One of the most fascinating things to me is when a secular Jew becomes a Baal Teshuva. Even more fascinating is when a non Jew converts to Judaism. On the other hand it is just as fascinating to me when a religious Jew becomes irreligious. And perhaps the most fascinating of all, are the people who become religious and then go back to being irreligious. For purposes of this post, I am defining religious as Orthodox.
I have always had a keen interest in people who are motivated to so drastically change their lives. For reasons I cannot go into, I was today reminded of a fellow who became religious through Lubavitch, was ordained as a rabbi by them and was as sincere about his Judaism and Chabad as anyone could be. And now he is totally irreligious, a secular Jew. In his case it was a traumatic life event that appears to have thrown him off.
The reason I am so fascinated by people that become religious Jews, whether as a Baal Teshuva or a convert, is that they saw something in Judaism that so appealed to them, that they were willing totally abandon the former lives… and their communities – in favor of an entirely new lifestyle and community.
They have left the comfort zone of their formerly permissive lives and loving families to embrace a lifestyle that their parents and friends sometimes ridiculed. A lifestyle of new laws and regulations that make lives a lot harder to live than the ones they were leading before. I realize that are many reasons why they change their lives so drastically. Like escaping family dysfunction. But why must one change their lives in order to escape dysfunction? Why embrace Judaism with all its strictures? Why not just leave?
There must have been something they saw in Judaism that appealed to them. It must have been very compelling. Indeed there are many compelling reasons why someone might want to lead a Jewishly observant lifestyle. One might say that they see in Judaism how highly the idea of family is valued. Something illustrated by something as simple as a Shabbos meal.
But at it’s heart, I have to believe that the choice has to be an intellectual one. They must see a truth in Judaism that they do not see anywhere else. It is especially gratifying when someone that was religious in another faith abandons it in favor of Judaism’s truths. For those of us that are born into a religious family, it is inspiring to see others discover its truths and it justifies the belief system we were all born into and never questioned. Just accepted without most of us ever thinking about it.
On the other side of the coin, why do people that are religious leave Judaism? There is much discussion about this phenomenon and probably as many reasons why someone religious leaves as there are for someone that comes in. But I have to believe the same thing is true about them that is true about Baalei Teshuva and converts. They have discovered a different version of the truth. One where they erroneously conclude that God does not exists and Judaism was made up by man.
And then there are those that became religious and later left. Why?
I stand in awe of those that become religious – whether as Baalei Teshuva or as converts. They came to observant Judaism ultimately because they saw it as truth. Sacrificing a past full of freedoms that they can no longer enjoy for the sake of truth is something that I truly admire.
But I do not stand in awe of those that left observance. Even though they did so because they saw their own version of the truth which I believe is mistaken. I actually feel bad for them and hope that they will eventually see the greater truth of the Torah, despite the fact that they now see it as a fantasy. I also feel bad for them because they gave up something very precious aside from the truth. A lifestyle that generally exudes warmth and embraces family values in exchange for the cold and impersonal lifestyle that an atheist or skeptic often leads. (Unless they continue to live as religious Jews while privately not believing in it.)
I think of Shulem Deen who dropped observance for intellectual reasons. He is paying a heavy price for that in the lonely life he now leads - if one is to believe his memoir. Which I do.
I have always wondered about how 2 very bright individuals seeking truth can come to such opposite conclusions. And most of all when a Baal Teshuva goes back to an irreligious lifestyle, what happens to the truth they discovered when they first embraced Judaism?
For those who have left observance for intellectual reasons, please do not consider this post an opportunity to argue for your beliefs. Those comments will be deleted. Thank you.