Who Put the Baal in Baal Teshuva?

A commentor recently asked how do we define a Baal Teshuva? In the Talmud it means someone who was observant, but went off of the path and returned. Today it usually means someone whose parents where not observant, but the child became observant. But why Baal? Is anybody truly a master of Teshuva?

This year before Rosh Hoshana I asked some people why they thought the term Baal (master) was used. The most satisfying answer I receive was that we are Baalei Teshuva because we are the masters of our own return to G-d. It was not the path we were on, but at some point we took control of our lives and our Teshuva and made the conscious decisions and efforts to get closer to Hashem.

It makes sense to retain that mastery. To keep on improving and realizing that our Teshuva is always in our hands regardless of the challenges we might face. We also need to widen the circle of Baalei Teshuva to include all those who are choosing to get closer to Hashem on the path set forth in the Torah and by our sages. Although each of us individually are own masters of Teshuva, working on this collectively makes our travels easier and sweeter.

18 comments on “Who Put the Baal in Baal Teshuva?

  1. This excerpt from the Forward of “After the Return” by Rabbis Mordechai Becher and Moshe Neuman sums up a lot of what has been said here in the comments:

    “Teshuvah means return; classically it refers to reestablishing one’s relationship with God after transgresson interferes with that relationship. Every religious person experiences moral failure and thus has the need to do teshuvah to repair its consequences. In this century the term has acquired an additional application by referring to the person raised in a non-traditional home who decides to adopt traditional Jewish practice. Superficially this may seem to be a misnomer–how can he return to what he never had? But from the traditional perspective, the term is true at the deepest level. All Jewish souls stood at Sinai to hear God reveal the Ten Fundamentals; they all learn the entire Torah from the womb; and their estrangement from God due to the temporary nature of this world is an interruption in the natural intamacy that exists between the soul and its Creator. The challenge to recreate this intimacy confronts every Jew regardless of his initial level of knowledge and observance. This challenge too is teshuvah.”

  2. I like this post, and its comments, and I think I like Mordechai’s ‘chozer’ more than I have liked ‘baal’, (which I rarely use).

    To defend the work we BTs have done, let’s not deny ourselves what an accomplishment it was to learn to daven as adults; to learn what we needed to know on our own, especially those of us who did so pre-internet; to get ourselves invited to others’ Shabbat kiddushim and Pesach seder tables, embarrassed by our ignorance and poor Hebrew reading; to endure those looks we get when visiting an unfamiliar minyan, when our adult-Hebrew-class-pronunciation betrays us among a room full of Ashkenaz FFBs…

    Nonetheless, I remain uncomfortable by the word “master”.

    Just plain “Teshuva” is what I call myself, and “Returnee” to non-Hebrew speakers.

    And, as explaned above, to what we have returned is the Torah, which we were all blessed to hear originally, floating in the ethos above the sand at Sinai. That thing we all felt pulling our hearts back to Torah observance, and why Torah was comforting and empowering to us is because we heard it before. We don’t learn it, we remember it.
    That’s Teshuva, to me.

  3. Perhaps the biggest innacurate connotation of the word is that when used in the Gemara, it referes to a Jew who through poor decisions and choices fell into sin, reached a certain point, and wants to return to Hashem.
    In the case of a BT, they were likely under the category of “Tinok ShNishba”, that is, a captive child. They never had the basis of Torah knowledge or worldview to have had the bechira, free will, in most such matters. It doesn’t change the fact that usually a BT has to DO real teshuva (as in, return, since at the end of the day actions and experiences contrary to Torah do inhibit our connection to Hashem), but the reason is not because they were “sinners”.

    A person who doesn’t know isn’t responsible for their actions, excepting those of more general human morality. That a person has to always strive to return to Hashem is paramount, no matter who you are. But BTs today are not Reshaim, evil people, who begin to regret and want to go back to the good path. They just become aware of the reality at a certain point, and heroically responded.

