Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse

By William Kolbrenner
Open Minded Torah

Spring time in Jerusalem, so yet once more, my wife and I embark on the path of finding a place for our son Shmuel with Down syndrome, this time in a cheder, a pre-kindergarden class in our neighborhood.

So earlier this week, we set up a meeting with the principal of a school around the block from our house. Not only was he cordial, but he had the look of someone who was genuinely interested in helping us with the education of our son. There had not been a child in his school with Down’s syndrome for a generation, but listening carefully to our description of our son, his cordiality turned into what seemed like understanding. He invited us back the following day to meet with a rebbe and an administrator to discuss logistics – and how to integrate Shmuel and his ‘syat’ or ‘shadow’ into the classroom. The teacher of the class which the principal had in mind for Shmuel put it simply – ‘my business is to teach children; and I’d do my best to teach Shmuel as any other child.’ ‘Though I am not a professor,’ he continued with a wink, ‘I do have thirty years of experience.’

As we were leaving – s’yata d’shmaya my wife said – another one of the rebbes, seeing Shmuel, stopped us, and mentioned that he had been a classmate of the boy with Down’s syndrome from years back. To the questions which reflected the principal’s main concerns – ‘will he be disruptive?’; ‘will he be accepted by the other boys?’; ‘will he want to participate in class? – the rebbe answered with reassurance. As Tolstoy might put it, no two children are alike, and no two children with Down’s syndrome are alike, but the rebbe only affirmed what we had told the principal – his classmate had been full of joy, eager to participate and imitiate, not at all disruptive. Shmuel’s affability and good cheer – traits which prompt my wife to wonder what I would be like with an extra chromosome – and his cognitive high-functioning, we explained eagerly to the principal, are what brought us to mainstreaming and his neighborhood school in the first place.

A few days passed. I left some messages at the school, but my calls were not returned. When I finally reached the principal, he suggested I speak to someone else in the school -now a fourth person – who I was told would make the ‘final decision.’ It didn’t sound good; so I pressed the principal instead.

‘It’s a very difficult decision…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way Rav Kolbrener, and please don’t be insulted….’

Calling me rabbi, I thought to myself, was a bad sign.

‘It’s a matter,’ he hesitated, ‘of considering the mossad.’ It was now not just an elementary school, but an institute.

‘What about the mossad?’, I asked.

‘Its reputation.’

I was silent.

‘We have to think of what other parents will say when they see a child like Shmuel in the class with their normal children. How will we be able to justify it to them? They also have to be respected. It simply will not be good for the reputation of the school.’

I wasn’t insulted, in fact I had heard versions of this before.

There was an undoubtable hint of frustration in his voice – likely I thought that those from whom he had sought advice had a different view of the ‘mossad,’ and were forcing him to do something against his better judgment. So I responded: ‘we both know that what you are now advocating – acquiescing to close-mindeded and sanctioning fear of difference – is against our hashgafa, indeed I continued, any Torah perspective.’ ‘It’s a chilul hashem,’ I continued, ‘a desecration of G-d’s name, to send us away to schools outside of our community – to other schools, and other communities – when you yourself acknowledged that Shmuel could find a place in one of your classrooms.’

‘And as far as ordinary children,’ I went on, filling the silence, ‘we are not children of Esau who find perfection in this world, but the b’nei Yisrael, children of Israel, of Jacob, who acknowledge that this world is a place of lack and imperfection.’ ‘I am a pragmatist,’ I continued: ‘if Shmuel is disruptive or can’t be integrated into the class room, then we will take him out immediately, but if the experience of our home is true, if that of our building is true, of his nursery school are true, then Shmuel’s presence will be a blessing for him, and for all who have the chance to be around him.’

‘Rav Kolbrener’ – again the wrong title – ‘what you say is all emes l’emiso’ – the undeniable truth, ‘k’dosh k’doshim,’ the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, ‘we live in ‘olam ha sheker – a world of lies.

Here it was – the olam ha’sheker excuse! I had heard people exclaim ‘olam ha’sheker’ as an expression of frustration; this was the first time I heard it as an explicit excuse. Using the olam ha’sheker excuse, not as a form of self-consolation, but justification for doing the wrong thing, turns Torah into something theoretical – ‘we can’t actually live by the words of Torah!’ So Torah ceases to be a manual for life – a handbook for tikkun olam – the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears. The principal couldn’t help being honest: so he acknowledged that my words were true, even holy, but from the olam ha’sheker perspective, such truth and holiness don’t have a place in the world. So Judaism transforms into a religion of ideals only. How often is such an excuse – even if not explicitly uttered – used as a means of justifying our laziness, self-interest or even corruption?

Traditions in the West in literature, philosophy and theology – from Homer to Plato to the apostle Paul – separate the ideal, take it out of the world. But Judaism – and this was one of the reasons that I started, years ago, to begin to split my time between the library and the beit midrash – transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world. Judaism offers the promise of a learning which is not simply theoretical – those earnest discussions I used to have in the seminar room in graduate school – but a learning leading to action and tikkun olam.

Or perhaps this is naive? too idealistic?

First published here

The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Why was Yehudahs approach to saving Yoseph so different from that of Reuvens?
Why do the sages condemn those who find merit in Yehudahs tactics?

Reuven heard these words [the brothers’ plot to murder Yoseph] and tried to rescue him saying “Let’s not kill him.” And he said to them “Don’t commit bloodshed … “

— Bereishis 37:21,22

Don’t spill the blood of an innocent man

— Targum Yonasan ben Uziel ibid

Reuven responded and said “ didn’t I tell you not to commit a sin against the lad [Yoseph]? but you didn’t listen. Now a Divine accounting is being demanded for his blood”

— Bereishis 42:22

And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?”

— Bereishis 37:26

And the greedy one desirous of gain [ובוצע ברך] blesses himself … in having infuriated HaShem

— Tehillim 10:4

Rabi Meir says: This passuk  [ובוצע ברך] refers to none other than Yehudah, for it is written, And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” So all who praise/bless Yehudah, the botzeia; infuriate [HaShem] …

— Sanhedrin 6B

There was a small city, with only a few inhabitants; and a great king came against it, surrounded it, and built great siege-works against it.  A poor wise man was present in the city who, by his wisdom, liberated the city; yet no one remembered that poor man.

— Koheles 9:14,15

[The above passage is interpreted as referring to the milchemes hayetzer-man’s internal moral battle to exercise his free will properly. The “great king” refers to the yetzer hara-inclination to evil; while the “poor-wise” man represents the yetzer tov-inclination to good. The Gemara comments:] “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.”

— Nedarim 32B

Rabi Yehudah quoting Rav said  “One should always busy himself with Torah [study] and Mitzvah [performance] even if he does so for ulterior motives for the result will eventually be that, from within the ulterior motives, he will [develop to] attain the level of [Torah study and Mitzvah performance] for its own sake.

— Nazir 23B

Both Reuven and Yehudah tried to dissuade their other brothers from harming Yoseph. But their diverse approaches are markedly different. Reuven is an ethicist exhorting the brothers to avoid sin and spilling the blood of innocents. Reuven appeals the better angels of their natures and argues, in effect, that virtue is its own reward and that they ought to do the right thing for its own sake. Yehudah is a pragmatist.  His tactic to get the brothers to drop their murderous plan is “What’s in it for us? What do we stand to gain either monetarily (Rashi’s interpretation) or in terms of our fathers affection?”  There is no trace of a moral or halachic argument in Yeudah’s words.

The Izhbitzer explains that Yehudah based his approach on the psycho-spiritual dynamic revealed by the Gemara-Talmud; that “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.” When the Divine Will chooses to test us It causes us to completely forget the severity of the prohibition and to put the moral repugnance of the sin out of our minds. HaShem designed the mechanism of bechirah chofshis-human free-will; to function such that, in the heat of the nisayon-test; when the yetzer hara asserts itself, none can even remember the yetzer tov. While enmeshed in the ethical challenge to reject evil and embrace good, exhortations for moral and ethical behavior, to do the right thing for its own sake, will fall on deaf ears.  The time for understanding  and internalizing the lessons of the superiority of good over evil and that virtue is its own reward is pre-need. In the heat of the moment of trial the inclination to do good is nowhere to be found.

