I am writing in response to “What more can I do?’” which expressed the emotional pain of being “outed” as a Baalas Teshuva.
As a Baalas Teshuva myself of 33 years duration I empathize with your pain. I know how deeply such an encounter can hurt. Unfortunately, it is an all too common BT experience. You are not alone.
At some point along your 15 year journey, after having transformed yourself into a sincere and committed Baalas Teshuva, a well intended but clueless kiruv mentor convinced you that being a BT was somehow a shameful condition which needed to be concealed from FFB society. Someone assured you that your new “spiritual” goal was to conceal your BT-ness and dupe FFB’s into thinking that you are one of them.
When BT’s are given the message that they have to disguise what they are in order to gain social acceptance, “fit in” & “blend in” with FFB’s, the result is dysfunctional for the frum community as a whole. Socially pressuring thousands of individuals into disguising what they are in order to deceive others cripples everyone emotionally. There is no societal incentive to acquire the tools that are needed for accepting others who are different.
Both BT’s and FFB’s are socially pressured, albeit in different ways, to conform in ways not necessarily mandated by the Torah. The result of all this pretending is that very few people will ever feel truly accepted & loved since only facades are being held out as worthy of acceptance & love. It implicitly encourages everyone to lie, compare, compete, and of course conform.
Many well intended but clueless people get involved in kiruv for the wrong reasons: the amazing “high”, the validation of their own Yiddishkeit, the confirmation of their position in the hierarchy, the self esteem rush etc. that comes from doing kiruv. Everyone knows that the cheapest way to feel good about one’s self is to feel superior to someone else.
Forgive the individual (or individuals) who unintentionally misled you by “laying this trip” on you. They didn’t have the self awareness to understand their own motivations for doing kiruv, and they didn’t understand the implications of their message that it is shameful to be what you are, that you must hide yourself away. They didn’t know better.
Instead of encouraging you to seek to find favor in H-shem’s eyes through internal, spiritual growth, you were directed to seek acceptance from FFB society through externalities that make up your disguise. The end result is that who you are (neshama, a cheilik Elokai m’mal mamesh) has become confused with externalities.
While it is unarguably halachically necessary to cover your hair, wear tznius clothing, send your kids to Torahdik schools and keep a kosher kitchen, a subtle shift away from the actual mitzvohs themselves to externalities has occurred in your outlook. Your sheitle, your clothing, the type of hat that identifies the school your children attend, and your kitchen are what you use to compare yourself to the woman who “outed” you. Externalities, and the comparing, competing and conforming that accompanies the focus on externalities, are really all about social approval seeking.
Rabbi Naftoli Weinberg wrote, citing the Chovos HaLevovos, that performing mitzvohs in order to impress others (social approval seeking) is tantamount, in a way, to avodah zarah (Yated, Center 20) in the very same issue of the Yated that contained “What more can I do?”. Social approval seeking is spiritually self destructive, and a big waste of energy.
Only the mitzvohs remain yours forever : the mitzvah of kesuei harosh, the mitzvah of tznius, the mitzvah of chinuch, and the mitzvah of kashrus. The externalities will not remain. Your sheitle and your clothing will be given away or thrown in the garbage, the hat style used to identify your kids’ schools will go out of vogue, and your kitchen will be remodeled or sold with the house it occupies to someone else.
Forgive whoever unintentionally misdirected, and confused you. The focus on externalities, mitzvohs done with a social agenda — because everyone around you is doing it, and you will hurt your children’s shidduchim chances if you don’t, etc. — is perhaps all that they’ve ever known. They certainly couldn’t provide you with a better motivation if social approval seeking/social pressure is what motivates them.
Be that as it may, when we look for the good in everything, instead of focusing on the painful, we will inevitably see H-shem’s love. Every experience no matter how horrible has a gift for you. It is essential to remember that you are the one choosing what to experience.
Although being “outed” by a stranger was undeniably painful, since you have the choice of perspective you can use that experience as an opportunity to acquire a healthier, more authentic, internal, spiritual sense of self and embrace a better, truer spiritual goal for the future.
