The Three Stages of Judaism for BTs and FFBs

A Baal Teshuva is usually introduced to authentic Judaism by learning Torah. Different people are exposed to different topics, but the first stage is usually Torah with little or no mitzvah observance.

After some time learning Torah, the observance of mitzvos begins. The time frame can vary greatly dependending on the person and the environment. The first mitzvos are usually between man and G-d like Shabbos, Kashrus and Davening.

After a period of learning and mitzvos the BT approaches integration into the community which is mainly focused on mitzvos between man and man.

The FFB goes through roughly the same phases. Early childhood and schooling is focused on learning Torah. As the child reaches chinuch they focus on mitzvos between man and G-d like Shabbos and davening. As the FFB breaks into the teen years and becomes a young adult they integrate into their Yeshiva and community involving mitzvos beteen man and man.

In a broad sense, these three stages mirror the three foundations of the world, Torah (learning), Avodah (man and G-d) and Gemilas Chasadim (man and man). When spritual maturity is reached, all three are in focus but in the early stages they proceed from Torah to Avodah to Gemilas Chasadim.

The BT however advances through these stages at a much faster pace then the FFB and often does not get enough exposure in the Torah phase. BTs who are more exposed and conversant in Torah have a much easier time in the community integration phase between man and man.

21 comments on “The Three Stages of Judaism for BTs and FFBs

  1. EPA, very well put. As usual, you’re never shy about confronting reality, however harsh — although I think you are mistaken in assuming that Shmuel was reluctant to say what you said. I do think you’re pretty much on the mark.

    As to your friend who “still retains a certain ‘BT quality’ about him,” I should hope that he does.

  2. Yes we asked questions and went to beginners services and took a class here (ironically because of what you said about Chabad, Tanya) and there but it was mostly to be able to do the mitzvahs properly not learning for learning sake. Things like learning from Chumash and Gemara came much much later. But if you want to say that meant we had to learn first, then you are literally correct.

  3. AJ, you didn’t take any classes? Hashkafa, parsha, nothing…at the beginning.

    How did you do mitzvos, especially relatively complex ones like Shabbos and Kashrus, without learning the halachos involved?

  4. I think that the “Torah First” strategy” is probably employed more by the young single BT. In my experience and for many of my peers who became a BT a little later in life and did not have the luxury to sit and learn, the mitzvahs first was the way it went. Shabbos, Yom Tovim, kashrus (although learning was certainly incorporated) etc were way before torah learning.
    I have also seen this in the Manhattan jewish scene where mitzvahs which go with socialization are the entry points. I know I’m being a little less than idealistic here but these are the facts on the ground.

    And although Shimon’s point did not match the theme of this thread, having moved recently to NYC, I’m starting to understand the financial issue, up close and personal. Maybe in the small towns, the learning is tougher but the mitzvah’s are easier because of financial and quality of life reasons.

  5. My path was the reverse of the one described in the article.

    I had what I feel is a good foundation in acts of kindness/mitzvot between person and person throughout the non-observant portion of my adult life. Before I knew the actual Torah sources, I have always placed a premium on mitzvot such as proper speech, returning lost objects, and showing appreciation (Shmirat HaLashon, Hashavat Aveidah, Hakarat HaTov)

    My return to ritual mitzvah observance began (about twenty years after my bar mitzvah) in a Conservative synagogue; there were some inconsistencies that I was concerned with, but more tellingly, those with whom I had the most in common regarding daily prayer were much older than I was. The year that our first child was born, we were one of two couples mentioned in the newsletter as new parents, while there were dozens of announcements for grandparents and great grandparents.

    My interest in Torah study began during the latter portion of my time in the Conservative movement and continued when we made the transition to Orthodoxy.

  6. It depends on the nature of the act in question, the community itself, your standing in the community, the implications of the act, your real level, and many other factors.

    To get a feel for some aspects of this, look in the later chapters of the Mesillas Yesharim where he talks about weighing the implications of “beyond the letter of the law” actions.

    Spiritual maturity is a complicated matter and one always has farther to go. This is why continued learning is so essential.

    One of my Rebbeim taught me early in my acceptance of Torah, that our focus has to be to do the right thing. What the right thing is in any situation is only dependent on Torah. We have to keep on deepening our understanding of Torah and ask Shailos for situations where we need assistance to do the right thing.

    Focusing on fitting in, and getting excited about the fact that you can hide from some (or most) people that you’re a Baal Teshuva, is a poor substitute for living a Torah life.

  7. Mark, what does one do if one’s deeper level of Torah knowledge points to specific desirable behaviors at odds with community mores? This may not be rare.

