to the warm fuzzy feeling of kumsitzes and Shabbos meals and fascinated by the world of learning. But we also wanted to see ourselves as social revolutionaries – we believed we could significantly change the world for the better, a vision which according to Thomas Cahill and unbeknownst to any of us at the time, is one of the gifts of the Jewish tradition. In fact, I remember the glee we all felt when one of our roshei yeshiva, referring to this movement, proclaimed “It’s a revolution!”
But what was this revolution and exactly how were we meant to change the world? Very simply, the great hope was that we would turn the tide of assimilation and movement away from tradition – that we would somehow provide the bridge to bring back the lion’s share of world Jewry to a renascent Orthodoxy. Since we, the BT’s, would be able to speak the language of our Reform or Conservative or secular friends and families, we would be able to win them over to what we found so exciting. It appears that the confident young rabbis who engineered the movement really believed that the future belonged to Orthodoxy – that it was only a matter of time until the movement would win over the majority of the Jewish people. This was, indeed, an exciting vision and an empowering one for us particularly, their disciples – we understood that we were the critical link in the transformation of Jewish society and through it, possibly the whole world. We indeed, were given a historical dream. So that was the dream, a dream that at the end of the day, its dreamers did not dare to play out. For the dynamics of the movement prevented it from taking the risks inherent in the full trajectory of the project, as we shall explain.
Of course, on a technical level, ba’alei teshuva were trained and sent out to be kiruv workers (except from one yeshiva which felt that even this was too much for the “handicapped” ba’al teshuva). Eventually they became outreach professionals as it became more politely known, even creating a professional association called Association of Jewish OP, AJOP, to make them feel more established. Who ever heard of a trade association of revolutionaries – has anyone heard of the Association of Maoist Agitation Professionals? But this would not be a problem, since, as we said, the revolution was never executed. You see, the framers of that revolution were too scared to really let these people loose. Instead, these BT’s that were sent out were trained in the ways of thought of the orthodox community. They were told that they didn’t know enough to develop their own vision of Judaism – “we, who know more than you, will tell you what Judaism is all about it – we are not interested in your opinion.” Thus, the leaders chose to use the cultural language and professional abilities of their BT proteges, but not their intellectual creativity and personal essence. In short, they were told to just translate, not to creeate. And there was the rub and perhaps the tragedy. Granted, a person who knows nothing about the Jewish tradition cannot offer an intelligent opinion after two months in yeshiva. (Reminded of joke about mussar yeshiva – ich bin a garnicht). But my point is that the framers of the ba’al teshuva movement were not interested in ever hearing some sort of new synthesis of the ba’al teshuva. Even if the BT continued his Torah studies to a higher level, one of the keys to his success in the system was to stop being a ba’al teshuva. (So much so, that Rav Steinsaltz has been disqualified due to his lack of “mesora” – similarly Rav Wolbe, who for all of his greatness, publicly towed the party line, could, nonetheless, not completely escape a similar label being attached to him.)
Lest we think that truly asking the ba’al teshuva for his own independent approach to Judaism is a wild suggestion, we should look back at Jewish history and note that especially at critical formative periods, it has often been the ba’al teshuva or another type of outsider that has been the one to be able to see Judaism freshly enough to reinvigorate and it give it the new creative impetus to move forward as from time to time it inevitably must. This is certainly true of the first Jew, Avraham Avinu. It is also true of all of the Emahot. As I have written and am writing more about in my next volume on Shemot, Moshe Rabbenu did not grow up in a Jewish home, let alone a Jewishly observant one. Rebbe Eliezer and his student who eventually turned away from him, Rebbe Akiva – perhaps the two greatest rabbis of the Talmudic period and who could so be seen as the main architects of rabbinic Judaism – were both Ba’alei Teshuva.
Ancient precedents to the side, the architects of this movement must have been aware that no one would know exactly what would come out of the this new movement – that it was a risk. Though the hope was perhaps to create the Maharal’s golem who would serve his master’s needs, it must have occurred to more than one rabbi, that the golem could in fact turn out to be Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, who would turn on his master. (Apparently, a third choice of creating someone who would eventually become benignly independent was not seriously considered.)
