Sunday, June 21, 2009

Coming and Going

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?

27 comments:

AgnosticWriter said...

DH,

'Great observations and excellent writing! Keep up the good work.

AgnosticWriter

BZ said...

Some good observations. True, much of it has nothing to do with FFB/BT model specifically, as the same would apply to all groups and their newcomers. One wonders if you are simply expressing concerns of your own while you were devoting your energies to orthodoxy before opting out.

Joshua said...

The tendency for new-comers to religions to go overboard is not unique to Judaism. I have a Hindu friend who once gave a very funny rant about people who become Hindu and the ridiculous lengths they go go to.

There are also other reasons that FFBs feel uncomfortable with BTs. One especially relevant one in charedi circles (MO don't seem to care) is that BTs are assumed to be ben nidah and associate all the negative stereotypes with that. Similarly, there is the concern that the BTs are likely to be or presume to be mamzerim. These two issues exacerbate the negative FFB attitude towards BTs.

kisarita said...

ben nidah? mamzerim? you gotta be kidding, i've never not even once heard that brought up.

naah its just plain old frum inferiority complex, masked as a superiority complex, we feel inferior because they know so much more about the world than we do.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis, although I will add that many FFB's have a delusional superiority complex founded on their supposed religious puritanism.

The very fact that BT's have likely downed a pork or two, had sex out of wedlock, and engaged in other nefarious behavior, taints their souls, and places them in couch class regardless of their newfound religious zeal.

G*3 said...

The reason that FFBs have the attitude they do towards BTs is probably mainly because, like you mentioned, BTs seem a bit weird. And it’s not just that they’re overly zealous. It’s also that they aren’t intuitively aware of social norms in the frum world the way FFBs are. Kind of like most people assuming that someone who speaks broken English isn’t too bright, though for all they know the person may be beautifully articulate in his native language. The BT is socially awkward and may not know things that would be obvious to a FFB six-year-old. So to FFBs, it seems there’s something not quite right.

The angst about whether they are performing religiously up to the ideal may be true for some, but most people just don’t think that much about their religiosity.

laura said...

DH: In the back of every FFB's mind there are always some niggling doubts haunting his thoughts:

Wow, Hedyot, you really have an optimistic view of society. *Every* FFB? *Always* some niggling doubts? Now why did I never get the impression that *all* FFBs have the depth to actually think about stuff like this?

laura said...

Of the three reasons you listed, I'd rate their merit in order from last to first. I believe the last is most true, not only because all in-groups tend to condescend to out-groups, but also because specifically in charedi society where doing *nice* shidduchim are such a focal point, being *heimish* has tremendous significance. There's a hierarchy to heimishkeit. If you're chassidic and of Hungarian background, you don't want to do a shidduch with someone of Polish background, even less with someone of Sephardic background, and even less with a BT. Who charedi society reveres (or not) in the shidduch process affects whom they revere in general. Ergo, BTs are at the lower rungs of the social ladder despite their spiritual superiority.

The Hedyot said...

> *Every* FFB? *Always* some niggling doubts?

Geez. Ok. Almost every FFB. Almost always some doubts.

Feel better?

shoshi said...

"It’s also that they aren’t intuitively aware of social norms in the frum world the way FFBs are."

So this would confirm what D"H says: the hareidi world values social conformity over "true religion". Because
1) Chareidi society does not respect their own religious tenets in every way
2) Even if they would, there could also be other social models conforming to the religion... So being "chareidi" is not about being "frum" (religious), but about "conforming to a certain type of society".

Shalmo said...

A more fundamental difference between the BT and the average chareidi is that one is a believer and one is simply following a culture.

And often the two are VERY different.

To the born Jew this stuff is his culture. He believes in his culture more than whats in it. When he recites Torah with the congregation. The words themselves are meaningless, because its the ritual of reciting them that he is into.

For the BT he actually is hearing those words and digesting them.

So how the two relate to Judaism is completely different.

So it no wonder they isolate these individuals.

The religion of the BT is not the culture of the born frummie.

That said, I pity these people. They have no idea what they are getting themselves into. Soon enough this zeal wears down, and they come to see the repetitive and tedious lifestyle of endless rules and regulations, and must now live with it as it wears down their soul. A lifestyle that I would consider hard to call sane. There has to be someway we can stop Orthodoxy for good, perhaps by getting the government to stop the food stamps to Satmar and other similar cultists.

The Hedyot said...

> ben nidah? mamzerim? you gotta be kidding, i've never not even once heard that brought up.

Yeah, I've come across that on more than one occasion. It's not as uncommon as you might think.

kisarita said...

wierd. even if, i doubt that's the "reason." more like an excuse.

Happy said...

Firstly let me say that was seriously one of the best blog posts I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

"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 [some other religion] is true?"

This actually happens quite a bit. Despite the fact that FFB's hold these people up as evidence of their beliefs, many BT's are not "finding" Judaism as a final step on a journey to Truth. Rather, many are simply trying to experience some spirituality. And when something more "spiritual" (like, for example, Buddhism) presents itself, they move on.

The Hedyot said...

> And when something more "spiritual" (like, for example, Buddhism) presents itself, they move on.

Or when the initial excitement of the spirituality wears off, and the banality of not being allowed to rip toilet paper kicks in.

Gamzoo said...

you hit a home run on this post.

I've always admired BTs, actually. I guess for their independence and depth of heart felt living. Maybe that's why I went OTD, so I can be zoicha to be a BT :)

G*3 said...

shoshi said...
So this would confirm what D"H says: the hareidi world values social conformity over "true religion

That may be true, but I really don’t think that’s why most people treat BTs the way they do. People do not usually do what they do for well-thought-out, rational reasons. They go with their gut reactions. And your gut reaction when you see someone behaving strangely is to be wary.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

that idea of a "frum inferiority complex" is metaphysically cited by R' Avraham Ger in the Tosafot where the gemara says קשים גרים לישראל כספחת — he understood it to mean "since גרים are new to it, and care about it, and learn how to do everything properly, they make the born-Jews look bad in comparison."

whether metaphysical or psychological, i think the idea has merit.

