Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Unlearning a Bias

There has been an important observation about the Baal Teshuva community made by Avakesh, a welcome newcomer to the world of blogging:

"Not everyone who wears a black hat here is a ben Torah". I found this warning to be very true. I encountered video rentals, childrearing habits that I couldn't believe, uninformed kashrus violations (a well meaning man, a tsaddik in many ways who did not recognize that there is an issue in using the same oven for milchigs and fleishigs) and other surprising deviation. There was an otherwise black hat family, for example, that induced their teenage yeshiva bochur son to volunteer for the summer in a non-Jewish camp in which a family member worked and also in a local public library. The thought of a teenage boy in the summer in that environement turns my stomach but these well meaning people saw not even a glimmer of a problem with it.

“Under the surface, there fester serious problems. They range from underground survival of secular attitudes to shallow understanding of the Torah, to serious psychological imperfections that are exacerbated by the wrenching effects of adjustments to the Torah lifestyle and abandonment of family and friends.”

Two of the most prominent Orthodox blogs blogs have posts about it. Hirhurim, and cross-currents. And I don’t think either of them has totally nailed the problem or the solution.

Hirhurim's Rabbi Gil Student said that he is basically unsure about it.

Cross-currents' Rabbi Yaakov Menken asks, “(W)hy spend the rest of the post accentuating the natural results of welcoming newcomers, and treating them like a problem instead of signs of success?” The answer is quite clear. There is a problem. And it needs to be addressed. Here is my perspective.

Yes, there are imperfections in the world of the Baal Teshuva (BT). And yes, as both Avakesh and cross-currents said, we should happy about the tremendous number of Jews who have returned to their roots. But there is a problem and ignoring it won’t make it go away.

I was born into a Frum family (FFB) I do not have the benefit of knowing what goes on in the deepest recesses of a BT’s mind. I suppose that there are common attributes that are shared by many BTs. But those attributes are not the cause of the problem. Part of the responsibility rests with those who were Mekarev them.

The individual perspective of the Kiruv organization or individual impacts on all of what one has learned in life up to that point. And there is wide divergence of Hashkafos between all the Kiruv organizations and individuals who work with potential BTs. They all emphasize different things. A BT learns behavior that often reflects the specifics of the Kiruv organization or worker. That’s why for example in certain Kiruv circles, a black hat is put on before a sufficient knowledge of Shabbos and Kashrus is learned. The Kiruv worker will often emphasize the “bells and whistles” of his own Hashkafos as much as the important Halachos. And in some cases, the bells and whistles have been emphasized more than Halacha. It would behoove these Kiruv organizations to re-think the priorities of what they teach.

Another facet of the problem has to do with individual abilities by various BTs to learn about Torah Judaism. This will often depend on which point in life a BT begins the learning process. Also, (with rare exception) the later one comes to Torah Judaism the more one has to unlearn behavior and attitudes that have been learned and accumulated from environment from which they came. Mistakes are easily made by those newly learning how to observe Halacha. The practice of Judaism is a very difficult thing to learn.

But it isn’t only Baalei Teshuva who make mistakes. There is much Halacha that can be misinterpreted even by the most learned FFB among us, let alone someone new to the enterprise. No one is immune from making an error in Halacha, even in the relatively universally observed areas of Kashrus and Shabbos, the two most significant “tags” of Orthodox observance. Yet the FFB is far more concerned about the error of a BT then he is about his own error or that of his FFB neighbor. This is something the FFB should really think about before casting aspersions on a BT's level of observance.

I think this might be related to a factor which though it exists, is exaggerated by the FFB community. And it is a serious problem. Some people come to the observance for other than altruistic reasons. Those reasons are so varied that it would probably take a book to describe them all. Just to cite a few:

There are people with emotional problems, people from abusive backgrounds, and people with personality problems. We accept all comers, as we should. But one who works in Kiruv must be careful. In some cases there are people with problems so severe that they need psychiatric help and should never be handled by a Kiruv worker alone. This is very important. And if one encounters such a BT, it adds to the myth. And it is often generalized to the entire BT population. But it is a myth. The social misfit is the exception not the rule. This cannot be emphasized enough.

Fears that the origins ot the typical BT is rooted in social dysfunction lead many an FFB to distance himself from a BT. Shuiduchim are a good example of where such attitudes have an impact. It is rare for an FFB parent to encourage a child to date and eventually marry a BT. Shadchanim usually try and avoid making Shiduchim between FFBs and BTs. This is no doubt due to some of the stereotypical views that Shadchnim and FFB parents have about BTs coming from dysfunctional life situations.

The biggest “pitfall” is not them.. It is… ‘us’. Can the FFB truly accept the BT as one of their own? Indeed, many a BT has told me that they never feel fully accepted. In part it is because they feel a lack of knowledge. But more importantly, it is because of the above mentioned commonly held misperceptions. That is the real problem. Some of those perceptions are accurate, some only partially accurate, but mostly they are totally false! But the image is, never-the-less perpetuated by the unfair but common stereotype. The thinking by the FFB who is averse to a child dating an FFB is that something terrible will happen if a Shiddach with a BT goes through. The differences in background are too great. The negative background will at some point rear its ugly head. And as long as there is this level of “standoffishness” there can be no real improvement in the situation Avakesh describes.

This attitude that must change. While some of these fears are legitimate, an individual’s character is far more important. I will take the character of a sincere BT who came to Torah searching for Emes anytime(!) over that of a FFB who operates out of rote behavior. That is my role model. The BT may be missing some of the “perks” of the FFB but those perks are not important, in my view. Halacha can be learned. It is sincerity that matters more then where one comes from.

And this is one thing that far too many of the FFB world has yet to understand. One of my closest friends is a BT. In fact I know quite a few BTs that are good friends. And I am in awe of all of them. They came to Torah through a search for Emes.

Torah Jewry needs to unlearn their biases and learn to love his fellow Jew for what he is, not for what he was... and to recognize Baalei Teshuva for the role models they are. The BT who is a social misfit is the exception not the rule. If we can achieve complete integration into the Torah world of all Baalei Teshuva, the problems described by Avakesh will disappear.