  4. Ah, but you were there, at least your neshoma was, and still is, a part of Hashem. A BT has returned to their source, which they never really left to begin with. The pintela Yid, the spark of holiness within each neshoma is one with Hashem’s essence.

  5. Shalom all!

    Since I ‘introduced’ the term chozer b’teshuvah into the discussion, I’ll respond to RachelR. I apologize for being so brief.

    Basically, as Yoel Ben Avraham already noted above, Rav Kook describes the notion of teshuvah as returning to our ‘root’. All of our souls received the Torah at Sinai (appropo the sedra we just read). Torah is nothing strange to us at the deepest (or highest) spiritual level-the ‘root’. We’re simply returning to the ‘root’ and roots that have been ours all along. I always thought of it as someone who discovers an inherited fortune they never knew they had. It *was* always theirs, but they had to become cognizant of it and claim it.

    BTW, the verb ‘lashuv’ means to return or turn back (yes, DK, some of us were encouraged to relate to the holy language as to the rest of Torah). So, whether we use ‘baal’ or ‘chozer’, the core piece ‘teshuvah’ means the same-returning.

    many blessings,

  6. I do not really see how either term is appropriate. I mean, I understand how baal teshuvah could be appropriate as we are the masters of our teshuvah, but chozer b’tshuvah? How can we return if we never new the derech of Hashem and Torah? How can you be returning if you were never there to begin with?

  7. I think that the term “Baal teshuvah” is a correct term and I would argue even less laden with sociological jargon, etc than a Chozer teshuvah because the term Baal teshuvah is mentioned in the Talmud in numerous instances.That issue in my mind is utterly unconnected to the methods that focus on hashkafa or amputation at the expense of textual literacy.

    I haven’t seen a direct answer for Mark’s query, but I think that the Rambam offers some inquiry in his delineation of one’s abilities between Moshe Rabbeinu and Yeravam Ben Navat.I think that the Brisker Rav commented on this Rambam in the following vein. We are all born with a certain personality, quirks, idiocyncracies, etc, None of us will ever rise to the levels of a Moshe Rabbeinu or fall to the level of a Yravam as they are described in the Torah and Nach. Yet, in our own ways, based upon our own personality and nature, we can reach the heights of greatness or the sink pretty low. One who realizes his or her potential, despite some early shortcomings, etc is a “master” of their potential.

    I think that I previously mentioned that Rav Soloveitchik ZTL stated it is fairly obvious by the fact that the Talmud describes two types of teshuvah ( ahavaha and yirah) that teshuvah at least has these two trajectories in addition to all of the means described by the Neviim that we summarize at the end of Slichos.I think that it is important to recognize that different methods work for different people and that the Neviim and Chazal certainly were aware of this premise.

  8. DK,

    If I recall correctly, you previously debated with the author of “Toward a Subtler Nonconformity” even though his very premise was that individuality doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a dress code. As such, I’m not quite sure how it is you think this blog makes individuality sound like a dress code.

    I actually do disagree that “plenty” of “mainstream BT yeshivas” advocate what you call amputation. That is not to say that there are not problems with some of the yeshivas (I happen to agree that there is often a great emphasis on hashkafa at the expense of language and textual skills, for instance). I also think that, oftentimes, the amputation approach is undertaken by the misguided BT himself and not the yeshiva he happens to be attending.

    I’m a bit confused by your point that:
    “It’s not a conspiracy theory, because I am not claiming it was created by a cabal or was coordinated in any organized way. But it is hardly “human failure.” It is a movement.”

    The fact that you call it a “movement” and that “They still share a similair process to get them there, and still benefit from employing this shared terminology upon their recruits” indicates that it is a coordinated, widespread plan. Sounds like a conspiracy to me.

    I am also confused by your point that encouraging the “amputation approach” is a benefit for the kiruv yeshivas. Wouldn’t they have a much easier “sell” (if, indeed they were selling) if they said, Hey, you don’t have to trash your prior life to become religious?

    I think there are issues in kiruv that need to be discussed. I think many of them are being discussed. I don’t think that broadbrushing the entire movement is either proper or constructive.

