Fear Within, Fear Without (Ideas #118)

A Digest of My Remarks at Last Month’s DCA Seminar 
on the Ba’al Teshuva Movement)

Since my personal journey to Orthodoxy almost thirty years ago, I have almost always kept a foot in the world of the ba’al teshuva.  Both as an on-again off-again teacher in one of Jerusalem’s ba’al teshuva programs and as a Shabbat host for just about every ba’al teshuva program in the city, I have been able to keep my finger on the pulse of this fascinating movement.


One of the things that drew many people like me to the Ba’al Teshuva Movement was the feeling that we were going to somehow change the world. In fact, I remember the glee we all felt when one of our Roshei Yeshiva, referring to this movement, proclaimed “It’s a revolution!”

But what was this revolution and exactly how were we meant to change the world? Very simply, the great hope was that we would turn the tide of assimilation and movement away from tradition – that we would somehow provide the bridge to bring back the lion’s share of world Jewry to a renascent Orthodoxy. Since we, the ba’alei teshuva, would be able to speak the language of our Reform or Conservative or secular friends and families, we would be able to win them over to what we found so exciting. It appears that the confident young rabbis who engineered the movement really believed that the future belonged to Orthodoxy – that it was only a matter of time until the movement would win over the majority of the Jewish people. This was certainly an exciting vision and an empowering one, particularly for us, their disciples; – we understood that we were the critical link in the transformation of Jewish society and through it, possibly the whole world. We were given a historical dream – a dream that, at the end of the day, its dreamers did not dare to play out.

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 it – 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.  Granted, a person who knows nothing about the Jewish tradition cannot offer an intelligent opinion after two months in yeshiva. But my point is that the framers of the Ba’al Teshuva Movement were not interested in ever hearing some sort of new synthesis of the ba’al teshuva. Even if the ba’al teshuva continued his Torah studies to a higher level, one of the keys to his success in the system was to stop being a ba’al teshuva. (So much so, that Rav Steinsaltz has been disqualified as a leader by some, due to his lack of “mesora.”)

Lest we think that asking the ba’al teshuva for his own independent approach to Judaism is a wild suggestion, we should look back at Jewish history and note that often, and especially at critical periods of transformation, it has been the ba’al teshuva or another type of outsider that has been the one to see Judaism freshly enough to reinvigorate it and to give it the new creative impetus to move forward. This is certainly true of the first Jew, Avraham Avinu. It is also true of all of the Emahot. As I have written, and am writing more about in my next volume on Shemot, Moshe Rabbenu did not grow up in a Jewish home, let alone a Jewishly observant one. Rebbe Eliezer and his student, Rebbe Akiva – perhaps the two greatest rabbis of the Talmudic period and certainly among the main architects of rabbinic Judaism – were both ba’alei teshuva. 

Of course, ancient precedents to the side,  the architects of this movement must have been aware that no one would know exactly what would come out of the this new movement – that it was a risk. 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 shamyim, there was a need to control the movement and make sure that it would not turn into a negative force, something  we should not summarily discount. And so, one finds a veteran rabbi in the field giving the following advice (and I don’t mean to imply that what he is saying has no place): “I would venture to say that (like ba’alei teshuva) most Jews raised in religious homes also don’t have a Rav to guide them. (but ba’alei teshuva are in greater need of someone to tell them) how to really live their lives, since ba’al teshuvas (sic) don’t have that frum parental and grandparental wisdom to rely on.” Another rabbi warns ba’alei teshuva about the likelihood that they will experience “spiritual vertigo, which will prevent us (the ba’alei teshuva) from “know(ing) whether we’re up or down” and so this rabbi tells them explicitly “not to trust their own judgment.” In other words, the only one that the ba’al teshuva can really rely upon is, not himself, but someone from within the system. And as these ba’alei teshuva became parents and started to send their children to school, their insecurity only became compounded by their own children, who reinforced this message and questioned the values and instincts of their parents, summarized so beautifully in the Hebrew by the statement commonly aimed at these erstwhile revolutionary parents, “  Atem lo yodeim mehahayim shelachem.”

That many of the ba’alei teshuva had been looking to find clear answers in a general society that was turning more and more away from clarity, prompted them to accept such an unusually authoritarian structure, wherein ba’alei teshuva were encouraged, as we just saw, not to trust their intuitions or feelings.

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. In response to this, I would always tell the students that if you hear something that forces you to twist yourself into a pretzel – for goodness sake, question it! Find out if it’s the only view and consider whether you really can respect yourself for accepting it.

And occasionally, some students were willing to hear this. A student of mine wrote the following about what she was coming to accept: “I have been learning to be confident with my decisions. That Judaism endows man with the strength to use his mind. Instead of looking for a short cut to the truth, which is what I had been doing until I came in contact with this approach…, I have to trust myself and maybe take the longer route or the one less traveled on. I have to be intellectually honest. What does that mean to me? It means to be real about life. Instead of just swallowing what’s being taught, it means asking questions. It means challenging foundations and hypotheses. It means being okay with the discomfort of not having all the answers....” But, like her teacher, this student was the exception to the rule.

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 and would leave those like me to find our own way.  And so we did – some bitterly went back to their former lives and others went to Jewish studies departments in universities, while still others went to various segments of established Orthodoxy – strains of chassidut, mainstream charedi yeshivot or, as in my case, Zionist and Modern Orthodox yeshivot. Thus, the ones who were willing to chart their own course dispersed to various corners and allowed the others to inherit a movement which, even more than the rest of Orthodoxy, values conformity and subordination.


To say that the Ba’al Teshuva Movement has developed in a way that has not fulfilled its revolutionary potential is not to discount its important accomplishments, nor to take away from the talents and hard work of those involved in it, both the teachers and the students. I remember hearing that the goal of one of the major Roshei Yeshiva in the movement was simply to stop every Jew that he could from intermarriage - and for thousands of Jews, that this movement has done, and much more.  Moreover, by and large, ba’alei teshuva have brought a sincerity and a seriousness to the Orthodox world, the positive impact of which cannot be denied. No doubt, these are major contributions and should be viewed with respect and gratitude by all of us, all the more so by those of us directly affected.

Thus, even such as it is, the movement had done a great deal. My question, however, is “could the movement not do much more?” Could it not have really sparked the revolution it sought? Unfortunately, I think the answer is no. Letting the movement do what I and others here tonight would like, involves tremendous risks. And it appears that we are not willing to take those risks.

At the end of the day, however, even if Orthodoxy’ current unwillingness to take these risks is understandable, it does not take away from the fact that not taking risks may end up being the biggest risk of all.