Thus, it is worthwhile noting that not all rabbinic leaders thought the Ba’al Teshuva movement was a good move. Opponents would refer to it as a para aduma, that it would contaminate the pure even as it purified the contaminated. Moreover, what would be of all the bad influences that they would bring with them – pop culture, foreign values, lack of refinement in speech and behavior? And if there was concern about the influence of the ba’alei teshuva themselves, there was perhaps just as much concern about the connection they would likely still have with non-religious parents and siblings who would, willy-nilly, continue to expose the ba’al teshuva family to these negative influences and through these families would affect the orthodox community at large. Another question raised was about the stability of the potential ba’al teshuva – was someone who was ready to completely change his life in a few months time emotionally stable? Would orthodoxy just be another experience to be traded in for something else one he would have his mid-life crisis? Would he be truly committed to marriage and family, since he himself was often the product of a broken home? By the way, though I think the ba’al teshuva movement is one of the most important achievement of contemporary Judaism, I think it is important to admit that every one of these fears has materialized in one capacity or another.
As a result and certainly leshem shamyim, there was a need to control the movement and make sure that it would not turn into a negative force, which as I said, we should not summarily discount. And so, one finds a veteran rabbi in the field giving the following advice and I again don’t want to discount what he is saying as having no place – he says as follows: I would venture to say that (like BT’s) most FFB’s also don’t have a Rav to guide them. (but BT’s are in greater need of someone to tell them) how to really “live” their lives, since BTs don’t have that frum parental and grandparental wisdom to rely on.” Another rabbi warns BTs about the likelihood that they will experience “spiritual vertigo, which will prevent us (the BT’s) from “know(ing) whether we’re up or down” and so this rabbi tells them explicitly “not to trust their own judgment.” In other words, the only one that the BT can really rely upon is, not himself, but someone from within the system. By the way, as these BT’s became parents and started to send their children to school, their insecurity became compounded by their own children, who reinforced this message and questioned the values and instincts of their parents, summarized so beautifully in the Hebrew by the statement commonly aimed at these erstwhile revolutionary parents, “ Atem lo yodeim mehahayim shelchem.”
That many of the BT’s had been looking to find clear answers in a general society that was turning more and more away from clarity prompted them to accept such an unusually authoritarian structure, wherein BT’s were encouraged, as we just saw, not to trust their intuitions or feelings. When I say they were encouraged to distrust their feelings, let me give you an example: I don’t know how many of you are ba’alei teshuva – those of you who are probably remember the uneasy feeling you first heard one of your rebbeim or shabbat hosts using the word “schwartze. ” (By the way, don’t think that it’s better in the supposedly tolerant Sephardi world – do you know what they call blacks in the Syrian community? Abed – anyone know what that means? Slave!) For most ba’alei teshuva, this was a moment of cognitive dissonance and for some it was even a moment of crisis – here we were hearing people for whom we had developed great respect yet who seemed to have no problem using a crass and generally gratuitous insult for fellow human beings, who in the humanistic tradition we had come from, we had accepted as not so different than ourselves. After getting over the initial shock, the average ba’al teshuva felt the need to do something to remove that dissonance. For most, learning to distrust one’s intuitions, especially if those intuitions were supported by contemporary Western culture, provided the answer.
As I mentioned earlier, I had the fortune of teaching ba’alei teshuva for a number of years. Both within and without the institution where I taught, charismatic and otherwise inspiring teachers were telling my students things that stretched their credibility to the point that if they were ever to present some of these things to their non-orthodox friends and families back home, they would be considered lunatics. The point here is that they were told things that certainly did not fit in with these students’ ways of thinking – the result was that this furthered the student’s feeling that they could not trust their own intellects or their intuitions. In response to this, I would always tell the students that if you hear something that forces you to twist yourself into a pretzel – for goodness sake, question it! Find out if it’s the only view and consider whether you really can respect yourself for accepting it. And occasionally, some students were willing to hear this.