  9. I actually saw a gemara, I think it was in Avoda Zara, that explained that members of the Seven Nations encountered outside the Land of Israel should not be ‘eradicated’. The reason, because they “chazru b’tshevuah”. Rav Kok (someplace, sorry) describes it as “returning to our source/root” so in essence, even a NON-JEW who recognized HaShem and abides by his will (as these Canannim did by leaving the land) are “Chozrim b’Tshevuah”

  10. It isn’t just about their inviduality. That suggests it sounds like just dress code. (At least on this blog.)

    It is also about their past, and how they are encouraged to perceive their past, and what they did. Before.

    It is about either a rejection of Before or synthesis. Radical amputation or cautious (and limited) excision.

    It is about stopping your life instead of a continuum.

    You wrote,

    “I also don’t think that most people are advocating the wholesale disposal of our “pre-frum” lifes. Indeed, it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of posters and commenters here on the blog are advising to avoid such an approach.”

    Many (though not the “overwhelming majority”)do not do so HERE, but go into plenty of “mainstream” BT yeshivas, and they do just that. Do you really disagree?

    Your wrote,

    “However, to couch such human failures as a widespread scheme dreamed up to create an army of well-trained religious lapdogs sounds like a conspiracy theory ran amok.”

    It’s not a conspiracy theory, because I am not claiming it was created by a cabal or was coordinated in any organized way. But it is hardly “human failure.” It is a movement. And it is implicit, because it fits well with the frequent perception of how to process a Jew who doesn’t come from a religious background and now wants to be religious in order to elicit a particular type of religiousity. The fact that different Haredi groups have varying and nuanced visions of that end product (a “BT”) does not counter what I am saying. They still share a similair process to get them there, and still benefit from employing this shared terminology upon their recruits.

    You asked,

    “I don’t think that learning torah and doing mitzvos are mutually exclusive from breaking with the negative or non-conducive aspects of one’s past. Why do you think it needs to be one or the other? Why not both?”

    Because you can’t focus on both equally. Because the primary focus will have to choose one or the other, at least when the goal of one or the other conflicts. And time constraints alone demands that they do conflict. Law of scarce resources.

    So for instance — if the primary goal is learning Torah, I would say the emphasis in curriculum would be on language skills that would empower a person to learn.

    However, if the primary goal is a rejection of the past, then the focus would be Hashkafa.

    Which one is usually prioritized more at the “mainstream” BT yeshivas?

    Much more?

  11. DK,

    I hope you are well.

    I don’t think that learning torah and doing mitzvos are mutually exclusive from breaking with the negative or non-conducive aspects of one’s past. Why do you think it needs to be one or the other? Why not both?

    I also don’t think that most people are advocating the wholesale disposal of our “pre-frum” lifes. Indeed, it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of posters and commenters here on the blog are advising to avoid such an approach. A perusal of the posts and comments in the archives would clearly evidence that.

    I also strongly disagree with the accusation that the term BT is foisted upon the newly observant as a nefarious means of subtle subliminal persuasion to abandon their individuality and toe some nebulous party line.

    Are there individuals in kiruv who are misguided? Certainly. Are there people and issues that fall through the cracks. Of course. However, to couch such human failures as a widespread scheme dreamed up to create an army of well-trained religious lapdogs sounds like a conspiracy theory ran amok.

  12. The name “BT” is emblematic of the problem. It signals Fundamentalism, and a radical break with a person’s past. I think it would be much better if repentance was not the focus of the newly Orthodox. Rather, it would be better if Jews were taught to learn Torah and do Mitzahs, and to incoporate them into their lives without a hard break.

    Instead, the focus of the BT world is frequently on rejection. Not only of the secular world, but of their own lives almost in their entirety. They are repenting for having existed and operated in a different world where they were groomed.

    It doesn’t have to be like that, and it shouldn’t be.

    Just as we are all aware of problems in the frum world, can’t we also accept that there is good outside of the frum world as well?