It is at times like these when the most efficient tool against embracing evil, abusing our bechirah chofshis, is to appeal to pragmatic considerations and ulterior motives. The Izhbitzer maintains that Yehudah was a down-to-earth “man of the world” well acquainted with hardheaded realities and that he recognized that the brothers were in the very thick of a great nisayon. There internal voices of conscience and morality had been silenced and he understood that any appeals based on morality and ethics emanating from him would be similarly ignored.  And so he forwarded the מה בצע –what’s in it for us?  What will we gain?; argument. Even when the yetzer hara holds sway people “remember” such practical considerations and, if compelling enough, they can dissuade would-be-sinners from doing evil or, at least, affect some damage-control and diminish the intensity of the sin.

The brothers were in the midst of a great nisayon, their collective memory loss of their yetzer tovs was so great that they were convinced that the murder that they sought to do was justified and was, in fact, the moral and ethical thing to do.  Many meforshim-commentaries take the approach that the brothers convened as a Sanhedrin and ruled that Halachah demanded that Yoseph  be put to death.  The Sforno (37:25) opines that they had ruled Yoseph to be a rodeiph-a “chaser” with homicidal intentions. In such cases anyone may kill the rodeiph to save the life of the would-be murder victim. While the Izhbitzer asserts that the brothers ruled that Yoseph, trying to drive a wedge between them and their father was amounted to sundering the unity of HaShem. In so doing Yoseph had committed a capital offense akin to idolatry.

Read more The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

So Bad That it MUST be Good

A SPECIAL REQUEST: Please do not begin reading this devar Torah unless you intend to learn it thoroughly and reach the disclaimer at the very end. To do otherwise could prove hazardous to your spiritual development and health.

How can it be that a small spreading of the white negatzara’as rash causes ritual impurity but that if the rash spreads over the entire body it then becomes a sign of ritual purity?

Why is it that on a Sanhedrin tribunal judging capital offenses a mere majority of two voting for guilt is sufficient to execute capital punishment but that if the Sanhedrin votes for guilt unanimously that the accused is declared innocent and “walks”?

But if the white mark increases in size on the skin after it was shown to the Kohen, who purified it, the person must again show it to the Kohen.  If the Kohen observes that the rash on the skin has increased in size he shall declare the person impure, it is the leprous curse.

—Vayikra 13:7,8

[This is the law] if the leprous area flourishes over the skin so that it covers all the skin of the afflicted person from head to foot wherever the Kohen can see: When the Kohen sees that a leprous discoloration has covered all the [person’s] skin he must declare the afflicted person pure. It has turned completely white [and so] he is pure.

—Vayikra 13:12,13

Rabi Kahana said: If the Sanhedrin unanimously found [the accused] guilty, he is acquitted. Why? —Because we have learned that final sentencing must be postponed till the next day [after the completion of the trial] in the hope of finding new points in favor of the defense. But these [judges who voted unanimously] will no longer [be capable of] see[ing anything exonerating or meritorious] for him

 —Sanhedrin 17A

Rabi Yochanan said, “Yehudah wanted to pass by [Tamar], but God sent the angel who is appointed over lust. The angel said to him, ‘Yehudah!  Where are you going? Where will kings come from? Where will great men come from? Where will redeemers come from?’”… “And he veered towards her on the road” (Bereshis38:16)—Coerced against his will [not in his best interests

                                                                                                                                      —Bereshis Rabbah 85:8

Belief in human Free-Will is a fundamental of our faith. In Hilchos Teshuvah (chapters 5,6) the Rambam argues spiritedly and convincingly for the veracity and reality the human Free-Will refuting the arguments and beliefs of the determinists and incompatibilists, even the ones who attempt to support their contentions by quoting pesukim from the TeNaC”h.  Later commentaries point out that the eleventh Maimonidean article of faith is Divine Reward and Punishment and that such a belief is untenable unless human Free-Will is real and not a myth.

That said it is equally important to remember that our Free-Will is limited and not absolute or all-encompassing.  In his treatise on Free-Will, Rav Elya Lazer Dessler uses the following allegory to illustrate this point: When two neighboring countries are war with one another in theory the potential exists for the absolute victory of one country or another.  In this scenario country “A” would conquer and annex every last acre of enemy country “B”s land, raising their national colors and imposing their laws and governmental system over every inch of what was formerly enemy territory.  But in practice, on any given day during any given battle of the war only a small portion or, in a multiple front war, several small portions of territory are actually being contested.  Armies advance and retreat and what was firmly under the control of one country or another last week, last month or last year may be in enemy hands today.  Nevertheless, in a long wars ebb and flow the actual current battlefronts comprise a relatively small to tiny portion of the combatant countries total land mass. Read more So Bad That it MUST be Good

Living in the future

When I had more time for posting and commenting on the Beyond BT, I was very busy with the topic of former BT’s, many of whom not only gave up Jewish observance but, for whatever reason you may want to posit, did it with a vengeance. Those days were a lot of fun, positively heady. I got to make very good and stimulating use of my God-given talent for polemics and usually found that critics and ankle-biters preferred to slink away than engage with me, though of course they might not agree with my characterization. To some extent, this post is dependent on some familiarity with the back-and-forth of those days.

Despite whatever points I may scored and whatever lurkers I may have encouraged in these debates, I have always had two nagging question about those days and those arguments: One is, was I right when it seemed that I was right, or was I just a better debater? And the other one is, how much of the vigor of my efforts was motivated not by a sincere belief in the truth at all, but rather an insistence on rationalizing my own choices — choices which are irreversible now, for all practical purposes?

The first question, I decided, shouldn’t nag me so much, because I’m good, but so are a lot of other people who disagree with me. And I didn’t, after all, “win” every point. As I remember it, in the course of the great battles we fought in those days I made concessions and admitted to problems or gaps with the overall worldview I argued for. I will say, thought, that my interlocutors (not only mine, but of the many who basically agreed with me) could or would not answer this question: Separate and apart from your point about Issue X or Issue Y, or the way kiruv professionals or amateurs do or don’t deal with it, what alternative, systematic and internally consistent approach to Judaism do you offer that could possibly be recognized as Judaism? For the premise of the discussion was and is that if your point of view is that this is all a fantastic fakeout, that nothing means anything, then we really have nothing to discuss. We share no common ground.

My experience was, in fact, is that few of the most vigorous debaters are the complete nihilists they perhaps think of themselves as being; after all, if they were, they shouldn’t care about anything at all anyway. Generally people will admit that they aren’t that — that they (a) want to be Jewish; that they (b) want being Jewish to matter; and even that (c) past attempts to redefine or dilute Judaism to the point of eviscerating it of any meaning with respect to how it governs our conduct or our identities have not met the criteria of (a) and (b).

I think I can say, being intellectually honest to myself, that the above “works.” I think I believe that this addresses the first question: We may not have it all figured out, but it seems that we — observant Jews, born that way or otherwise — are probably on the right track.

How about the second question — whether despite that conclusion, is it still all just rationalizing motivated by the fact that the implications of realizing you’re wrong are just too frightening? After all, the fact that no one has a better or answer or even a close tie doesn’t mean your answer is correct. That’s true no matter how “true” it feels emotionally, or what people call “spiritually” (I don’t really know what that means) or even intellectually. How can we separate rational from rationale?

And do we have to?

A very well-respected, very intellectual rosh yeshiva once told me: There comes a point where you can chase your own tail or, perhaps, disappear down your own navel in contemplating your own contemplation. And you’ve simply got to trust yourself to know when you think that’s happening. So let’s have no more of that here than necessary.

But I am going to ask that second question from a point of view that I can articulate today in a way I could not ten or even five years ago: If all this is true, if all this is good, how can so much in our community be so false? How can so much be so bad? How can so many questions be so unanswerable?

The disclaimers must be interjected here, not because it is protocol to do so but because they are appropriate and right. There are so many merits, so many marvelous and unique and extraordinary things to say about the Jewish people, and especially shomrei mitzvos, that my question should vanish before them. I promise you, I’m not just saying this: I could list them for six posts, not a paragraph in one post. They would make BT’s, especially newcomers, feel warm and fuzzy inside.

But my question does not vanish, because so much that is so painful refuses to recede from view and memory. I am thinking not of just individual outrages, but communal ones. Not just trends and phenomena in our community that are hard to understand, but ones which, instead, are all too easy to understand. And these I will not list here, because I am not going to act, even rhetorically, as a prosecutor against the Jewish people, G-d forbid — much less in Elul.

How do these things affect the second question, i.e., “Are you rationalizing?” After all, we all learn early on the aphorism that we “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” Fair enough; let’s don’t.

