BT Vertigo


Vertigo is a term that jet pilots use to describe spatial disorientation. When a pilot approaches the sound barrier, strange things can occur, especially on a clear-day’s flight over water. The pilot is liable to become disoriented, and to confuse the blue of the sea with the blue of the sky, and vice versa. Some pilots become dizzy and others elated; in any event, vertigo can make a pilot think that up is down and down is up.

The laws of the material world apply to the spiritual world as well. The best of the Baalei Tshuva resemble jet pilots: Thirsty for Hashem and His Torah, they cruise at supersonic spiritual speeds. A good BT’s takeoff in Yiddishkeit – let’s say his or her initial thrust and climb in spiritual altitude – would make even a strong FFB’s head spin. But, as in jet flight, the faster a BT ascends and cruises, the more critical any tiny mistake in judgment or spiritual navigation becomes.

Today, jet pilots undergo rigid training to prevent vertigo. They learn to trust their avionics – those sophisticated flight instruments that show a pilot the course, speed, altitude, and position of the airplane’s axes in relation to the earth, including a screen that displays an artificial horizon – and not to trust their own judgment. That way, pilots can know whether they’re “up” or “down”.

Our sages require us to attach ourselves to a qualified and competent rav and spiritual guide. For an aspiring BT, a good personal rav is probably the single most important assurance of success. None of us can be objective about ourselves; we are all subject to “spiritual” vertigo, and oftentimes can’t know whether we’re up or down. The more we stubbornly trust our own judgment, the more we’re liable to make serious mistakes in life. Spiritual vertigo can lead to miserable crackups.

On too many occasions, I’ve witnessed how a BT cruising at spiritual Mach 2 without the guidance of a rav leaves his or her spouse grounded on the runway. I’ve seen the tragedy of a BT trying to learn 16 hours of Gemorra a day – also without the guidance of an experienced spiritual mentor – and then nosedive into a burnout. Under the illusions of spiritual vertigo, a BT is liable to think that he or she is headed for the clouds when in reality the opposite is true.
In my own personal experience, I would hate to imagine the outcome of my forming decisions without the guidance of my own rav and spiritual guide, the Melitzer Rebbe shlit’a. To paraphrase an old Abraham Lincoln expression, one who acts as one’s own spiritual guide has a fool for a pupil.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev writes (Sichos HaRan, 68), that a person can become completely disoriented in this world – literally insane – without a spiritual guide. A trusty, knowledgeable, and saintly spiritual guide can keep anyone on an even keel and a steady path of success that avoids dangerous “plateuing” and spiritual burn-out.

If you don’t as yet have a spiritual guide, keep your eyes open for an individual of intelligence, modesty, wisdom, faith, and impeccable character. Make sure that your prospective spiritual guide has a rav and guide of his own. If you have access to such a person and trust his judgment, then chances are that you’ve found the right spiritual guide for you. May Hashem protect us all from spiritual vertigo, help us navigate this world safely, and redeem us speedily and in our days, amen.

21 comments on “BT Vertigo

  1. “Our sages require us to attach ourselves to a qualified and competent rav and spiritual guide. For an aspiring BT, a good personal rav is probably the single most important assurance of success.”

    Your article is fine but I don’t agree with the comment above. Your best guide to success is the halacha. If you stay within the halacha you are doing great. I found over the years that going to a rav was usually a mistake, certainly a random rav who doesn’t understand BTs or baal habatim for that matter. As for finding a personal rav, that’s not so easy. Some people need a rav. Some do better on their own – not entirely on their own, but generally. There’s no simple rule here.

    Also, you can go a long way with books to developing a personal derech. Try R Samson Raphael Hirsch or R Avigdor Miller. They have reams of writings and provide good pointers on how to be a Jew in the modern world.

  2. Let me follow up and second one of the posts about having a rav . The rav who I consider my rebbe muvhak is fond of saying that having a rav means that you follow him to the extent that you look at yourself in the mirror and you can ask “what would my rebbe tell me” in this context without even asking him based upon what you have learned from him.In other words, while having a rav is very important, you have to learn what issues require his consultation and which issues you can figure out based upon what he has imparted to you. It is often a question of judgment.

  3. Finding a rav for many , if not all of us, means not just someone who is a great Talmid Chacham, but someone who is a listener , intellectually honest , appreciates your background and won’t dismiss your perspective, and will be available to help you even in the gravest circumstances . This is especially so because your background is nowhere as deep as the rav. I think that the key is that all of these rabbanim know the proverbial ‘fifth section of Shukchan Aruch” ( i.e. common sense) as well as they know Shas and the rest of Shulchan Aruch.