  8. EPA18, I’m referring to a deeper level of Torah communal integration as implied by Gemilas Chasadim, not the more superficial “fitting in” to which you refer.

    The goal of a Torah Jew is to deal with people as the Torah defines it. The norms of the community come in to play, but I think your focus on “fitting in”, as opposed to learning how a Torah Jew interfaces with his fellow man in every situation, is misplaced.

  9. Very poetic perhaps, but I’ll say what “Shmuel” above is reluctant to say – it’s wrong.

    Successfully integrating into the community actually has relatively little to do with the amount of Torah one has learned. The FFB world has plenty of Torah ignoramuses. Instead, successful integration has more to do with learning proper customs and etiquette, learning what to say or not say in certain situations, etc.

    Some BTs learn this, and never think twice about their incorporation within the frum world, since it becomes second nature. I had a funny incident happen to me once, when I was having a conversation with an FFB friend of mine who had grown up in Boro Park. When I referred to myself as a BT, he quickly shot back, “You are NOT a BT!!!” He meant it as a compliment.

    Then there are BTs who integrate, but retain a self-consciousness of their BT status vis-a-vis the broader frum world. I have a friend who’s been frum for many years, has integrated well, and yet, to me, he still retains a certain “BT quality” about him, based upon concerns he has occasionally expressed to me. He integrated – he looks the part, walks the walk, talks the talk – and yet, he still has what I would call “BT concerns.”

    Finally, there are BTs who will always feel more comfortable socially with other BTs. A couple of years ago, I was at a wedding of a very yeshivish couple, and I was sitting next to a BT, whose BT wife texted him during the chuppah, “Help, get me out of here!” She felt uncomfortable around people whose rather “Brooklyny” FFB style was totally foreign to her. Needless to say, their circle of friends will always have more BTs than FFBs.

    So, while you would like to analogize to Torah, Mitzvos and Gemilus Chasadim, from a practical perspective, I just do not think it is accurate.
    Integration is more dependent upon incorporating not only the externalities, but by also developing a sense of how one is to act in social situations as well as a “feel” for yiddishkeit that becomes second nature.

  10. Shimon, unfortunately there are many BTs who do experience a fourth stage of buyer’s remorse, and the expense and the disappointment you’ve mentioned are two prominent reasons. There are other reasons, but for this particular thread, I’d like to focus on the “success perspective”.

    Please email us at if you’d like to share some insights based on your personal experiences.

  11. You forgot the 4th stage. You know the state when the BT realizes he regrets becoming observant because so many religious people are full of you know what. He has no money to live the religious life style, nor does he have the energy.

  12. In my case, as a late-in-life BT, the path started in a non-orthodox congregation, since I didn’t know any better. In that environment, the only applicable stage was performance of mitzvot between man and man.

    The superficiality and inconsistencies led me to Torah learning, which led to performance of mitzvot between man and G-d.

    So “introduced to authentic Judaism by learning Torah” fits my experience. :)

  13. Mark: I don’t think you’re wrong that it often happens the way you described it, I just think that people are all over the map in how they come to Torah living. Probably most people get involved in a combination of learning more and doing more when they first become interested.

  14. Neil,

    I was thinking it’s more of a liability then a merit, but from a challenges perspective, it’s definitely a merit.

  15. Shmuel,

    In my experience learning (Torah), observance (Avodah) and integration (Man and Man) have been pretty typical, with the exception of Chabad as I pointed out earlier.

    What have you seen as typical?

  16. I am not sure I agree with the described stages as being ‘typical.’ But more importantly, I do think the conclusion is true and important to think about and I would even expand on it: “BTs who are more exposed and conversant in Torah have a much easier time in the community integration phase between man and man.”

    I would add to the end “as well as between man and God.”

    The importance of Torah knowledge can’t be overstated, for the simple reason that if one wants to live a live of devotion to and service of God, one needs to know what this means and how to go about it.

    One advantage I have found a BT has over those who started earlier is a ‘clean slate’, which can provide the ability to examine critically texts and ideas that those who started learning earlier take for granted and haven’t thought critically about for years, if they ever did. I am not suggesting this is true of everyone who is FFB, but it’s quite common in my experience.

  17. Mark,

    Very nicely stated. The fact that the BT “advances at a much faster pace than the FFB” is one of the reasons we have the statement that “In the place where a Baal Teshuva stands even the tzaddilim cannot stand (Rambam’s Code of Jewish Law: Laws of Teshuvah 7:4).

  18. Devorah, I would agree that it’s not true for everyone. In fact Chabad focuses initially on mitzvah observance over learning.

Comments are closed.