But these things we see, we hear, we experience sometimes cannot but bring us down if we’ve retained our critical faculties, and shouldn’t we?

I also have my own pet issue, which is the flip side of the coin: The role models and the idealized life of the haredi [strictly orthodox] subculture and indeed a great many of what are accepted as authoritative rabbinical sources of earlier times could not, based on their words, respect the way most of us live and indeed what most of us are — no matter how well we dish it out and take it on Beyond BT or host Shabbatons or whatever other super things we do.

I readily understand that view that to aim for compromise is to guarantee mediocrity, but I cannot figure out how it is better to pretend to aim for levels of scholarship, moral rectitude and detachment from physical pleasure that as an empirical matter can be achieved and are achieved by only a sliver of the population — and that are held out for us routinely as the ideal Jewish existence. Could all the cynicism and dysfunction we do encounter, all those unmentioned negatives alluded to above, be the fruit of this cognitive dissonance?

So how can we defend this without rationalizing, when we know we are falling so short of the ideals we espouse? Is it enough to say that it works because pretty much every other way of life can be shown (I posit) to implicate even more untenable compromises? Is it enough to have faith in greater and holier minds than mine that say “yes, do strive for this truth; the striving is the thing”? Is it that by almost any measure the good outweighs the bad? Is it the fact that part of growing up is living with paradox, and realizing that only God has a comprehensive understanding of the whole?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

And if I am, still, rationalizing?

Well, no one’s proved it to me yet. And every day, you see, I think today is going to be the day that it works a little better, and maybe it will. And if it doesn’t, I will know that I fought the good fight.

That works for me.

Maintaining Derech Eretz in the Face of a Loaf of Bread on Pesach

Blast from the Past. First posted on 11/13/2006.

By Westbank Mama

I’ve written before about what started me on my journey to observant Judaism, and I’ve been thinking lately of another incident (pothole?) on this long road of mine.

My brother decided to become observant also, and we both attended Yeshiva University. At some point in our learning of the various halachot (Jewish laws) we realized that the upcoming holiday of Pesach (Passover) might be problematic. The laws of kashrut (what foods are permissable to eat) are very strict when it comes to Pesach, and we both knew that what we thought was acceptable to eat in past years in my parent’s house wasn’t going to be acceptable for us anymore. We also knew that refusing to come home for the Pesach seder wasn’t an option – it would hurt my parents too much.

The issue of Kibbud Av V’Em (honoring your father and mother) is very complex, and is an extremely sensitive issue among Baalei Teshuva (those who aren’t born in religious homes but become observant later on). My brother and I became observant through NCSY (an Orthodox youth group involved in outreach), and we had some excellent Rabbis and counselors give us advice. They told us that except in cases where your parents ask you to do something which explicitly demands you break Jewish law, then you should listen to them. (Like most issues of this sort, it is important to ask a Rabbi if you have a specific case in mind and need an answer. I am just giving the outline here).

This complex situation touches on an issue that unfortunately is misconstrued by many who are not intimately familiar with observant Judaism. Most people know that there are myriad laws governing the “ritual” aspects (laws between man and G-d) of Orthodox Judaism – what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, how you dress, how you pray, etc. At the same time there are just as many laws concerning the “ethical” aspects – how one treats other people (laws between man and man). The second type of laws are just as binding on Orthodox Jews as the first. There is no concept of the “letter” of the law referring to the first type, and the “spirit” of the law referring to the second.
Read more Maintaining Derech Eretz in the Face of a Loaf of Bread on Pesach

Aren’t We Supposed to Question?

We had a bunch of guests over for Shabbos lunch. This was on a summer afternoon, just a couple of years ago. Since my husband hadn’t returned yet from shul, everyone was passing the time in the living room, waiting. There was a relatively new guest, David, seated on the couch, who had only just started coming to us to experience Shabbos. Sitting on chairs across from him, was a couple who had become Orthodox about fifteen years ago, and a few others guests were milling about too.

The couple was discussing something about what the rabbi had said in shul, and David piped in with a question about what the rabbi said. I don’t even remember anymore what the actual topic was. All that I remember vividly is the brief exchange that transpired next.

The wife stated very emphatically that one must never question a Rav. David responded very innocently that he thought that Judaism was a religion that welcomed questions, so rabbis would welcome being questioned. “Aren’t we supposed to question?” he asked, and a stiff silence followed. Nobody responded to David. Not even me. I just didn’t know what to say then. Another guest must have changed the subject, thank G-d, and the conversation in our living room shifted somewhere else. But David’s comment had scooped me up out of the living room, and it got me sailing back through time.

Back to an innocent time of questioning. Over thirty years ago, the wonderful Orthodox rabbis that we discovered – or that discovered us – encouraged the questioning of everything. They taught us that Judaism was all about questioning, and then questioning more, until you reached greater and greater levels of clarity. Keep asking until you find emes, we learned, within the Torah and within yourself. And we thrived on this – this freedom to examine and sift for absolute truth.

No stuffing dogmas down our throats – as in other religions, we learned. No more unconsciously accepting assumptions – as in the subliminally anti-religious mind-sets we hadn’t even realized we’d adopted. Develop delving skills, sift for truth! We were so thrilled to see that the way to study Torah was through questioning. It was open for genuine exploration, earnest close examination, and so were its welcoming teachers.

We loved discovering that wise people learned from everyone. And even though the rabbis and rebbetzins who taught us, had so much more Torah knowledge than we had, they let us know that through our questions, they were gaining new and refreshed perspectives on just about everything. They really helped us understand that we were expanding and deepening their wisdom through our challenging inquiries.

Then I was jolted back to the present. When did the encouragement of questioning stop?

And why don’t we feel safe anymore to question?

I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since.

It no longer tastes like the Torah we were first offered, when those with clout invalidate sincere questioning by dismissing it as being presumptuous.When people only feel unafraid to voice their doubts and questions as anonymous comments on frum blogs, we can be grateful for these opportunities for suppressed voices to be heard, but it also highlights that a fear of speaking up is prevalent. Instead of feeling threatened by these anonymous comments, and seeking to forbid them by imposing bans on these venues, we need more leaders who can garner genuine respect by encouraging as much open questioning as possible. Then they too can actually benefit from the perspectives and challenges presented.

Critical feedback is needed by all of us, if we really want to improve. The man recently caught on video kissing a mezuzah before stealing from a store, can serve as a kind of ridiculous caricature to keep in mind of how far off the derech we have gone, with plenty of our extra stringencies or just mere cultural trappings covering up – from others and even from ourselves – our inner spiritual lacking.

Painful experiences have taught us to fear communal reprisal, arrogant attacks from those who wield power, and mafia-like intimidation tactics within our midst. We discovered that our leaders made decisions based on financial backing and political favors, instead of on pure spiritual motivations. And we found out that this has been going on unquestioned. As we learned a little more Torah that we hadn’t initially been taught, we also came to understand that in the hands of unscrupulous people, Torah can be misused as a deadly poison (Yoma 72b).

Thank G-d, this isn’t supposed to be the religion that promotes viewing its leaders as infallible or even unapproachable. Throughout Jewish history, there has been an ebb and flow of leaders who became mired down by corruption. Power corrupts, and the Torah emphasizes concern, in reference to a Jewish ruler “lest his heart become haughty over his brethren” (Devarim 17:20). The ruling elite can too easily come to place its own preservation above all else, if left unchecked.

Nearly every day I hear from a baal teshuva who has become disgusted by an excessive focus on the superficial aspects of frumkeit at the expense of the intrinsically meaningful aspects that initially drew the individual to yiddishkeit. They describe their disillusionment with the stress on the façade and on sheer phoniness in place of underlying true moral behavior. Many of those who have been burnt by the corruption that has become entrenched, have been slinking away, but that’s exactly what intimidators are trying to achieve.

The ones whose eyes have been opened and the ones whose hearts are full of essential questions, could be just the ones needed most to help us all return to more pure practice.

Yes, we are supposed to question, alright.

Hope you’ll come back someday, David, along with everyone else who left, disillusioned. I’m sorry it took so long for me to have the clarity to answer. Your question really helped.

Originally posted here.
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BT Martyrdom: There’s Really A Name For It!

My personal life calendar operates around the great upheaval through my discovery of Yiddishkeit. If that is “year 1”, then 10BC (Before Change) was my Bar Mitzvah, and 5AD (After Discovery) was when I got married. This being the case, there were other notable events which had far reaching consequences as well. And, like they say, timing is everything.