    I have been lucky to find rabbanim who meet these criteria. However, where there are serious issues that implicate mental health concerns, etc, any competent rav who deals with BTs should have the name of a frum therapist , etc in his Rolodex. There is a wonderful organization of frum mental helath professionals called Nefesh. They interact with major Gdolim and Rabbanim on all of these issues. Their members cross all hashkafic lines in the frum community. Their conferences are remarkable for their members being able to park their hashkafic differences at the doors of the meeting place.

  4. I heard you speak in Passaic. I was only able to hear you for about 10 minutes or so. My post is short and simple(?). My wife and I recently feel that we lost our Rav after almost a year and ahalf and feel a bit dioriented — your story about flying at Mach 2 –well we aren’t going that fast, but we need some help. We are in a large Yeshair community of Passaic, and we really thought we had a Rav that spoke to both of — then well I can’t go into all the ins and outs, but its been like two or three months and we don’t get emails, or returned calls — anyway, we don’t know where to begin our search for a Rav.
    We are both new parents to boot (six month son at home). I was wondering if there was ANY way you could help us?


  5. When I started my return to Judaism I found a Rav to get me started…..I knew that we didn’t click on a deep level…but I learned what was needed to live a kosher life.

    Eventually I needed a Rav to really connect to….I was part of a community that didn’t have a Rav in the shul….a sefardi shul….going to our brothers …the Ashkenazim… where a Rabbi could be found felt a bit odd….because I needed a Sefardi Rav.

    I prayed hard…..” PLease Hash-m….if it is at all possible….please send a Rav to our shul….one I/we can connect to “. Within a year a Rav came….an ex rosh yeshiva who not only knows his stuff but has a heart like a warm , glowing fire….b ‘li ayin hara.

    Please never give up…..please never judge others by what they lack….see what they do well….pray for them….pray for yourselves that H can send a guide to you…and look for one too. Look around you and see where you are….Thank G-d !

    At some point we must stand alone…take responsibility for our lives….not every thing you do or think needs clearance from a Rav….halachic questions for sure….spiritual or emotional guidance ?….not always…..some things are up to us to do / experience…learn…..grow from. My good freinds are my Rav sometimes.Sometimes my Rav is my good friend too….a double Rav.

    Hatzlacha……don’t stop moving.


  6. I agree that a Rabbi should be honest if he feels out of his league on an issue he is approached with. Probably many are helped by this direction. However, being sent off for “frum psychotherapy” isn’t everybody’s answer.
    Psychiatry, Psychology and Social Work are not in themselves based on Torah. While a frum practitioner may try to use a style that incorporates religious hashkafa, this is not the same as looking to the Jewish texts (or a Rabbi who can help interpret them) for guidance. From my experience and reports of others, advice given by mental health practitioners can sometimes contradict our mesorah.
    Apart from this, as a BT who is undergoing a continuous lifestyle change, part of that change is looking to Torah for answers about how to live and how to think. I have found the therapy solution unsatisfying, although I am aware that it has become popular to refer to therapy (especially concerning chinuch issues).
    Also, apart from the small minority of therapists with smicha, how many Rabbaim who are referring to therapy are really familiar with the foundations and practice? If they were, I wonder if replacing spiritual guidance with psychotherapeutic guidance would have gained so much favor. JMHO. Chana

  7. Mrs. Newcomb- here here

    “Mehn ken choruv machen der gantsa velt, loifindik tsu tohn ah Mitzvah= One can destroy the entire world while running to do a mitzvah”
    -Rav Yisroel Salanter

    Or as we say in the American Shtetl

    “The path to hell is paved with good intentions”

  8. I had a situation recently where I needed serious guidance and turned to a well-respected Rav. He heard me out, sympathized with my feelings and situation, and explained to me that this problem belongs with a frum psychologist, not a Rav. Although initially disappointed, I appreciated his honesty.

    Especially since in the past there were Rabbaim who only out of meaning well, tried to play “doctor”, but despite all their true caring and good intentions, were not up to the task. People have to know their limits.

    The Rav was right about his assessment of course, and a frum psychologist (many hold Semicha as well) has been extremely helpful and effective. That would go for adults and children as well where needed.

  9. (I can’t do this on my own, but if I don’t find some rav or connection in the next few months, I may leave frumkeit until moshiach comes and cleans up all this mess.)
    TO BT in NY
    Your reply could have been written by my son, who graduated yeshiva feeling that he could not connect to any rav. Attempts to connect him since then have been unsuccessful and he has given up many aspects of orthodox practice, although, like you, he still holds the fundamentals. His main complaint was that the rabbaim in yeshiva would not seriously address issues he wanted to discuss. If rabbaim brought up some of these contemporary issues it would only be to discuss them in a narrow way, without really allowing the bachurim to discuss what was on their minds.
    Perhaps the issue is in the Rabbinic training. Almost any Rabbi can answer a halachic shaila. But many of us, especially in the BT world, need more than that, and I think your perception of Rabbi as surrogate father was probably on target. Our family has gone through many attempts to connect to Rabbaim, and many have been helpful, others hurtful. There have been desperate times when I felt that I would never find a rav who could help our situation.
    One thing I find useful to remember is that our nisayon in life comes often through our relationships with others. Those nisayon relate directly to some middah that we need to work on. Accepting this has given me a sense of calm; knowing that what seems chaotic and impossibly painful to me is still Hashem’s hand directing everything according to plan and for my ultimate benefit. Hatzlocha to you, and please remember you are not alone.

