Although much of my focus here on the blog tends to focus on the chareidi world's attitudes towards people who leave the frum world, the other day I had an encounter that made me think about their attitude towards certain other people in the community - baalei teshuva (aka "born again religious Jews", or 'BT's') and converts.
Although they won't usually admit it, the chareidi world has always had a very conflicted attitude towards such people. Most of the time, when the issue arises, what you'll typically hear a born-and-bred chareidi person (aka FFB) express about a BT is unabashed admiration. Baalei teshuva and converts are often minor celebrities in those circles, frequently called upon to speak to the masses, and held up as "proof" that frumkeit is better than a non-religious lifestyle. And every frum person will eagerly pull out the quote from the gemara that heaps unequivocal praise on such people: "In the place where baalei teshuva stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand." And to their credit, frum people want to make sure that newcomers to religion are made to feel at home and welcome so they do their utmost to treat them with the greatest respect and sensitivity, trying their best to be as accommodating as they can to the newcomers often clumsy adoptions of the norms of frum life.
One of the main reasons that FFB's love baalei teshuva so much is that the BT confirms for them that they are living the right kind of life. In the back of every FFB's mind there are always some niggling doubts haunting his thoughts: Am I really sure that we are so right believing what we do? Do I really have a better life with all these restrictions? How can I be certain that Judaism is the more logical path to follow if I never really investigated the alternatives? The BT's decision to adopt a frum lifestyle lays to rest all these troublesome questions. After all, thinks the FFB, if this guy who had a chance to live on the outside chose to give it up for Torah, then obviously it's right! All those questions that supposedly challenge the truth of Yiddishkeit don't have to concern him anymore, because if this formerly secular guy - who doesn't have the bias of being born frum and who most probably looked into Judaism very thoroughly - feels that Torah stands up to scrutiny, then clearly Mr. FFB doesn't have to worry that they are of any consequence!
But if you listen closely, and look a bit more carefully at how FFB's interact with BT's and speak about them when they are in private company, one can sense more than a little ambivalence and skepticism mixed in among all the adulation. BT's are admired... but still thought of as a bit odd. They are welcomed... but still kept at a distance. Their devotion to god and truth earns them endless praise... but no one really wants to be too much like them.
I think that if one examines the reasons for this conflicted relationship, it reveals a number of very interesting things about how Orthodox Jews look at their Judaism.
One of the explanations sometimes pointed to for the ambivalence towards BT's is the atypical zeal that BT's often bring to their religious life. It's not uncommon to find in newcomers to religion an enthusiasm for religious practices that is almost entirely absent in those who were raised frum. For the FFB, some of this religious lassitude can obviously be explained as the result of a lifetime of habituation combined with the sad reality that many frum people never really think much about their frumkeit in the first place, but the undeniable fact is that the passion that the BT brings to his religious service often makes the FFB very uneasy.
This is actually highly ironic because it is often this almost childlike eagerness to serve god that earns them such high accolades in religious society. But when the FFB sees the BT davening with such fervor, and being super meticulous in his halachic observance, it raises all sorts of awkward and uncomfortable questions in his mind: On the one hand, he acknowledges that the excitement with which the BT is performing his duties is admirable, even in some way ideal, yet at the back of his mind, he can't help wondering, do I really want to be like that? Is it normal to really be so medakdek about serving hashem and halacha?
When I was learning in Israel, there was this one BT in the yeshiva who I was friendly with. He was a very sweet guy, but he had the habit of treating every single minor religious rule with the most extreme attentiveness. His benching was like a yom kippur neila. He was fastidious about lashon hara. He would never walk in front of someone davening shemone esrei, even if it meant he was trapped in his seat for an extra 30 minutes. And I was told by the fellow who would go around the rooms in the morning to wake up the bochurim for shachris, that when he woke this guy up, as soon as his eyes opened, he would immediately leap out of his bed, because he wanted to follow the halacha that said "one should arise in the morning like a lion to serve god."
