Tuesday 25 November 2014

047) Who Killed The Baal Teshuvah?

A Baal Teshuvah is usually defined as someone who was not brought up in a religious home, yet as a result of either internal searching or external influence, he or she becomes religious. Today we have many thousands of Baalei Teshuvah who have merged and blended in to established religious communities throughout the world.

In the lives of many of these Baalei Teshuva there remains an inner conflict that often gets suppressed. While they were still searching, they were made to feel welcome and important. They were the focus and spotlight of the slick machine of Kiruv (outreach) movements. The talks they attended highlighted and contrasted the evils and baselessness of the secular world, as opposed to the flawless functioning and depth of religious communities. The smiling facilitators always had a sense of humour, and as a matter of course, also showed great openness and tolerance for other views.
However, when the spotlight moved on to the next candidate and the Baal Teshuva graduated to a real community with real people who didn’t always smile, weren’t so tolerant, and didn’t abound with a sense of humour; there may have been a possible moment of frustration. When they questioned what they saw, they were told (possibly for the first time) that ‘all people’ and ‘all societies’ have their share of good and bad. This made sense to them, so they continued trying to fit in till they lost any semblance of their previous lives. Now their parents, old friends, old schools and universities suddenly vanished, and they spent an inordinate amount of effort pretending they were always like they are now.

This is sometimes the last time they ever exercise those same inquiring minds that had characterised them till now. Gone is the ceaseless searching and challenging that so defined them when they started on this journey.

Why is it at this point that the Baal Teshuvah dies?

Why can’t he or she continue to challenge and rebel against the aspects of the new society that are less than appealing, and resemble those of ‘all other people’? They showed that they had the strength and courage to do so in the past, but seem to have lost the will to affect any further change. Why? Are the peer pressures of religious life more powerful than those from whence they came? Is there some unspoken fear or apprehension they no longer have the strength to withstand?
The Kotzker Rebbe became a chassid because he saw it as a movement that challenged the sluggish mainstream. Yet he later rebelled against it when he realised that it had simply replaced one mainstream with another even more perfected mainstream.

We need our Baal Teshuvas of today to stop trying to stop being Baal Teshuvas. We need them to remain searchers and challengers so that they can take the religious community and not just live in it but advance it. They bring with them a set of skills they need not be ashamed of. Our Tradition teaches that a Baal Teshuva is greater than a perfect Tzadik. Let them champion and promote the beauty that sets our religious communities above other communities. But let them also speak out against the flaws they were told are found among ‘all people’. They have already shown that they do not want to be like ‘all people’, and there are now enough of them to have a voice and to be heard.

Let them attempt to root out those flaws as only they know that the religious community no longer suffer the same maladies as the people in the societies the Baalei Teshuva thought they were leaving behind. 

Wednesday 12 November 2014

046) The Faith Stalkers

Jay Lefkowitz[1] recently wrote a personal account of what he calls ‘The Rise of Social Orthodoxy.’ He is a self confessed religious Modern Orthodox Jew, who shares his experience of a new phenomenon gaining momentum in the community called ‘Social Orthodoxy’.

What is Social Orthodoxy? It is a term used to describe Jews who observe Torah practices and rituals, yet grapple with internalizing and translating these practices to the faith level. Jay describes himself as follows: ‘I start my day each morning by donning tefillin...I occasionally find myself stuck in cities on a Friday far from home because I cannot travel back to New York City in time for the arrival of the Sabbath. I go to synagogue each week and celebrate all the Jewish holidays. My children go a Modern Orthodox day school...I would appear to be the very model of an Orthodox Jew... But...I root my identity much more in Jewish culture...than in faith and commandments. I am a Social Orthodox Jew and I am not alone.’[2]

He certainly is not alone.

But there is emerging, even a more extreme type of Social Orthodoxy compared to the one described by Lefkowitz:  -Philip Gallagher[3], an academic sociologist, uncovered a significant sector of the Orthodox community who ‘...identified as Orthodox, but may not stringently observe the laws of Kashrut and Shabbos...(they) worked to create an image to the larger community of strict religious observance. Activities inside the home that violate the Sabbath...are accepted because they were out of the public eye.’ Often social pressures and the desire to belong play a more important role than theological doctrine.

My own experience of the community bears testimony to the emergence of Social Orthodoxy. Compared to twenty years ago, in many circles it is now considered ‘hip’ to be religious. A woman told me she was seriously considering to become, in her words, ‘shoymies’ (a new word for shomer shabbos), because all her children’s friends were ‘shoymies’. It was clear that she had no desire to understand anything about Shabbos as long as she could be perceived to conform.

The apparent widespread texting on Shabbos that takes place between Social Orthodox youngsters, certainly does not resonate with religious observance. Nor does popular attendance at learning programmes seem to get translated into practice, but this is overlooked as long as the attendees are seen in the right places. Perhaps we are witnessing the birthing and emergence of a new movement: The Ultra-Social Orthodox.

