Friday, January 04, 2019

Jewish Outreach Done Right

A still from 'Reflected Light' (Photo: Raaya Vardi Teboule - from Tablet)
I believe that Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and I share similar perspectives on Judaism. Although we do sometimes disagree, I find those disagreements to be rare. Two of his recent Cross Currents articles on the subject of Baalei Teshuva resonated with me. The first one, posted on December 2nd generated my own thoughts on the subject. And so too has the 2nd one. One with which I generally also agree.

The issue at hand is whether a Baal Teshuva needs to entirely reject his past in order to be fully committed to the religious life. Rabbi Adelrstein’s original answer was no. A religious Jew need not eschew everything that secular society has to offer. A Baal Teshuva need not reject his entire past. He may in fact retain much of his former life that does not conflict with Halacha – and perhaps more importantly can inform his own religious values so that he can actually improve his observance. 

Rabbi Adlerstein was later surprised by a comment made by an individual that rejected that notion. And he felt the need to respond in a separate post. Which he did.

Here in significant part is what that individual said:: 
99% of what a BT (or a curious, adolescent Beis Yaakov student) gains from or observes in the secular world is quite harmful for a Torah lifestyle. It’s true that a few hobbies, disciplines, or say, classical music appreciation have value and are sometimes things we lack, but think of what most people in the secular world are immersed in – movies, pro sports, rock music, video games, etc. (much much worse in the “etc.”). For the vast majority of people I really can’t see the transition from secular to BT as a modest refurb, but something much more resembling a major tearing down... the change has to be a drastic one of rejecting so much of what they valued and ran after in the past. 
Rabbi Adlerstein’s response in part read: 
The commenter is spot on regarding what we might call pop culture. That is probably what he meant. We must caution, however, that there are plenty in our community that make the mistake of applying his words to literally “99% of what a BT… gains from or observes in the secular world.” That is a horrible, horrible error. Regrettably, it is an occupational hazard of hanging out in parts of the charedi world that harbor an excess of bitul – of the need to tear down, undervalue, mock, and disparage everything outside their precincts.

I obviously agree with him. Although we might quibble about some parts of pop culture. I do not believe it is anywhere near 99%. But I do agree that much of it – perhaps even most of it is anathema to our values.

The question arises, Is this what people involved in Jewish outreach preach? … a complete disavowal of one’s past? As though everything in it at best has no value and at worst is extremely harmful to our spirituality?

I’m afraid the answer is yes. At least among that segment that operates out of the more extreme right wing - with the possible exception of Chabad. In far too many instances a Baal Teshuva is eventually convinced that his past was so mired in anti Torah values that it has to be purged. Old friends must be discarded. Irreligious parents should not be seen in any ways as role models. In some cases - which I believe are rare but do exist - Baalei Teshuva are told to reject their irreligious parents entirely for fear they will convince them to revert to his old life style. 

Indeed, I’m sorry to report that the highly regarded Posek, R’ Yitzchok Silberstein of Bnei Brak told a Baal Teshuva to not allow his children to visit their irreligious grandparents for precisely that reason. Fearing their negative influence.

According to this perspective, a Baal Teshuva must work very hard to rid himself of every last vestige of his past. I have no clue if the above-mentioned comment made to Rabbi Adlerstein was made by someone that is a Baal Teshuva himself. But clearly that is the message being constantly preached by the right. Including by those among them that do outreach.

Which is why Rabbi Adlerstein wrote his original article. It was based on a Tablet article discussing the problems faced by by Baalei Teshuva and their children later on in life. To just mention two quotes from the Tablet article: 
Baalei teshuvah have to hide parts of their soul from their children…If they don’t want their children to know what they did when they were secular, they have to hide not only their biography but also parts of their soul…
They say that it takes chozrim b’teshuvah around 15 years to start asking themselves, where did we come to? Why did we throw away our culture, philosophy, literature, music?… Many of them start a process of self examination… They start understanding that they will never be able to be Haredi and that their true identity is that of baalei teshuvah. 
I would not go so far as to say that outreach by the right wing is a complete failure. I think they are for the most part pretty successful. At the same time there is a lot of second guessing by Baalei Teshuva going on later in life. This doesn’t mean that they will revert to their past. I doubt that most of them do. Although I’m sure some have. But their children often begin to wonder about it without having made the spiritual journey their parents did. They might be in greater danger than their parents of rejecting it all.

The truth is that becoming religious from a past that was free of any such encumbrances is not an easy transition to make. There is a lot to learn. Feelings of inferiority about that abound. But one difficulty many Baalei Teshuva experience need not be as difficult as they are led to believe. They do not need to reject everything. They can still embrace much of their past lives as long as it does not conflict with Halacha.  They should even be informed that the secular world has much to offer a religious Jew. And much of that might even enhance their religious lives.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch certainly believed that. I am also reminded of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s comment about his appreciation of English Literature which he said made him better understand certain portions of Tanach. I am also reminded about the reaction by one Rosh HaYeshiva of the right that disparaged him for saying that. Which in microcosm is what this debate is all about.

One thing all religious Jews should be cognizant of is the famous Gemara that unequivocally states the following: If someone tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe him! That seems to have been forgotten by far too many members of the right.

Thankfully not all Orthodox Jewish outreach operates on the basis that everything not Jewish is inherently evil. I believe that they are the ones that are the most successful in creating the kind of Baal Teshuva that successfully integrates the positive of his past with the religious requirements of his present. Which ultimately makes for a much healthier life experience for them and for their children.