Now, on the one hand, such people are usually dismissed as odd or out of touch, but on the other hand, aren't these people living up to the ideals that all torah true Jews supposedly aspire to? Don't chazal teach that one should treat every halacha, no matter how seemingly trivial, as if it is of the utmost importance? Don't they impress upon people not to care about how people may look at you as 'weird' for keeping halacha? This fellow might be a bit unusual, but only because everyone else's standards have fallen so low! In god's eyes, there's nothing at all wrong with him. It's everyone else who has the problem!
So I think that when the FFB witnesses the BT recite asher yatzar with such devout sincerity, even as he admires the fresh faced eagerness, he is also a bit unnerved. Both by how this new adherent's worship highlights the inadequacy of his own divine service, and also by the fact that despite his professed admiration for the BT's devotion, the FFB doesn't really want to be as frum (read: weird) as the BT is. He likes his communally accepted religious standards where he can practice halacha in a way that isn't overly burdensome to his lifestyle and that doesn't make him seem fanatical or out of place. He doesn't want this version of Judaism that the BT keeps holding up to his face and reminding him is how he should be living.
Aside from the atypical religious excitement of the newly religious, I think there's another significant reason why FFB's are uncomfortable with BT's. I've always suspected that despite the professed admiration for the BT, there is actually an unspoken suspicion that the FFB always harbors to the BT. This mistrust is rooted in the very nature of the journey that brought the BT to religion, a nature which directly conflicts with the accepted thinking in the chareidi world of how a Torah Jew's mind should work.
You see, according to the chareidi perspective, a proper Torah Jew serves god by putting aside one's own ideas of what's best and commits himself to only following what god has deemed proper, as expressed in halacha. And by unequivocally embracing this philosophy, the BT (and even more so the convert) has proven how committed he is to this ideal.
Now, generally this aspect of the BT's life is greatly admired by frum people. That someone came to this conclusion on his own is incredibly inspiring to them. Invariably, they find the decision to voluntarily reject the more permissive life of general society and instead take on the responsibilities of Orthodoxy to be a far more impressive type of religious allegiance than the FFB who was raised with this lifestyle being the norm. But despite that admiration, there's a subtle implication of the BT's act of social defiance which troubles many chareidi people. Because unlike the FFB who has always shown that he is loyal to what his society tells him to do, the BT has revealed a dangerous streak of independence.
So on the one hand, by fully accepting halacha, and demonstrating that he is fully committed to the idea that god's word is more important than his own judgment, the BT has earned his stripes in frum society. But on the other hand, the undeniable fact is that the BT only came to this approach by following his own mind and making his own choice to join this lifestyle. So if his dedication to Torah and mitzvos is really rooted, not in a status quo devotion to god, but in his own mind's judgment that this is the correct path, then what's to stop him from coming to a different conclusion about what's right sometime later down the line? How can we really be certain of his absolute loyalty?! Maybe five years down the line, the same independent thinking that made him realize that Judaism is true, might make him think that Islam is true?
While probably most are unaware of this thought process, I think it's part of what underlies the FFB's uneasiness about the BT. And I think this sentiment actually leaks out a bit at times, such as when FFB's express disapproval at BT's who retain some of their unique character and don't entirely conform to the social expectations of the chareidi community that they live in.
Of course, there are also more prosaic reasons that BT's are often treated as second-class citizens by FFB's. It could simply be the same as any close-knit social group that has to deal with newcomers to their community. Outsiders are rarely granted the same legitimacy as a true-blue member who was raised in the club from his very youth.
I actually think that all these issues are simply part of human nature, and it's understandable that the community is not truly as welcoming as they profess to be. But it's quite sad that a society that prides itself upon its devotion to god's word, has no problem with such a widespread and systemic violation of the biblical commandment to wholeheartedly welcome the stranger without any prejudice (Exodus 22:20).
I wonder how many baalei teshuva would actually decide to be frum if they knew that they would forever be held at arms length by the people they so much want to become like?