    No matter how many of us prefer to note the “Hefker” aspects of the non-Frum world, we all know gentiles and secular Jews who have done things we admire. I bet there is no one on this blog who actually disagrees with me on that point.

    So too, many Jews did things in less traditional periods of their lives that were positive, and they are often under the impression (and unfortuately, it is hardly discouraged) to downplay them or even nullify those prior achievements, and certanly not to cherish them in the present. This can be heard in that horrible preamble so many BT’s employ to signal a past life experience they have little or no connection to with, “Before I was frum.”

    Additionally, repentance is not limited to the BT or Orthodox world. There are certainly moral imbiciles who claim to have no regrets about anything, but I’m not talking about such people.

    I am not against a strive for moral improvement, or referencing one’s past as a measurement of change. But insisting on an indentity of Repenter, Chozer or Ba’al, is humiliating a person, and I found it to be crippling to many, and a dangerous and dark place for making appropriate life decisions. This is not found to the same degree in the FFB world, which in contrast, often encourages a positive identity.

    This ubiquitous classification of “BT” is no accident, and not organic. The classification of “Repenter” is a useful mechanism that the leaders of many in the Kiruv world wield as a cudgel to induce a not so subtle conformity on a variety of issues, by breaking down not only the BT’s previous moral code, but his entire sense of self worth and identity.

    Let’s be honest. What does the Kiruv world want more? Do they want all Jews to Learn Torah and strive to become Shomer Shabbes and Shomer Mitzvot and better Jews and better people, or do they demand a complete acceptance of every last detail of frum culture and Hashkafa, something not expected even from the Modern Orthodox who become more religious?

    I think the preference is clear from the name BT which is foisted on them.

    That horrible name signals the underlying motivation for so much of what’s wrong in large swaths of the Kiruv world.

  13. The semantics of this have bothered me for years. Silly, I know…

    I like David Linn’s angle very much; puts my mind at ease a bit with what I’ve always thought of as misuse of the term.

    In Israel (among Hebrew speakers), at least during my most formative years, the term was typically chozer b’tshuva. That implied the constant effort David refers to; without the misunderstanding about ‘mastery’.

    My first Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Dov Bigon (Machon Meir), is himself a chozer b’tshuvah. This was before there was such a thing as a separate yeshivah for ‘newcomers’. He founded one of the first for Israelis. Before mincha each day he would give a short shiur in Rav Kook’s Orot HaTeshuvah. I recall him once playing with these terms. Baal Teshuvah seemed to imply to him that one thought the job done; chozer b’teshuvah clearly made that connotation of one who is continually working at it; for a lifetime, maybe. In fact, he mentioned once that he rather liked the term ‘chozer b’sh’aila’, one who returns with questions, because the process of questioning is how most of us wake up and seek out Hashem and His Torah. Later, chozer b’sh’aila’ started being used by Israelis to mean one who moved away from observance because of his doubts; so I guess Rav Bigon may have dropped the term.

    For myself, I always thought of Rabbi Akiva as the Baal Teshuvah. No one is saying about me that Torah could have been given through me (the gemara in Minachot). Resh Lakish would fit in there. There may well be figures in our time who fit that exalted a description, I just don’t happen to know who they are.

    For myself, I’ll stick with chozer b’teshuvah; but David Linn has put me more at ease about the other term.

    (BTW, I had actually been debating writing about this very topic. Now I’m off the hook!)

  14. In the summer, our minyan has a short shabbos class on Sefer Chofetz Chaim. Last summer we discussed the concept of a Baal Lashon Hora and explained its definition.

    Someone who speaks Lashon Hora from time to time is not considered a Baal Lashon Hora. Someone who habitually does so, however, becomes defined by that constant act as a Baal (a master) of Lashon Hora because, until teshuva is done, that is not only what s/he does–that is who s/he is.

    That is how I look at the Baal in Baal Teshuva. Teshuva is not just what a BT does, it is what (s)he is constantly doing and it is who s/he is.

    May we all be zocheh to live up to this beautiful appelation.

Comments are closed.