Rabbi Dovid Gottleib (a BT) wrote in a Jewish Observer article nearly twenty years ago: Once a BT, always a BT. No matter what you do, or how long you’ve been frum you will never be a FFB. Never. You didn’t need to be one in the first place.
It would have been a simple matter for H-shem to have created you as an FFB, but your truest self (neshama) needed to experience His love and guidance in a way that most FFB’s never will. Your BT-ness is a testimonial to H-shem’s involvement in the affairs of human beings, and a monument to your own integrity and courage.
The frum community is comprised of many different cultural groups and many different types of people. Every group and every Jewish person is essential to fulfilling the collective mission of Klal Yisroel. Your BT-ness is not a stigma that needs to be concealed, any more than it is a stigma to be Sefardi instead of Ashkenazi, Litvishe instead of Chassidishe, French instead of South African, or brown eyed instead of green eyed, etc.
The truth is going to be a problem for a lot of people, but it doesn’t have to be your problem anymore.
It’s time to stop scrutinizing yourself in the mirror to try to figure out what part of your external disguise you need to adjust in order to conceal your BT-ness. As long as you seek to be someone else, you have no chance to discover who you are meant to be. Peace comes to each of us when we stop pretending to be something other than our true selves.
Give yourself the acceptance, approval, and validation that you have been trying to get from FFB society. Why look to them to give you something that you can give to yourself?
Every movement towards authentic, internal, spiritual self definition (neshama), as opposed to disguise/identification with externalities for social acceptance, produces what Gila Manolson (a BT) in Outside/Inside calls a positive ripple effect in the frum community. By accepting the real you, you help others in the frum communtiy to accept the real them. It makes for a spiritually & emotionally healthier environment for everyone.
The Torah cautions all of us against this human tendency to try to be someone that we are not. The second of the Aseres HaDibros reads: “You shall not make for yourself [lecha] any carved idol [pesel], or any likeness of any thing…” (Shemos 20:4). The Degel Machne Ephrayim points out that the word lecha can be understood as “of yourself”, and the word pesel is related to the word pesolet (garbage). Understood this way, H-shem is telling each of us: Don’t throw away who you are! Don’t see yourself as garbage! Don’t make yourself into a “likeness of any thing” by trying to be someone you are not! (Outside/Inside p.90).
Most BT’s (and their children who may be FFB’s) experience some level of painful social and institutional discrimination. Once a secular Jew has undergone the total life transformation to Yiddishkeit, he/she ought not to be misdirected into to a life of concealment and disguise. Duping FFB’s into believing that you are an FFB too is not one of the 613 Mitzvohs. Give yourself permission to stop the madness.
This misdirection is a cause of recidivism on the part of disillusioned BT’s and their children who do leave the frum community altogether. The externalities needed for social acceptance by FFB society are not spiritually or emotionally sustaining, and could not sustain those who left. A G-d oriented, internally focused spiritual life could have sustained them and kept them part of the frum community. Acquire a G-d oriented, internally focused spiritual life for yourself and for your children. Klal Yisroel needs you.
All of us would do well to take a closer look at what is happening: As the ranks of Baalei Teshuva continue to grow the systemic problem of concealment and disguise will become more and more untenable. It will invariably trigger a great deal more unnecessary pain like that experienced by the anonymous Baalas Teshuva writer of “What more can I do?”. It also threatens to result in destabilizing, large scale social backlash. With insight and planning both can be avoided.
Project Inspire and Acheinu are now trying to turn more FFB’s into front line kiruv workers to staunch the hemorrhaging of Klal Yisroel brought on by assimilation. Both programs need to give those they are recruiting to do kiruv, FFB society, and those who are being m’karved better spiritual & emotional tools to achieve the healthy social integration of more sincere, committed BT’s into the frum community. Every Jew is important, and every Jew counts.
Much has been learned in the last 40 years about what works and what doesn’t work well when it comes to kiruv. It will benefit none of us if these lessons are ignored, and everyone just keeps repeating the same old dumb mistakes over and over again.
This letter was originally published in the Yated.