In 2BC, my father was remarried, this time to a non-Jewish woman. I secretly would have preferred that he marry the Jewish woman he had been dating a few years back, but, alas, he decided this wasn’t to be. (She was quite upset, I happen to know.) Nevertheless, he’s my dad, so I celebrated with him in the Hall on the lake, and I wondered what was going through my grandmother’s mind as her siblings paraded around her. Perhaps it made no difference, since her husband, my grandfather, had done the same thing.

In 1BC, my brother, faithful to the ways of his avos, became engaged to a non-Jewish woman as well. A very nice lady, she was, and I congratulated him on his choice and wished him the best. However, as he was making his plans, my life went on, and the wedding wouldn’t be until 2AD.

In 1AD, my brother announced he was to be wed in a church (they liked the stained-glass windows, they said). Already I had a bad feeling about this, since in 8BC, I attended a cousin’s wedding in a church, and felt quite nauseous while sitting in there. (Perhaps it was that statue on the wall accusingly staring at me.) But now, more than ever, I was quite troubled. When I asked our local posuk about going into a church, he answered that he would think that if an Arab is chasing me with a knife it might be permissible, but probably not. The strong language was so I would get the picture.

In 2AD, life was so confusing. Despite knowing the direction I wanted to go, I still had so much to sort out. Did I really care if my brother married someone not Jewish? Really really? None of the terutzim regarding intermarriage sat well with me at that early stage, but I had to chose a derech…and stick with it. I understood what the rabbis say, and felt they were right, but what about my family?

I told my brother I wasn’t going. He thought I was joking…I wouldn’t be best man at his wedding?? I’ll skip the blood and gore…it was awful. Devastation doesn’t even come close. My father’s blood pressure became a steady 400/200. It was actually a relief when he stopped talking to me (although perhaps five years was overdoing it a bit.) My mother did understand to some extent, but cried anyway. And now, in 20AD, my brother still hasn’t said a word to me, despite numerous attempts to reach out.

My extended family was horrified. I could not help but think that this was some sort of chillul H-Shem, despite the rabbis telling me it was the opposite. But how could that be? What does my family think about orthodox Jews now? They’re not exactly running to their local kiruv center. How could I have answered my father’s main objection: “You danced at my wedding, didn’t you?! What happened since then?” See? Timing is everything.

I was alone. I just threw my family over a bridge. Goodbye family. And did the rabbis understand? I wondered. So there I was at 2AD, thousands of miles away and nothing to say. Looking back, I know that not going was the right thing. I bet, though, that it could’ve and should’ve been handled much differently, but that’s in the past. But what I didn’t know is that my whole experience had a name!

Adjusting to Alien Atmospheres

I spent my high school senior year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A first, all of my 20-year old roommates thought I was crazy, and for the first few weeks, I did too. Not only had I never traveled by myself before nor had I been on an Israel program, I still had yet to receive my high school diploma. I continuously struggled to acculturate not only to the foreign society, but also to the equally foreign “college atmosphere.”

A few weeks in, I was expressing these frustrations to my father, who was in town on a family-business call, as I helped him clean out my grandmother’s apartment library in Tel Aviv. Although I am paternally Israeli, I explained, I felt lost trying to adjust to the culture. After much frustration, I was toying with the idea of returning home. My dad explained that despite his unconditional support, he thought I should give it a few more weeks. He and I both knew I would never again have this opportunity.

Restraining tears, I was barely paying attention to the memorabilia being tossed into the “discard” pile. Only after throwing numerous faded photos did I notice a weathered, blue pamphlet with Hebrew writing on the cover. Intrigued, I opened it to find a black and white photo of my grandfather fastened next to his signature and the years 1939-1941. Stunned, I considered what I was holding. Remembering what my parents told me about my family’s history during the Holocaust, I realized that my grandfather’s family sent him to an Israeli university in the late 30’s. During his first year abroad, they warned him not to return to Poland over his Passover break. Fearing he would never come back to Israel, my grandfather listened, and never again saw his Polish classmates that went home during Passover. I immediately flipped to the fragile blue cover and deciphered the Hebrew aloud: “The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Student Card.”

I then realized I was holding a piece of family history, as well as the motivation I needed to stay. My grandfather’s decision to stay in Israel saved his life, and my decision to stay in Israel completely enriched mine. I truly owe the person I am today to my experience abroad. After I changed my attitude, I embraced my obstacles as learning experiences. I put more effort into my Hebrew, roommates, and acculturation. As a result, I learned so much about myself and my heritage.

Mainly, though, my year abroad taught me the importance of ensuring Jewish continuity. We are, and always have been, under attack: whether it’s external through anti-Semites or internal through assimilation, Jews all over need to unite and return to their roots. Studying in Israel allowed me to re-prioritize my life and recognize the importance of embracing my heritage. Ever since I returned to the states, I have been extremely involved in Hillel at the University of Texas at Austin. There, I am a Mashgichah for the kosher kitchen, I co-chair the Orthodox Minyan, and I have represented Hillel on various trips around the world, including Israel and Argentina. Adjusting to the alien atmospheres and living independently before I graduated high school was difficult, but I knew I was in Israel for a reason, and I am glad I had a role model to keep me motivated and strong.

Dealing With The Pain of a Difficult Year

Last Rosh Hashana, 2008 – I can’t even remember where I was. I mean in the sense of where my wife, myself and three children were for the Jewish New Year. How can one forget something like that? Either we were in Passaic, or in Far Rockaway or Pittsburgh – as well, we lived in Passaic, and usually for the holidays went out-of-town.

How can I forget which place I sat for all those hours? Whose home I was in? How can a healthy 35 year old forget?

I’ll tell you. Now, after I wrote that I just realized that in 2008 I was not even in the US! I was in Beit VaGan, Israel. Whew. But how could I even forget something like that and think that I was in another country altogether?

I’ll tell you. January 21, 2009, my wife gave birth to a dead baby. A baby that was 37 weeks old. Everything since that day has consumed my mind/spirits/energy surrounding the death of this potential person. Even today, September 11, 2009, I was thinking about it in an intense fashion while at a morning minyan.

Normally, and unfortunately, I do not make morning minyans. I work from 10pm until 5:45am. Sometimes, I stay on the phones for about a half-hour longer trying to get one more client and make one more commission. However, 99% of the time, by about 4am and until the end of the “night” I am wiped out and barely able to stay awake to make the calls I am supposed to make. Additionally, my bus back to Beit Shemesh doesn’t even run until around 7am, so what I am supposed to do from 6am until 7am? Daven.

For a while, I tried to walk to the closest minyan from my work location, but by the time I arrived that minyan was half-way done, and by the time I got my tallit and tefillin on, they were even closer to being finished, and by the time I sat down to start my prayers, I was asleep. Basically, it is not advised or “allowed” to sleep with tefillin on.

Now, no one at the minyan knew that I was awake all night and had walked about 15 minutes just to fall asleep. What they saw was a 35 year old man, healthy falling asleep with tefillin on his head. Since, this is not allowed, they would gently try to wake me up. Several times I was asked to leave and go home. Little did the people in this shul know that my home was another 45 minutes away by bus. We only know so little when we see things – we almost never see the whole picture when we observe people – and even if a person tries to describe the greater picture, like I am, they leave out so many details that one still really never knows exactly what the background story is or was. Especially, if the person telling it cannot even get the facts right, even though they experienced them! How insightful is for criminal lawyers?

Anyway, my wife gave birth to a dead baby. I know, I dropped that little nugget on y’all way up at the beginning and I am sure that this is why I am writing this letter. I just wanted you to know a bit of the background as to why I couldn’t remember where I was last Rosh Hashana.

So, today, I was at shul, when normally, I am not. I was supposed to go into work. Thursday, however, after my pre-work/pre-bus ride nap at 8pm, I just felt incredibly sick and did not want to go into work. So, I called in sick.

That meant I slept in my own bed at night and woke up around 6am. Two of my three children had already joined my wife and I in our beds and were trying to wake us up. I wanted to sleep more. I wanted to never wake up. Sometimes I hope that I just won’t wake up. But not in a suicidal way – that I want to kill myself – more in the way, that I just sometimes don’t want to get out of bed. That the view I’ll see is the ocean with white sand and seagulls.

