Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mistreating the Baal Teshuva

There is an important article in Arutz Sheva that deserves everyone’s attention. It deals with the Baal Teshuva Movement - a movement that has been described by some as a revolution. Rabbi Francis Nataf shares his insights on the movement which are based on his own 30 year experience - at first as a Baal Teshuva and then as active member of ‘the revolution’.

If Rabbi Nataf’s description is accurate, then there is an aspect of it this movement that is less than flattering. Far less!

I have written about my admiration of Baalei Teshuva before. I stand in awe of them. Unfortunately not everyone feels that way. In Many cases it is just ignorance. But when rabbis directly involved in outreach are the ones short-changing them it is particularly grievous. I am sure these rabbis are altruistic. I realize that the vast majority of them are sincere about bringing Jews back to Judaism. But at another level they are very condescending and that is plain wrong.

According to Rabbi Nataf - Baalei Teshuva are often recruited to become involved in outreach themselves. But this description from an article in Arutz Sheva of how they are treated is very troubling:

Of course, on a technical level, ba’alei teshuva were trained and sent out to be outreach workers. At the same time, the framers of that revolution were too scared to really let these people loose. Instead, these ba’alei teshuva were trained in the ways of thought of the Orthodox community. They were told that they didn’t know enough to develop their own vision of Judaism: “We, who know more than you, will tell you what Judaism is all about; we are not interested in your opinion.” Thus, the leaders chose to use the cultural language and professional abilities of their ba’al teshuva protégés, but not their intellectual creativity and personal essence. In short, they were told to just translate, not to create. “And there was the rub” and perhaps the tragedy.

And it gets worse:

Both within and without the ba’al teshuva institution where I taught, some charismatic and otherwise inspiring teachers were telling my students things that stretched their credibility to the point that if they were ever to present some of these things to their non-Orthodox friends and families back home, they would be considered lunatics. The point here is that they were told things that certainly did not fit in with these students’ ways of thinking, and the result was that this furthered the student’s feeling that they could not trust their own intellects or their intuitions.

I can’t imagine the confusion and hurt that these kinds of things must generate. The condescension is palpable. The mind control is blatant. I’m surprised that anyone stays with it.

They are molded like clay. The message is that no matter how learned Baalei Teshuva become they nonetheless have no Mesorah. They do not have any religious laws and principles transmitted via their parents or grandparents. As Rabbi Nataf points out:

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (a Baal Teshuva himself) has been disqualified as a leader by some, due to his lack of Mesorah.

So what is the goal for these Kiruv rabbis?

Though the hope was perhaps to create the Maharal’s golem, who would serve his master’s ends, it must have occurred to more than one rabbi that the golem could in fact turn out to be Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, who would eventually turn on his master. Apparently, a third choice - of creating someone who would ultimately become benignly independent - was not seriously considered.

As a result, and certainly leshem shamayim, there was a need to control the movement and make sure that it would not turn into a negative force...

Of course that can happen and there does need to be guidance to the newly observant. But that does not mean that there has to be condescension and control that stifles creativity, weakens enthusiasm, and dampens the spirit. This ultimately does a disservice to individuals who deserve much better - individuals we should all stand in awe of.

I do not believe this approach is universal in Kiruv. NCSY does not treat its newly religious that way at all. They are always encouraged to find their way in the branch of Orthodoxy they find most meaningful.

But in the movement Rabbi Nataf describes - it seems to be all about control. And it is succeeding:

As one of the ba’alei teshuva who refused to go with the flow, I remember more antagonism from my peers than from my rebbeim - which was an indication that the control mechanisms had worked and that the movement would go, and continues to go, the way of the compliant majority...

Rabbi Nataf has found his way out of what he calls ‘authoritarian structure’ - where Baalei teshuva are indoctrinated not to trust their own intuitions or feelings. He has joined the ranks of Modern Orthodoxy and received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University.

Not that this is the only way out. For those who are not so compliant there are other options some of which mean leaving observance altogether. In other cases Chasidus is found or mainstream Charedi Yeshivos. It is too bad that dedicated people are so determined to control the minds of the people they reach out to. Because this seriously taints a very noble cause.