Rabbi Gidon Rothstein writes a fascinating critique on Social Orthodoxy, saying it blemishes the image of Modern Orthodoxy. In particular, he challenges Jay Lefkowitz’s article, even though Jay employs none of the deviousness of the more ‘social’ followers of the Social Orthodox.  Rothstein has difficulty in admitting someone of ‘questionable faith’ into the Orthodox camp, and poignantly compares it to omitting the ’I am the L-rd your G-d’ from the Ten Commandments. He believes we may have over stepped the mark by creating welcoming religious communities, which tolerate and allow for such deviation. He writes; ‘The Talmudic view (adhered to for hundreds of years) was that we could not pray with nonbelievers[4]...Only over time, and especially after the rise of Reform...did rabbis find ways to justify treating deviant Jews with less than the full opprobrium (disgrace) halachic practice until then required...A person who does not subscribe to the faith-claims of the religion...cannot claim to be practicing Orthodoxy.’[5]

I do acknowledge that Social Orthodoxy may have become a little too social. (Although that’s probably not the worst crises to befall the Jewish People, and sometimes I wish our communities would be even more welcoming). But I have to disagree with the notion of us excluding someone who appears to ‘lack faith’. Actually, Lefkowitz never said he lacks faith, he said he is ‘rooted more in Jewish culture than in faith’.  In Kotzker philosophy, Doubt is part of the very fabric of Faith. And even if he did say outright that he lacked faith, that honesty itself would be an act of faith.[6] How, in practice, can we ever be so arrogant as to sit in judgement of another’s faith? Even if someone says they have no faith, it does not necessarily mean they have no faith. They might not use the same definition of faith as we do, and unlike halachic observance which can be readily evaluated, we have no way of evaluating faith.  While two people can keep the ‘same Shabbos’, no two people can believe in the ‘same G-d’. Each person’s faith is coloured by an infinite number of other worldly nuances that even they, never mind us, could never accurately articulate.

I too do not believe in the G-d an atheist doesn’t believe in. His perception of G-d is not the same as mine. The Kotzker Rebbe once said that he ‘does not want to believe in the same G-d any dirty old man believes in’. I too do not want to believe in the same G-d, some people I know, believe in.
If bad weather, for example, prevents you from travelling somewhere, and your companion turns around and says that it’s just as well because maybe something bad would have happened – that’s not an act of faith. It’s an act of irrational belief in random causality.

Many people believe in a G-d of their own creation, spawned by their own fears and superstitions. The astonishing thing is that they tell everyone they believe in G-d - and everyone is happy -  and they are permitted to enter the camp. Yet why do we want to punish someone who because of his honesty, has intellectual difficulty in believing in their G-d?[7]

Halachic observance can be observed. Maybe that’s why it’s called observance. But how can we subject another person to observation and inspection of their faith component?
When we do, we become Faith Stalkers.

[1] A senior policy adviser to the George W. Bush administration. Served as Special Envoy For Human Rights in North Korea, and currently a lawyer in private practice in New York City.
[2] Commentary Magazine January 2014.
[3] As quoted in: Social Orthodoxy or Sweatpants Orthodoxy, by Alan Brill.   2014/08/13
[4] It’s interesting to see that Kol Nidrei night, when we are permitted to pray with ‘sinners’, is an exception to this rule.
[5] See ‘Torah Musings. If the Social Orthodox had been in Egypt, would they have been redeemed?’
[6] This is because the foundation of faith has to be honesty. Emet VeEmunah – Honesty then Faith.
[7] The Ten Commandments say: ‘I am Your (not The) G-d’ - leaving room for different perceptions of G-d.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

045) If You Can't Think...Follow

Religious independence is not for everyone. Many turn to, or continue to practice religion because they have a need to be nurtured. Independence is something of an anathema to the archetypal spiritual seeker. This type of personality is, typically, non-threatening and even beneficial to all religions that need their traditions transmitted to future generations. Judaism included.

But Judaism must be more than the mere mechanical process of transmission of texts and traditions. Surely, as long as the commitment to Halacha remains sacrosanct, Judaism must be capable of withstanding and incorporating a strong component of freedom of spiritual thought. The Kotzker Rebbe championed this concept of spiritual independence, probably more than most.

The story is told1 about an amazing interaction between two of his teachers, the Yid HaKadosh and the Chozeh of Lublin; The Yid felt some kind of premonition that he was going to die and mentioned it to the Chozeh. The Chozeh or ‘seer’ responded by saying that if the Yid spent Rosh HaShana with him, he would surely live. Strangely the Yid chose not to stay in Lublin but instead decided to move away from the Chozeh. The Yid said that he did this because had he stayed, he would have become so influenced by the Chozeh that he would have lost any sense of autonomy. He would take his chances and even die rather than lose his independence and individuality. In Kotzk a teacher is important, but independence is more important. The teacher must teach the student independence.

Only when the ‘I’ is clearly defined, can the relationship with any ‘other’ be sustainable. Otherwise who is initiating the relationship? I can't relate to G-d till I know who I am.

The Kotzker had a novel take on the well known Pesach story. The Torah says that one must take a lamb as a Passover sacrifice. Rashi comments2 that ‘one who has’ (i.e. a man of means), should take (a lamb) from himself (i.e. from his own flock) – while ‘one who does not have’ (i.e. a poor man), should simply take from the market.  But the Kotzker sees this as talking about something much deeper than the historical paschal lamb.
The expression; ‘One who has’, refers to one who has the ability to think for himself. Such a person is quite capable of taking from his own intellectual stock. Whereas ‘one who does not have’, refers to one who does not have that ability, or is afraid to use his independence. Such an individual should simply take from the marketplace of scholars who are looking for dependants, and become subservient to them.3
This is one of the great challenges of modern Judaism. Everyone knows the theory and principle that as long as you observe Halacha you are free to form any Hashkafa or weltanschauung you wish. Sadly, we only know it. We don't practice it. In reality we frown upon any thinking that is not akin to how we have been taught to think. We also seem to miss the irony that the more we progress to an openness of mind, the more we are in keeping with our ancient tradition.

Thinking can’t be taught, it has to be thought.

1. Niflaos HaYehudi 86
2. Shemos 12:21
3. Amud HaEmet p42, par 5