A student of mine wrote the following about what she was coming to accept: “I have been learning to be confident with my decisions. That Judaism endows man with the strength to use his mind. Instead of looking for a short cut to the truth, which is what I had been doing until I came in contact with this approach…, I have to trust myself and maybe take the longer route or the one less traveled on. I have to be intellectually honest. What does that mean to me? It means to be real about life. Instead of just swallowing what’s being taught, it means asking questions. It means challenging foundations and hypotheses. It means being okay with the discomfort of not having all the answers….” But, my friends, like her teacher, this student was the exception to the rule.
As one of the BT’s who refused to buy in to such a scenario, I remember more antagonism from my peers than from my rebbeim. Which was an indication that the control mechanisms had worked and that the movement would go, and continues to go, the way of the compliant majority and would leave those like me to find our own way. And so we did – some bitterly went back to their former lives and others went to Jewish studies departments in universities while still others went to various segments of established Orthodoxy – strains of Chassidut, mainstream charedi yeshivot or, as in my case, Zionist and Modern Orthodox yeshivot. Thus, the ones who were willing to chart their own course dispersed to various corners and allowed the others to inherit a movement which, even more than the rest of Orthodoxy, values conformity and subordination.
So, I became the unusual BT who not only made his way up, but maintained his BT perspective. As an example of what that brought about, I remember discussing a certain series of children’s books with a kindergarten teacher working for me a few years back here in Israel. I told her that I did not feel the books were appropriate as they caricatured all the non-Jewish characters as stupid and/or evil. She responded by saying that she did not understand what I meant and that it must be that I had a somewhat “goyish” view of things. When I was criticized by my employee, I had two advantages that most ba’alei teshuva do not have. First, I was her supervisor and thus, goyish or not, I was the one who made the final decision. Secondly, I had pursued my Torah studies to the point where I could feel self-confident in my own understanding of Jewish tradition.
I had pursued smikha, taught Jewish studies and quickly rose to the position of principal. Eventually I started writing and public speaking, allowing my thoughts to be read and heard by many people. In short, I became somewhat of a success …but did I really?
(I don’t know if I should speak for Rabbi Cardozo as well, and he can correct the record later if not, but that as perhaps the only institution that could describe itself as an institute focused on Ba’al teshuva thought – not kiruv, but the original work of BT thinkers who refuse to give up their roots (Here I speak about the leadership, Rabbi Cardozo and myself, as well as some, though certainly not even most of our staff)). Primarily through the Cardozo Academy, I have a modest following, but only a small percentage of that following are BT’s. Even more significantly, the vast majority of BT’s have no interest in becoming part of that following. Or I should say no will. I remember once approaching a wealthy and intelligent BT about supporting our program. We had a nice conversation and he seemed to strongly agree with what I was saying, until he asked the question which I knew I could not answer to his satisfaction, “Who is your Da’as Torah?” In other words, he was saying “I don’t trust you. I like everything you say but I don’t trust myself either.”
In this regard, I often like a leader of a movement that doesn’t exist.
To say that the BT movement has developed in way that has not fulfilled its revolutionary potential is not to take away from its important accomplishments, nor to take away from the talents and hard work of those involved in it, both the teachers and the students. I remember hearing that the goal of one of the major roshei yeshiva in the movement was simply to stop every Jew that he could from intermarriage. And for thousands of Jews, that his movement has done, and much more. A former teacher at this yeshiva, though even more critical than I, once pointed out the tremendous merit that these people have for bringing so many people back to the fold, people who would certainly have otherwise been lost to the Jewish people. Moreover, by and large, BT’s have brought a sincerity and a seriousness to the Orthodox world, the positive impact of which cannot be denied. No doubt, these are major contributions and should be viewed with respect and gratitude by all of us, all the more so by those of us directly affected.