  10. BT in NY

    I had a similar experience. All I can say is that I saw it as a nisoyon sent from Hashem to test if my committment based on my unconscious need to have a parent figure or was it becasue I had true emunah? Thank G-d, I realized that one’s connection needs to be based primarily to Hashem, and not to a particular community or person.

    It hurts when those role models we looked up to fall off their pedestals, but it is an important stage in ‘growing up’ as a frum Jew when eventually we must stand on our own, internalizing what we have learned–knowing Hashem is with us at every moment.

  11. BT in NY:

    I am sad for you that you went through that experience. Sounds quite disappointing.

    I’ve had some experiences over the years where people including Rabbis or Rebbetzins disappointed me.

    My grandmother always told me “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. It’s ideal to find that “Rav”, that special person (or Rebbetzin), but it is also important as others have mentioned here, to have a support system in place. Friends, other Rabbis, sometimes frum doctors and mental health professionals. Pains and disappointments and “getting unstuck” can be easier to navigate with strong support systems in place.

    Rabbis and Rebbetzins are not perfect and neither are we. Neither are our parents and neither am I as a parent. I wish I was. But I am not, I hurt my childrens feelings, they get disappointed. I try to apologize to them and correct things as I learn more about them. They are so vulnerable. But we all have to live and learn, hopefully growing more from the experience, even when on the receiving end.

    I hope H” (who is the only perfect one) will help you heal and bring you to new relationships which will enrich your life.

  12. BT —

    Mark’s first point has to be repeated, remembered, and reviewed. Human beings have human failings, and rabbis are human beings, too.

    That having been said, the collateral damage of rabbis’ human failings can be devastating, as in your case, BT. I’ve also been profoundly disappointed by some of those whom I’ve called my rabbeim. In one case, a rav with whom I had been extremely close for years simply abandoned his principles in a misguided effort to appease an unprincipled group of people, forsaking his loyal supporters for those who would never be loyal to him. This was a bitter and disappointing episode that continues to vex me years after the fact.

    On the other hand, I’ve been fortunate to have developed a connection with a rav who has been a father to me. My wife and I have remarked often that we would have ended up divorced many times over if not for the involvement of our rav in our lives. Even now that he is literally half-way around the world, we still draw tremendous support from him.

    If I can synthesize two of Mark’s comments — use people close to you to find a rav. Ask rabbeim who are respected and relied upon by people you respect for guidance in finding your own rav, and ask those rabbis to recommend others if they are unable to “take you on” themselves.

    Don’t be shy. I’ve had people come up to me and ask frankly, “Will you be my rav.” Within the limits of one’s own ability and preexistent commitments, it’s almost impossible to say no to such a request.

    Please look for my upcoming post on cynicism. It’s easy to be cynical, and spiritual heroism often lies in resisting the inclination to give up on the world and on ourselves, in persevering in the struggle between the head and the heart.

    All the best to you, and may HaShem help you find what you need.

  13. BT In NY

    Firstly, I want to let you know that we will be contacting you via email and we will try to connect you with a good Rav.

    I think it’s important to develop friendships, as friends can provide certain types of support that Rebbeim can’t. That is why Pirkei Avos tells us to “Make for yourself a Rav; acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person on the positive side”.

    (If anybody would like to email any contributor or commentors to ask a question or develop a friendship, let us know at and we will try to put you in touch.)

    Another lesson that I try to internalize is that people are human and they can only give us what they are capable of, not always what we need. Rebbeim should usually be capable of giving more, but that is not always the case and even the very best have human limitations. The above mentioned does not excuse inappropriate behavior as you have described.

    Hang in there and we’ll be in touch.

  14. While we’re talking about having a rav, I’d like to bounce a very painful issue which I still have not resolved.

    I had a rav, a BT of impeccible character, self-actualization, knowledge and apparent sensitivity.

    I say apparent because me and several other friends in the rabbi X Hurt Club eventually figured him out to be a text-book narcissist who needs to feel in control.

    More than any BT I met, he will never acknowledge that there may be some shortcomings within contemporary frum culture.

    Those who look up to him (and to whom rabbi X warms up to) are generally emotionally uncomplicated frum people whom he can mollify in their time of need. He wants to be the perfect person – so he mechanically executes all aspects in a detached, mechanical way, including emulating emotions. Those who are not so emotionally simple don’t react as he expects when appling his “process”.