Finally, around 6:30 my wife and I get out of bed and start our day. By the time 7:30am rolls around we’ve already dressed two of our children, fed them, and started to get dressed. I already took out a load of laundry and brought in clothes from the line on our porch (merapeset) and put another load of laundry into the machine. Our daughter was finally waking up, my wife was saying her brachot, and the boys had already spilled cheerios on the floor. One of the boys spilled cheerios on the other, so I had to change those wet clothes. It was now getting closer to 7:45am, and I still had not gotten fully dressed and wanted to go to a minyan, since I don’t normally go to minyan’s in the morning.

My wife had other plans, and she was about to tell me. “Honey, I have an idea,” she starts. I cut her off, “I am sure you do, and I bet it involves me running an errand,” I retorted in a mean voice. “Wait, let me finish,” she pleaded. “Hadassah, I know that it will involve me running some rather productive errand, meanwhile, I’ll miss the 8am minyan, and by the time I come home I’ll be tired and won’t want to daven at all.”

Okay, I didn’t say those exact words, but the argument had already started. Fortunately, my wife had the foresight to stop it, and we moved on. I left the house and made it to shul, only to realize that I was exhausted. After I put on my tefillin and tallit and tried to start my morning prayers, meanwhile the seleach zibbor (chazzan/or person leading the morning services) was already way ahead of where I was, even though I got there 10 minutes before the officials start.

Sigh – I’ll never fit it, I’ll never keep up. Why do I even bother? The negative tape had begun and now it was beating the crap out of my emotionally. See that guy in the corner in the front? He can daven. You? Don’t even start. See that guy in the side over there? I bet he never does laundry, work over-night, make the bed, and all the other things you do – he, he, gets to learn all day and his wife works, and their children don’t need to watch videos every morning. Why do you even start. So, I close my eyes. Wait, I am wearing tefillin! I try to open my eyes, I look at the Hebrew words. Sigh. Who am I kidding? I can’t read this and understand. But when I try to read the English, I just don’t believe. Why are you even bothering to come to this shul. The weather is beautiful outside, wouldn’t you rather be sitting on the grass and letting the world move by? Sigh. I close my eyes again. Wait, you’re wearing tefillin and why are you so tired? You slept in your own bed – none of your children woke up in the middle of the night. Sure, they came into your bed at 5:30am or some un-godly hour, but you should be awake and singing to Hashem. Okay. I start to try to sing the words that I know and quickly realize that I don’t have any tunes that I know well to fit the words that are on the page. Meanwhile, the minyan is speeding along and I still haven’t gotten to Baruach Shamar.

Anyway – I close my eyes. Again. Wait, I am wearing tefillin, I can’t sleep with tefillin on. There on the table is yet another distraction. A pamphlet about Hidraboot, the “Charedi” TV station. Yes, there is a Charedi TV station and according the materials that I started reading, instead of davening, has been revolutionizing the Jewish world.

Wow! I got excited, hey, maybe I could work for them? I started thinking about that idea, instead of davening of course. Wow – I bet I could really contribute. I mean, I am baal teshuva, I’ve been through a lot! People always say I have a great story, maybe I could inspire some one else? I know, it’d have to be English speakers, and I am not a rabbi, but maybe I could focus on people who are just starting on the path and need a “normal” voice/person to help them through the transitions in habits.

Wait. I can’t even daven, so what good can I do anyone? I close my eyes again. This time, while the minyan has started to get to the shomei esray, I start to think about the dead baby.

I start to imagine it’s last hours inside my wife’s body. I start to imagine all the water, the umbilical cord – that eventually killed my baby. I imagine it struggling for life-choking to death – drowning in the very source of its life.

I recall the hours in the hospital after we knew that the baby was dead inside – and that my wife had to give birth to a dead body. Since her last child was a C-section, we had wanted to have a “V”-back. Everything was planned around this idea – And now the baby was dead. We were at Hadassah Ein-Karem with a dead baby.

And my wife wasn’t even 1 centimeter dilated. No petosin, as that could rupture her internal scar from the C-section and make it impossible for her to have a vaginal birth again (of course, not that you two are thinking about other children right now, the doctors said).

Basically, because it was a horrible experience, I’ll skip all the crying, the fact that we left the hospital, went to a mall and had dinner!, and skip the part were we took a tour of the hospital to find the plaques that reported my wife’s grand-father who had donated money to the very hospital we were in (yes, we did those things – all in a fog – and all in the knowledge that we had a dead body with us).

I’ll skip the details of the hours of waiting until my wife was further dilated and all the kooky and odd things that her and our birthing coach did to get her to the point of delivery.

Now, “normally” babies send a signal somehow, and the internal pitosin kicks in, and contractions start and well, babies are born. Millions of them every day. For thousands of years. How can a dead baby send the signal? Yet, contractions started with some help – which I won’t describe, but it was not chemical drips from the nurses.

Eventually, my wife, our labor coach, and myself were trying to get a dead baby out of her body and into the ground.

They asked us if we wanted to know – to know its gender, to know what happened, to know. Before we left the hospital, to go eat – one of my brothers and his wife came. This brother is close with the Amshinov Rebbe in Beit Vagan. Now, this person, the Rebbe is known to keep himself in shabbot beyond the 24 hours that Shabbot exists for every other Jew. Anyway, it was Tuesday when we were in the hospital, around 6pm, when we were officially told via the sonogram that the baby was indeed dead.

By the time my brother and his wife arrived, it was close to 8pm – I think. My memory as demonstrated above is not so great.

The rebbe had told my brother to tell me the following: no shiva, no period of mourning, no ripping of our garments “kriah”, no knowledge of where the baby was going to be buried, no going to the site of the burial for myself or my wife – and the rebbe advised that we should not see the baby, we shouldn’t find out its gender and not to find out what happened. Okay – well – what can I say?

Put yourself in my shoes – I mean you can’t really, because you don’t know anything about me – except what I am revealing – which is not the complete picture.

So – now the baby comes out. Have you ever been at a birth? The three other children that were born to my wife – all were accompanied by their tears/screaming our tears of happiness, relief and exhaustion. G-d enters the room at a birth.

Don’t believe me? That’s fine too. G-d also enters the room when a baby dies. It is a silent entry – the quiet stillness of death – Judaism says that G-d has an Angel of Death. I don’t know anything about Angels. I am sure I know nothing about G-d – I do know that G-d was in the room. G-d came in the form of the nurses, the midwives, the small crib that our dead baby was placed in and wheeled out in – never to be seen again. I did see its face.

We did eventually find out its gender. We did eventually find out that the umbilical cord had wrapped itself around the baby’s neck. “There’s nothing you could have done to prevent this – and there is no reason to think it was preventable. It is not genetic. We are sorry for your loss.”

Today, September 11, 2009, is also my sister’s English birthday and also, the anniversary of September 11, 2001.

So, there I was exhausted at this minyan, trying to distract myself from thinking about the death of our baby – and just couldn’t even keep my eyes open, when really I should have all this energy – I mean I am a 35 year old man….

And the self-punishment starts. Finally, the minyan is finished with davening – and I am still at the Shema. I’ll never keep up with the Schwartz’s in this town. Sigh, I think I just want to home and go to sleep.

Instead, I wrote this. See, one can find energy for the things that are distractions – but where is the energy for the things that matter?

Rosh Hashana is next Shabbot. Does G-d suspend judgment because of Shabbot? What “trumps” judgment? Does the holy shabbot interrupt the din that is hanging on the world?

As I keep on trying not to daven, these thoughts enter my mind. Again, I just close my eyes –

And there is my baby.

Four Common BT Road Bumps

Partners in Torah recently listed four road bumps a BT might hit:

• Daily life as an observant Jew is not always easy. Many demands are made of us, and life is infinitely more complicated for a person concerned with Shabbos, Kashrus, a large family and yeshivah tuitions than it is for one with 1.2 children, a dog, and a boat.

• Very few BT’s can afford to sustain the high level of learning and regular interaction with inspiring personalities that they enjoyed in the introductory stages of their return.

• They’re no longer courted and wooed by people eager to ease their entry into the frum community. They’re viewed as successes, and the attention is focused elsewhere.

• Their view of the observant community is transformed from that of an outsider to an insider. Suddenly they see warts and imperfections that they somehow missed in their initial encounters. Reconciling these imperfections with their initial, overly-positive perspective is never easy, and often discouraging.

There’s No Going Back

In the beginning of the BT journey, it’s easy to feel on fire, excited about what is ahead, determined to plow ahead no matter the obstacles. Then, as the years unfold and the children start coming, and growing, and requiring more money than we can fathom for their stellar yeshiva education, I would presume that most BT’s have a few conversations like the one I had the other day with a friend.