Thus, even such as it is, the movement had done a great deal. My question is could the movement not do much more? I have a background in history and so have a tendency to see things in historical terms – (maybe that is a curse, as it makes things look much more depressing than they may seem otherwise). To put it into colloquial terms, at least for the North Americans in the audience, the movement has, no doubt, hit a home run. My problem is that, from my reading of history, we are in the bottom of the ninth inning and even after the home run, we are still losing. Of course, if you are not aware of the home run’s context, as I would argue that most are not, the home run is worth celebrating.
(In other words, could not the Orthodox leadership have encouraged the BT to use his intellectual background or his artistic sensitivities to enrich his Torah studies and eventually provide him, and more importantly, the rest of contemporary society, with a truly new and creative, if hopefully still authentic, vision of Judaism. From a different perspective, one could perhaps even suggest that there was a Divine hand at play giving us the BT movement to shape history; that is was meant to give Orthodox Judaism what it was lacking, through the infusion of fresh thinking – something much more critical to the future of Judaism than the fresh blood the movement offered. Historically, the ba’al teshuva brought his background in a time when Orthodox society had still not formulated a successful formula towards modernity and as the world was becoming more intertwined, there was a more pressing need to formulate such a new strategy. Indeed, the main approach was and continues to be an outdated defensive isolation inherited from the Eastern European rebbes and roshei yeshiva. So couldn’t the ba’al teshuva movement have done more?)
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I think the answer is no. Letting the movement do what I and others here tonight would like involves tremendous risks as we discussed and Orthodoxy is not prepared to take these risks. And this is the true problem – something that I have discussed in many other contexts – Orthodoxy is too insecure to take the risks needed to hit the grand slam that we need to win the game. What I have reminded whoever is willing to listen, is that not taking risks may end up being the biggest risk of all. Home run or not, at the end of the inning, we will have lost the game.
(I believe that Western society is at a crossroads and that the next century will see some dramatic changes in how we think and how we structure society. Classical liberalism and traditional religion are both going to be here for the foreseeable future. Yet over two hundred years after the eclipse of the ancient regime, these two systems of values have not learned how to coexist. And lest we think that this is strange, we should know that this is far from a simple matter. The religious reservations many of us feel about a state that is somehow supposed to be both Jewish and democratic are well summarized by Christian Yale law professor Stephen Carter, who says that we have every right to “ask why the will of any of the brilliant philosophers of the liberal tradition, or, for that matter, the will of the Supreme Court… is more relevant to (public )moral decisions than the will of G-d. So far, liberal theory has not presented an adequate answer.” (The Culture of Disbelief, p. 226) So the problem in Carter’s America and our Israel and in most of the world is that our citizenries are torn between two systems that so far have no room for each other. Ideas for their coexistence have been put forward, but so far, nothing has truly worked. Man will have to work harder to find a solution to this impasse. My hope is that Judaism will play a leadership role in the paradigm shifts that I feel are around the corner, but my fear is that we are completely unready to play that role. At this point, I don’t see the BT movement living up to the revolutionary vision that might have addressed this lack of readiness, but as Rav Shlomo, used to say, “You never know.”
But one thing I think that I do know – whether inside or outside of the movement, Judaism as well as mankind in general, is in need of serious creativity. That means challenging the limits of Academic thought just as much as it means challenging the limits of religious thought. The great creative corpus that we are heirs to, should make us realize that Orthodox belief and practice is meant to discipline creativity, not to stifle it.) Though I am not optimistic about the future of the BT revolution, I invite ba’alei teshuva as well as non-BT’s to seek to realize your true G-d given creative potential, not only for your own good, but for the good of the Jewish people and ultimately for mankind as a whole. At the same time, I remember hearing a story about someone asking Rav Soloveitchik what are we to do – the world is falling apart. The Rav responded simply that we have to remember that G-d runs the world and that the problem ultimately belongs to him. I am still worried, because the Rav’s answer is only correct when all else has been tried – Hashamayim leHashem veHaareta natan levnei adam. So, even if my challenge is ignored, though tonight is Chanukah and not Purim,, I can only tell you that which Mordechai told Esther, Revach vehatzala ya’amod leyudim memakom acher…. The rest of the verse I would rather not quote.