    He senses that he’s not succeeding and rather than face failure (as a nacissist), he subtley distances and cools off. I and several friends in the club were devistatingly hurt at least once at times when we were down and emotionally vunerable. He said he’d help, and either hurt, or went radio silent. Those of us who approached him later were made to feel even worse. The most we got was an elegent apology that really sounded like, “I’m so sorry for your being so stupid/sensitive. I meant no harm.”. Then he basically said “have a good evening” in a courteous, professionally distant manner that basically meant,” don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

    In my case, most of my growth in learning, doing mitzvos was patterned after him, and my hope of remaining on his A list – very similar to a parent. I think a rav’s role for a BT might not be too far off from that of a parent.

    In any case, for a few years, I was on his A list, then as I was having a tough time with dating, feeling like the only single in the shul, I no longer had the energy to want to learn or want to “grow”. My mitzva scorecard was slipping a little, and I noticed that Rabbi X was professionally pleasnt but distant

    It’s like a father who wants his son to get on the little team finds out that he didn’t make the cut at the tryouts. You know the father is disappointed. The son can sense his lack of enthusiasm and hope – now replaced by a sweet-melancholy as someone who will never be able to please his father again.

    That’s how it was for me.

    Truth is, he never should have given me such warm cues early on (he did this to feed his narcissism). If he was genuine and real, he would’ve never given me the cues, or if he did, they would have been genuine – and he would’ve been a good rav for me and my sensitive, thinking, and seeking friends.

    So now, the breech of trust, inability to address my grievance, my regard for the rabbinate as being just like any of us, and my scared hesitancy to seek out and trust will probably affect my yiddishkeit for the rest of my life.

    This rabbi did what no anti-semite could have ever done – take away my pride as a Jew. This pride was the fuel that made my davening, shul, learning, and other mitzvos seem valued and worthwhile. I used to feel like a valued fellow Jew. Now I feel like a 3rd class citizen.

    This rabbi eviscerated my pride. I keep Shabbos & Kashrus because I don’t want to turn out the lights before I feel I gave this a good shot.

    I have no philosophical questions about the fundamentals, but I am so overwhelmed by the entire experience, that Icannot daven, put on tefillin, or feel “at home” in any orthodox shul, and less so in yeshiva. It used to be the opposite.
    I’d like to, but I have a deeply negative emotional association with this now.

    I can’t do this on my own, but if I don’t find some rav or connection in the next few months, I may leave frumkeit until moshiach comes and cleans up all this mess.

    I would appreciate any thoughts on this. I’d normally publish my name, but anyone who knows me, may know who the rav is.

    Thank you.

  15. hats off to all ballei teshuva, at all costs. I stand humbled before people of strength and conviction. May your strength increase!

  16. Ditto to David Linn’s comment.

    Chaya: Perhaps you might attend some ladies’ shiurim given by women, and if one speaker particularly appeals to you, make her your rebbetzin.

  17. Rabbi Brody,

    You wrote,

    “On too many occasions, I’ve witnessed how a BT cruising at spiritual Mach 2 without the guidance of a rav leaves his or her spouse grounded on the runway. I’ve seen the tragedy of a BT trying to learn 16 hours of Gemorra a day – also without the guidance of an experienced spiritual mentor – and then nosedive into a burnout.”

    Always without the guidance of a Rav or a spiritual mentor, huh? Cause I’ve seen it all too many times with the EXPLICIT guidance and COMPLIANCE of a Rav or a spiritual mentor, and in so-called mainstream and respected BT insitutions which I dare not name on this blog for fear of certain censorship.

  18. Lazer is on target. Yet this is one of the most difficult areas for a BT. Without a network to rely on, finding a rav has been a challenge. There are no rebbies from yeshiva or seminary to look to; my family doesn’t have a relationship with anybody I can turn to. This is an area that is extremely lonesome.

    Another issue: I think a woman has a partifcularly difficult time finding a rav. The world of a rabbi is really a man’s world, and rightfully so. But it leaves us BT women isolated.

    There are poskim in my community I can call for with Kashrus shailas, but I have not been able to find someone I’m comfortable with to to answer a broader range of shailos.

    Also, as a BT, it’s taking some getting used to overconme the awkwardness of turning to someone as a guide. Yet, the isolation of a woman BT doesn’t make it any easier.

  19. The organizers of the Life After Teshuva conference said that the biggest need expressed by the participants was the need to find a Rav.

    Question – do people think that it is practical to have a Rav that one can reach only through phone calls or emails?

  20. I like this post’s central metaphor. Though I am not BT and am not cruising at supersonic speeds, I know what a difference it can make to have a rav leading the way.

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