My friend, we’ll call her, “Tina”, and I were commiserating about the new bill for rising yeshiva tuition, the increasing property taxes for the community we live in, and the ever-rising price of kosher food, insurance, clothing, and all other needs, combined with both of us worried about husbands employed in very volatile jobs. It’s easy to joke about pulling the kids out of yeshiva and sending them to public school, or selling our homes and moving to a place in the country where housing is a fraction of the cost. We can pretend this is a viable solution in a moment of panic, but both of us know the truth – we are way too far down the path to ever turn back. No one ever said it would be easy. Sometimes, it feels much harder than we ever imagined it would be, but she and I have been frum for a decade or so, and the option of chucking it all and moving to an inexpensive community with kids in public school, is as much an option for either one of us as donning a nun’s habit and joining the cloisters.

A few days ago I had a “kitchen accident” that was, in its own way, a strong metaphor for this conversation. I was cooking some meat and I placed it in an ovenproof glass pan and roasted the meat for a few moments at 450 degrees.

I opened the oven door and with my oven mitts, pulled the pan out of the oven to check the meat. Within a few seconds, the pan exploded. With a loud boom, the glass pan, apparently unhappy about the transition from the hot oven to the room temp of my kitchen, shattered into thousands of pieces of glass – all over my kitchen, the oven, and me. There are no words to describe the mess it created (and I’m an author by profession!) It was just awful. Meat was intertwined with glass, meat gravy was splattered all over my nearby fridge and my clothing, and my kitchen floor was now coated in tiny pieces of glass.

Apparently, my “ovenproof” pan was not a good candidate for the oven, after all.

It took me hours to clean up the mess. It is now, as I am writing this column that it occurs to me that it serves as an excellent metaphor for the “no going back” statement. I could just as soon put my kids in public school and move to Hobunkville, as I could separate out the meat from the glass and serve it for dinner. It’s not happening. It’s too late. There’s no going back.

My husband and I daven every day that Hashem will continue to give us the means for providing for our family, so that our children should grow up to be under the chuppah, then B’ezras Hashem, become parents themselves, so that they can have the same conversation with their frum friends: “How are we going to do it?”

It’s a much better question than, “Should we do it?”

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort. Visit her web site here.

Ayelet Waldman and Me – or – Dear Lord….Do Not Bring me to Challenges and Ordeals.

My Toughest Jewish Moment.

In my other life—when I’m not being Anxious Ima, I’m a freelance journalist and it isn’t an easy road. Good writing gigs are hard to come by so it was with great delight that I snagged one — interviewing Ayelet Waldman for a top national webzine.

I didn’t know much about Waldman, just that she was a home girl, married to Pulitzer prize winner novelist Michael Chabon and that she’d written a new essay collection intrigningly titled called “ Bad Mother, A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. ” Anxious Ima meets Bad Mother. It sounded so perfect that I got goose bumps just thinking about it.

I emailed the publicist for an advance copy—for free, a journalistic perk and embarked on what started out as a fun, easy read.. Waldman has a good message, that mothers should give up on judging themselves, an engaging style and a wicked sense of humor. Several of the chapters are gems . My personal favorite was the one detailing her nearly superhuman efforts to express breast milk for her newborn cleft palate baby.

Another chapter explores Waldman’s own handicap, hereditary bipolar disorder and its role in her wrenching decision to abort a possibly deformed infant. I know that she’s taken a lot of flack for that, but I wasn’t troubled. In my halachic mind, I sensed ample grounds for a heter, though Waldman didn’t seek one out (she probably never even heard of that option) chosing instead , to confess her “sin” publicly before her reform (Jewish) congregation on Yom Kippur. To my orthodox mind, that was somewhat misguided, a bit odd but not enough reason to make me wish the book had never been published.

It was when Waldman veered into the area of sexuality that I started to wish that censorship would come back into style. True, Waldman lives in Berkeley, not Meah Shearim, but am I the only one out there who thinks that placing a bag of colorful birth control devices in a preteen boy’s medicine cabinet is over the top? And when Waldman gushed about how delighted she would be if one or both of her sons turned out to be homosexual I was about ready to empty the contents of my lunch onto the book.

With gay marriages rapidly becoming legal all over the US map is this the new normal,? I certainly hope not and it certainly isn’t for us orthodox Jews who take their cue from Leviticus 18:22.
Now I had a dilemma. How in the world was I supposed to interview someone who wrote stuff that went against my deepest core values?

I could called Waldman on what I saw as her garbage, but the publication was so left-liberal that raising the red flag of protest, would have most likely resulted in a rejection for my piece. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the risk of alienating this publication. They had given me the best gig I’d gotten the whole year, perhaps in my whole writing life. Wasn’t there a way to do this job and be true to myself and G-d.

A local Rov suggested that I focus on Waldman’s good parts and ignore the bad but I heard a reluctance in his tone, that he didn’t feel good about his advice.

I thought about following his advice and somehow finessing the interview but it just seemed like a whitewash, not the kind of journalism I wanted to do. I wanted to be real but how. Waldman’s book had unleashed an existential crisis in me, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since I was a teen. With grey hairs and wrinkles sprouting each day, I stood in the mirror and asked myself who I really was,—a Yiddishe Mama with a sheitel and black hatted sons in yeshiva or a media hipster? Could I be both? For years, for years I told myself that I could. Now, I was no longer sure it was possible.

With the deadline looming near, I consulted another Rav, a son and nephew of gedolim, sages, who has known me and my family well for years.

“This book espouses views that are anti Torah. Why do you want to have anything to do with it,” he asked. His words got to me, I think because he said them so softly, lovingly without even a drop of condemnation.

Yes of course he is right, I thought feeling that brief flush of joy that our wise men say comes with the resolution of doubts. Then, before I could change my mind, I sent out two emails, one to the publication and the other to Ayelet signing off. No explanation. I couldn’t imagine that any explanation I could give would make any sense to them.

And now I see that the book getting good press all over the media. When I read the reviews my heart sinks a little. No one seems to notice what I noticed.

I’m alone here, like Abraham the Patriarch, looking on from the opposite side of the river with a tear in my eye for Waldman, a talented Jewish woman so far away from her essential soul that she can take a public stand against her Creator without even realizing that she’s done something wrong.

Teshuva and Changing Politics

It’s been a long time since I posted here, but I was feeling kind of bad for Mark and David (who recently emailed out a request for posts) and I still remember the last question I was pondering for Beyond BT – a question that irked me so much, I found myself stymied. That question was: have your politics changed since you’ve done teshuva. And the answer is a very Jewish one – yes and no.

I was raised on liberal values. I attended the most integrated public schools in the most multicultural borough of New York City – Queens – and had friends of all races and ethnicities. In the summer, I attended a sleep-away camp with an international staff where we sang Pete Seeger songs and sent a “freeze the bomb” petition to President Reagan. In high school, I joined the student organization, the H.O.P.E. club, which stood for the Hillcrest Organization for Peace on Earth. Unfortunately, our faculty advisor was a communist, so that’s the “no” part of my answer. No, I am no longer a communist. But yes, I still retain my liberal values. Racism still offends me, and pacifism still appeals to me. I believe the government should spend money on social programs. And – don’t flame, please – though we don’t know how much of a friend he’ll be to Israel, I’m happy that President Obama won.

I know liberalism is unpopular in frum circles, and I know there are good reasons for it. Israel is number one, of course, but then there are matters like abortion and gay marriage. So I’ve learned to keep my politics to myself in the frum world. I was downright inspired when I came across the organization “Ayecha” a few years ago, a group dedicated to combating prejudice against Jews of color, but as far as I know, they’re not that active anymore.

So in a certain way, this isn’t a very happy post. I don’t like that I’ve had to keep part of myself in the closet all these years, and I think plenty of new and potential BTs would be turned off by the thought that they “have to” do the same. So here I am: out of the closet. Liberalism is a core value I learned in childhood. It didn’t die with my teshuva. And maybe, somehow, some way, I’ll figure out how to be a liberal activist in this participatory democracy while still maintaining my Torah lifestyle.

If the reaction to this post doesn’t get too nasty, there may be a Part 2 in which I’ll review President Obama’s Dreams from My Father. See you!