Betzalel said...

I'm a baal teshuva. Frum from birth (FFB) people don't know what it is like to grow up without any answers to important questions. In the world outside of the yeshiva (at least before the internet), any deep questions that you might have like "what is the meaning of life" always get stupid answers like "a book by Douglas Adams". Everything is superficial. It's maddening.

Then the Torah comes to a baal teshuva and gives reasonable answers to all of life's most important questions, answers to questions that the baal teshuva never even knew had answers.

It is a shame that Da'as Hedyot was spoonfed these answers, yet never got the chance to appreciate how important these answers are.

It's much like a spoiled rich kid who grows up taking everything for granted, never appreciating how fortunate he is, because he has never been poor nor had the opportunity to earn his wealth.

The Hedyot said...

> Then the Torah comes... and gives reasonable answers...

Yes, "reasonable". I think that's the most charitable way to describe them.

TikunOlam said...

DH: 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.

It blew my mind when my BIL became engaged to a BT. Instead of my OJ inlaws admiring her and welcoming her into the family, my MIL in law voiced concern about whether being frum was going to be permanent or whether it was temporary. This after her own son went OTD and married an OTD wife! As though growing up frum held some guarentees!

To this day it hurts my SIL.

Happy said...

"Then the Torah comes to a baal teshuva and gives reasonable answers to all of life's most important questions..."

Can you please list specific parts (perek and pasuk) in the Torah that gave you answers to life's deeper questions?

evanstonjew said...

This is a wonderful post and one I agree with. Laura's formulation in terms of preferences in shiduchim is definitely on target.

I think one of the core issues facing American Judaism is that Conservative and Reform Jews are so very unheimish, so very much not a member of the ffb club, that there is really not much enjoyment on both sides in carrying on a conversation. This highlights the importance of formerly frum Jews as a potential bridge between very different cultures. BT are potentially such a bridge, but as pointed out they are frequently so zealous in pointing out the deficiencies in their pre BT days they raise all sorts of new problems. The issue is not one of kiruv but comprehension. If Orthodox and non Orthodox would both be bicultural, American Jewish life would have a very different outlook. As is Jewish life is fragmenting, with the left side in danger of falling off a cliff. There is a desperate need of a unifying center that will hold.

He Who Fights Monsters said...

"Things fall apart, the center cannot hold" - Yeats

Malach HaMovies said...

Question: How many BT's does it take to change a light bulb ?

BT's Answer: You mean you're allowed to do that !!!

BT's alternative answer: I'm not so sure. I'll have to ask my rav.

Pen Tivokeish said...

A BT once criticised the FFB's lack of commitment towards God's law, in the presence of his Rabbi. The Rabbi responded "Your neshama is forever stained by the treifeh food that you have ingested. No matter how much you try, you will never be as pure as FFB's."

Within Hasidic circles, there is way more bigotry and there is a degree of hostility and intolerance towards BT's and Converts.

We care a lot about Yichus. In my world muggles and mudbloods are treated with the inferiority that they deserve, every step of the way.

The full text of the Gemorah in Niddah 13b is:
ת"ר הגרים והמשחקין בתינוקות מעכבין את המשיח ... גרים כדר' חלבו דא"ר חלבו קשין גרים לישראל כספחת

Pinnygold said...

First of all I'd expected you to touch on the shiduch aspect of orthodoxy treating BTs and converts. It is a known fact that BT's as well as converts are being treated like Second level when it comes to getting a shiduch. If one would suggest the best boy, as far as the religious standards are concerned, and suggest a girl with the same or even "higher" levels of religion BUT she is BT, they'll look at you as if you fell from the moon. Yeah, we welcome you but don't intermarry with us. I might have told you about it but recently I met that guy who was telling me that ''tomorrow i'm gonna have my bris", he was preparing for conversion. I had a talk with him, under the circumstances I was limited in presenting my position, but I asked him "do you know how the whole thing of shiduchim in the frum world works? How frum people treat BTs and converts? He said no.
Then I said, "I don't want to sound biased but call any shadchan with a fiction case about a wonderful converted girl who wants a yeshiva bochur and tell me what the reaction is gonna be" He's like, "what is it gonna be?" Well, I said, "a baal tshuve??? maybe a divorcee would be good for her..." he couldn't believe me.... and when they wake up to that harsh reality, it's too late already and they try to explain themselves that it's some sort of "test" God is trying to test them. In some communities even second generation BTs have hard time getting "good" shiduchim.

Another point that I thought you should have brought up is the fameous Gemara stating "kashim garim leIsrael Kesapachat (tzaraat). that converts are bad for the Jews like a Tzaraat. they know that the converts (and many people agree that BTs are included for this purpose) have knowledge about the "outside world". They grew up on outside enjoyments, attitudes, and so on. And in many cases they bring some of it in, and many rabbis don't like it. that's why you see that rejection that comes together with that "celebrity treatment" you're talking about. A very simple example to that is Rabbi Amnon Itzchak, a very fameous Israeli BT himself, who is very known for his Hachzara Bitshuva actions, very much into outreaching. As a child I used to like listen to him because of his good sense of humor. But, constantly, I'd hear from rabbis, teachers, parents, and more not to listen to him, because "eventhough a secular person who listens to him becomes a BT, frum ppl who listen to him become secular". or at least it has "bad" influence on them.
you see, there is a lot to be talked about when dealing with this kind of issue.
keep doing the good work.
Pinny