Rabbi Ozer Bergman – Alarmists

For better or worse, I am not an alarmist. So when I got an e-mail or two that tzaddikim of various stripes were warning “The End is Near for American Jews! Get Out While You Can!” I was a little underwhelmed. After all, I’ve gotten e-mails in the past that “Mashiach is DEFINITELY coming by this coming Rosh HaShanah” and, sadly, he didn’t. In other words, the track record of alarmists is not an argument to heed any of their warnings.

Mind you, I don’t mean to say that their messages should be ignored or summarily dismissed. Rather that current events are fairly inscrutable and people should not hurriedly make life decisions based on what’s reported in the e-mail de jour that so-and-so said such-and-such. Did he? Exactly what did he say? In what context? Was he addressing his own congregation/community/adherents or all of Klal Yisrael?

Nonetheless, even Ozer Laidback realizes that what we’re witnessing requires a response. The world is certainly undergoing some serious changes, even if those changes aren’t leading immediately and directly to Armageddon (you’ll pardon the expression). Some of us are old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. Maybe now it’s time for capitalism and democracy to fall. After all, despite any personal affinity we may have for them, neither is kadosh or Torah m’Sinai.

That said, please allow me a digression. I want to publicly express my dismay and distress about the reaction of too many people. The reaction and my subsequent distress go back to 9/11. Too many (even one is too many) in our community feel that gloating is an appropriate reaction to America’s trials and tribulations, to its suffering and setbacks. This is an un-Torah and even anti-Torah attitude and view.

Our holy Torah teaches us that converts from certain nations, though they become Jewish, may never marry into what is called Kahal Hashem. Some may marry in after a defined waiting period (Devarim 23:4-9). Egyptian converts may marry after three generations because we we were guests in their land. Even though they enslaved, humiliated and beat us for close to a century; even though they drowned millions of Jewish babies, because they gave us a place to stay when we were in need we are not to totally shun them (see Rashi, v.8).

In Sefer HaMidot (aka The Aleph-Bet Book) Rebbe Nachman teaches that it is forbidden to be an ingrate, to a Jew or to a non-Jew (Tefilah A:62). This seems to be based on “David asked, ‘Is there still anyone left of the House of Shaul with whom I can do kindness for the sake of Yonatan?'” (2 Samuel 9:1); and on “David said, ‘I will do kindness with Chanun son of Nachash, as his father did for me…'” (ibid. 10:2). The Rebbe also teaches that one is obligated to pray on behalf of his host city (Tefilah A:56).This is apparently based on Yirmiyahu HaNavi words, “Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you. Pray to God on its behalf because its peace will be your peace” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Whatever the shortcomings and failures of the United States of America in regards to its Jews and the Jewish people, it has been a very, very good home to millions and millions of us. Instead of gloating, we ought to be praying strongly for its protection and prosperity. Amen.

Returning to our initial topic: Mashiach has to come; why not sooner than later? God is shaking things up, and that is certainly part of the unfolding process that will result in Mashiach’s arrival—speedily, in our lifetimes. Amen! But in the meantime it is both disconcerting and scary. What can we do get our bearings and overcome our fears of the what the future holds?

Rebbe Nachman recommends holding on to a genuine tzaddik. The Torah teaches that in the Messianic era Hashem will grasp the ends of the earth and shake off the wicked (Job 38:13). But the genuine tzaddik—and those holding onto him—will not be cast off. He/they will survive. Let’s work on strengthening our faith in Hashem’s unending, loving providence (aka hashgacha pratis), that on the heels of this cloudy whirlwind ride, is clarity and calm. Let’s actively seek out the clear wisdom and advice of genuine tzaddikim, past and present, and do our best to live accordingly. Amen.

Originally posted on A Simple Jew.

Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall…..

By Little Frumhouse on the Prairie

Dixie Yid wrote an interesting post entitled, Where to Focus When Adults Go Off the Derech. The post was in response to Harry Maryles, who wrote about a few men who went off the derech. One of the men was a Talmud Chacham who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Despite being a respected scholar and authoring several seforim, he recently went off the derech and is no longer religious. Both Dixie Yid and Rabbi Maryles presented their arguments for why adults go off the derech.

Dixie Yid feels that certain negative personality types – the glass is always half empty – are prone to this type of disengagement. This negative tendency not only splinters their relationship with the Jewish community, but also with family, friends, coworkers and any other relationship that requires compromise, patience, and being dan l’chaf zchus.

Rabbi Maryles feels that the frum community is at fault when an adult goes off the derech. He touched on the issue of poverty in the frum community as being an issue that can challenge faith. When the Ramat Beit Shemesh Talmud Chacham was desperate to feed his family, the only advice he was offered was to sweep doorsteps to earn a few shekels. Another man was consumed with loneliness, and took no pleasure in Shabbos or Yom Tov without a family to share it with. His isolation was so great that he felt he would get more satisfaction and concrete results from working on Shabbos and Yom Tov than simply sitting in shul and davening for parnassah.

Rabbi Maryles feels that when a frum person reaches out to leaders/teachers/community members with questions or statements that can indicate a growing lapse of faith, instead of being taken under wing, leaders/teachers/community members chastise the person or attempt to silence them. A person who asks such questions could be a bad influence on impressionable people within the community. Better to have that “bad apple” go off the derech instead of taking the risk that they might rot the whole bushel. In a way the sacrifice can be seen as pekuach nefesh – sacrificing the unbelieving rodef for the good of maintaining the believers. Whether this is an acknowledged systematic approach or simply the inability of the frum community to deal with the questions that arise from a crisis of faith, the result is the same.

Both Dixie Yid and Rabbi Maryles raise interesting arguments on where to point the blame when a frum yid goes off the derech. I think that their theories apply to those who are frum from birth, but I think that the baal teshuvah (BT) angle differs. Of course, personality type, poverty, and community support or lack thereof, can also have a tremendous effect on whether a BT stays committed to yiddishkeit. However, sometimes none of these things determine someone leaving the fold.

As a BT myself, and as someone who has known quite a few BT’s who have both “stayed the course” as well as those who left the frum lifestyle, I offer a different perspective. Obviously, this is just one type of perspective. The illustration I offer below is a generic compilation of experiences from some of the BT’s I have known who decided frumkeit was not for them. While some people turn to yiddishkeit precisely because their origins were abusive or unsatisfying, I am offering the viewpoint of the opposite.

Picture growing up as a non-frum Jewish girl.
Read more Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall…..

Dealing With Insensitivity

By Leah Anderson

Recently, there was an interesting letter to the editor in the Yated (newspaper I get weekly). The woman (a BT) went to a wedding and someone at her table mentioned that she could tell a mile away that she is a BT, even though she has been frum for 15 years. The BT was very upset and hurt, she thought that her shaitel and outfit fit in very well with the “look” that everyone else was wearing, but this stranger was able to tell she was a BT. And she so desperately wants to fit into the community!

This got me to thinking, that although many times BTs are made to feel welcome in the communities we live in, sometimes grave mistakes are made that are very insensitive and hurtful.

My husband (let’s call him Dovid) told me what happened to him once, and has given me permission to relay this here.

When Dovid was first becoming religious, he davened in the way he was taught in Hebrew school, with a havarah sfardit. All the sofs were tofs. Anyways, he went to a friend for shabbos and they went to shul, and no one wanted to daven Mincha (everyone too tired) so they asked my husband to daven. When davening was over a man went over to Dovid and asked him if he was looking for a shidduch! Dovid, who was single at the time, told him “Yes”. So the man said “well, don’t expect to find anyone around here!” My husband walked away in shock, but didn’t answer him. What a callous thing to say, my husband was this new Baal Teshuvah and got such a warm welcome. There is nothing wrong with davening in havarah sfardit, and our shul is very happy to have Dovid daven at the amud, Bli Ayin Horah.

Anyways, I thought that we could all share on this topic some things that have happened that were unpleasant and get support from each other.

Dealing with Being Childless

By “Shifra”

As an (as-of-yet) childless BT, who married much later than most, I’m finding myself at the periphery of not only the FFB community, but also the BT community. It’s hard to find a safe place; it is the primary topic throughout the frum velt. The discussion at the tables at simchas inevitably comes around to children and grandchildren; shiurim more than often deal with the same.

I keep telling myself that it is not a Yid’s purpose to raise children, but to raise him/herself.

It feels like the galus of galus and I wonder if there are other “landsman” who have thoughts to share about this issue or who I could talk to about this isolating place.

When Things Aren’t in Sync

Seems like I’m frequently sending in the “warning” story. While it’s not, G-d forbid, my intention to be negative on interactions between BT’s and the frum community, it seems I run across my share of people who have, well lets just say, misunderstood peoples intentions or perspectives, to their personal detriment. This story is one of those, from first hand knowledge, and happened in the last year. Names have been changed, loshon hara is not the objective…

— Leah’s Story —

Leah was a young woman in her early twenties when she first encountered a Jewish outreach organization. She spent some months with them and her soul was ignited. She burned to learn more. The organization encouraged her to attend their women’s yeshiva in New York, and she worked hard to arrange to be able to do so. With great joy she learned for about a year and half, and took an apartment with some of the other young women students in Boro Park (NY City very-frum community). As she learned, she looked around her neighborhood and idolized her neighbors. The women with 4 or 5 or 7 young children moving organized down the street in and out of the stores, walking regally with their husbands and children on Shabbat, this was her goal, and a worthy goal it was.

And her neighbors were warm, helpful, inviting. The children, as children almost always are, were engaging, and a large table covered with a white tablecloth, Shabbos finery and the warm smells of Shabbos food, oh, she ached for such beauty in the norm in her life.

One day, after she’d been there a year, a neighbor invited her in for a cup of tea. The neighbor asked, “what would you think of a shidduch offer (a marriage proposal)?” Well, she was thrilled! She could be the one regally walking on Shabbat, and preparing the fine Shabbos table, it was all within reach! The neighbor continued, “there’s a young man in Williamsburg, he’s a Michlov chossid (fictional chassidus name replacing the real one), who would make a nice match.”

Now we pause a moment for some explanation. There are some frum groups that are heavily involved in outreach, and their communities are full of BTs. There are some that are lightly involved, and their communities have some BTs. And there are those who are not involved at all and are, frankly, pretty darn insular. Among those, well I guess the word sects is appropriate, that are involved in outreach, some in those communities greatly appreciate the BT fervor and zest for Torah and Hashem, but there are those who don’t… because it’s different, because it shows a family problem, because it creates lots of relationship complications. Those that don’t would have concerns about their children marrying a BT (straight up, they would discourage it).

Most living in Williamsburg, a wonderful place full of Torah, are in the insular category. Let’s just say when it comes to having their children marry a BT, it wouldn’t normally be considered. And with that, back to our story…

So Leah consulted her Rosh Yeshiva. He expressed strong concerns and advised her against considering it. She spoke with her rav, same answer. But, this was her dream and she was chasing it…so she went on a date. He was a nice looking young man, had an income, and his family was extremely, extremely, welcoming. Another 2 dates and the match was agreed. But why? Why would a nice looking young man from an insular chassid group with a good family and parnosa be looking so far outside his community for a match? I mean, Leah is a nice young woman of average looks, no special job skills, and from an average family (no special wealth)?

The Rebbe of the chassidus gave a bracha, but also strangely went on about how he was there should she every have a problem, she shouldn’t hesitate to come right over and discuss it.

The wedding was nice, the kallah was beautiful, the music was good. The Get, the divorce, came 6 weeks later. See, he had dropped out of the community (so he no longer was considered an acceptable match for anyone in it) and, supposedly, returned. But in reality, Leah was headed up, he was headed down, she was burning for Torah and Hashem, he was burning with other, less savory, desires. To the shadchun, the matchmaker, it looked like they were in a similar place. But their ships were headed in opposite directions, and when they arrived in the same house, this became apparent very quickly.

— Zahava’s Story —

Zahava’s story starts similar. Her father passed away when she was young, and her mother was part of a marginal community but moderately religious. Full religious education was not available in her area, but in college she became interested and starting looking to learn more. She actually ended up in the same women’s yeshiva as Leah, at the same time. For Zahava, the whole family picture was the draw. Ah, look at the couples lovingly walking together and making their life together. She didn’t grow up with that, and she desired it.

The story from here is similar. A neighbor, a shadchan (matchmaker), a chossid of Memlachta from a Williamsburg family (though living in Flatbush, a bit odd right there). This one takes some interesting twists though… The chasan’s family (groom’s family) wanted to make sure it was properly kosher for their son. So, first, prove you’re Jewish. Well, the mother doesn’t have actual paperwork (do you?). So they push her to go through a geiurus safek (a conversion of doubt). Then, what kind of properly chassidic name is Zahava? So they make her take on an additional name, now she’s Fraida Zahava. They took her to the store and set her up with the right wardrobe (according to their Williamsburg chassidic standards), right down to the type of underwear.

The wedding just occurred, all proper. But again, the question of why an insular chassidic family is taking a BT for their son stands out. A few tidbits have leaked out, and indeed, there’s a reason he was living in Flatbush and not in his chassidic community. Perhaps, G-d willing, it will work out, yet it would seem that again, they are headed in opposite directions.


My dear friends, there are many who greatly appreciate the zeal and drive BTs bring. Yet others don’t appreciate the background BTs bring. Whether this is fair or not is not the point. If those that are known for not appreciating that zeal are suddenly involving themselves with you (as a “BT”), just keep your eyes open and try to recognize why.

At the End of the Holidays

We are winding up z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy. For me as a BT, being joyous at this time of the year can be a special challenge.

We’ve just gotten through with Yom Kippur and repenting for our sins – including bad character traits. My particular challenge is envy – not of material things, but of other people’s having observant close relatives of their own age (mainly spouses, but also brothers and sisters). Other people’s families come to visit them for the holidays, while I am essentially alone. My husband is not observant, and my only brother has not spoken to me in years though I have tried and tried to make up with him. I have no parents or parents-in-law – so I’m sort of an island. In this community, my friends are like family; but then, when their real families come to visit, I’m on the outside looking in. Well, it isn’t even fair to say that, because I’m invited for Shemini Atzeret to someone whose family is visiting, and I had plenty of other invitations. I guess it’s just a feeling of being on the outside looking in.

And as a woman, it’s not like I’m going to get to dance with the Torah. I can watch the guys doing that (everyone is there but my husband) but I have to say, I feel left out that way, too. It isn’t that I myself want to dance with the Torah; it’s that I want to see someone who belongs to me doing that.

My own children are all observant (thank G-d!) and all have their own households, but all of them live far away. I hesitate to go to them for the holidays; they are dutiful kids, but I feel like a fifth wheel, and there’s no place like home.

So am I right to say that I’ll be glad when the holidays are over and things get back to normal? Am I even allowed to say that? It’s hard not to think it.

I’ve heard many times that a Jew is obligated to serve G-d with joy. But I don’t know how to really get into that frame of mind at this time.

Am I More Judgmental of the Non-Observant Since Becoming a BT?

Am I more judgmental of the non-observant since becoming a BT?

This was a question posted by David & Mark to BeyondBT contributors. It’s a good question. One that I constantly ask myself. I feel especially sensitive to this question because before I started becoming more observant, there were several people (both BTs and FFBs) who I felt were judgmental towards me and it was a definite turn off. At one point I even sent in a letter of resignation to an organization I was working with when the coordinators sent me what I felt was an extremely insulting e-mail about my eating at a non-kosher restaurant after an event was over. After that incident, and a few other interactions with people in an orthodox environment who questioned me and put me on the defensive, I pretty much ruled out becoming more observant, in fact, I became almost non-practicing (e.g. High Holidays and Passover only). I didn’t want to be in an environment where I always felt judged.

It wasn’t until years later when I began dating the woman who would become my wife, and being welcomed by her Modern Orthodox family that I again thought of being more observant. This time most of the reaction was positive. Her family never flinched when I made a mistake, or when I spoke of things I did that were not things an observant person does. I also began going to my local Chabad and was welcomed with no questions asked, and no patronizing lectures directed at me. I was told that when I was ready to move up, they were there to help me, and when the time really did come, they were the ones who did help. There were still a few incidents where someone else (usually not in the family, or in Chabad) would overzealously push me before I felt ready (for example, keeping kosher outside the home, which I was working up to) but by this point I had learned to tune them out. I honestly think if others hadn’t made me feel so judged in the past, and instead had helped me to feel welcome and worked with me, I would have become more observant earlier in life. I still regret those years in-between that were full of wasted opportunities.

Now on the occasions when my wife and I have non-observant friends, or family over, I sometimes feel that they are waiting for me to start judging them and tell them what they are doing wrong. However, after my experiences when I was the one being judged, I could never do that to another. Instead, I simply try to make them feel as welcome as people had finally made me feel. As Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.”