Rav Kook’s Vision of T’shuva and The Ease of BT Integration

Rabbi Mordechai Y. Scher

I begin this post with a clear modaah/disclaimer: this is *not* a finished product. I know that I have not carefully thought this through. I know that a talmid chacham (that’s not me, so I’m exempt? I can’t say that, at the risk of demeaning my revered teachers) doesn’t put out something unfinished/lo m’tukan. Yet…

There have been quite a few posts over time that return to the topic of ‘how long will I be a BT?’, or ‘when do I become integrated into general frum society?’, or the like. I have found it largely difficult to relate to these posts; and I (think) I realize now that different circles really do have different social dynamics, even among observant Jews. I know I’ve gotten older, my mind a bit feeble; but I just don’t remember I or any of me chevra being concerned about such things. I don’t recall opportunities to be accepted (shidduchim, a place in a particular yeshiva/beit midrash, invitations, etc.) being limited or circumscribed.

It seems to me that some of this has to do with what are considered seminal influences in those circles, and what are perceived as ‘end-points’ in those circles.

Various circles/schools of thought in Torah have, for instance, seminal works that everyone is encouraged to learn and develop their outlook/hashkafa from. Chabad, of course, has their Tanya. Other groups or yeshivot emphasize the outlook of different works. What seems common to many (all?) of these influences is that there is a definable endpoint, an image of the observant Jew who has made it. In many places the vocabulary and discussion is replete with reference to different madregot/levels of spiritual attainment. Of course we can all recognize that Rebi Akiva or Resh Lakish “made it”. What about someone who is on a different madrega? Where is the cut-off of ‘making it’? What is the indicator of ‘making it’?

The first yeshiva that I attended in the late ‘70s was Machon Meir, headed by Rav Dov Begon. It was an all-Israeli yeshiva (at the time), founded in the spirit of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav Kook. Nearly all the rabbanim came from Mercaz Harav, and many of us students progressed to the beit midrash there later on. Based on the order of learning that Rav Tzvi Yehudah Hacohen Kook taught, we learned Kuzari and Maharal early on, and were exposed to the writings of Rav A.Y. Hacohen Kook. Most of Rav Kook’s writings were too advanced for us to systematically learn in the first years, but one book was the foundation that guided us early on. Every day before minhah, Rav Begon gave a short shiur in Orot HaT’shuvah.

Orot HaT’shuvah was not learned only by hozrim b’tshuvah/new returnees to Judaism. On the contrary, Rav Kook was seen (and saw himself) as the poet and advocate of T’shuvah. The notion and vision of t’shuvah that is presented throughout Rav Kook’s writings is unlike anything that I have seen emphasized anywhere else. I suspect that this has something to say to the issue of integration that I opened with, that has been a repeated topic on this blog.

Rav Kook teaches us about ongoing, concentric rings of t’shuvah. (Any shortcoming in explaining this is strictly my own!). There is, of course, the t’shuvah of the individual. This can be correcting a particular sin or sins; it can also be making an overall change in one’s outlook and behaviours. The two, of course, go together. Beyond that there is t’shuvah that the community must accomplish to refine its own character. Beyond that is the t’shuvah of the Jewish nation, to set itself aright. This requires, of course, establishment of the Jewish people in Israel; but moreso it requires using *all* of the tools of culture to establish a society of Torah in Israel. Learning Torah is the core, but all of the arts, sciences, tools of government must be harnessed to address and accomplish all the needs of a national society whose task is to represent Hashem in the world.

Beyond even this, is the t’shuvah of all mankind, and beyond even that is the t’shuvah of all of creation. This will not be accomplished or complete until the final and complete redemption that we are all striving towards. A vision with this sort of scope has no clear beginning or end-point, until all of creation can stand before Hashem as He intended before the first lacunae appeared. Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop writes that the judgement on Rosh Hashanah is precisely to see if the creation is yet ready to stand as originally intended and hinted at in the first verses of the Torah.

In this view, the individual and generation must do their cheshbon nefesh and measure themselves against Hashem’s Torah; but there is no need to worry about indicators of having ‘made it’. Everyone, all of creation, are working on the process of t’shuvah. The concern for the individual isn’t so much accomplishment and integration, as it is growth and contribution.

I think that throughout observant Jewry, talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) and their wives are universally seen as role models to emulate. This is absolutely as it should be. But a vision of t’shuvah that calls for real, practical, national development and refinement requires other contributions as well. If all the tools of a culture must be brought to bear on the task of t’shuvah, then one can be making a fine and important contribution in the army, in the professions, in the trades, even in government or diplomacy. This is probably why I and my chevra didn’t feel this pressure or stress over ‘integrating’. We already were integrated just by virtue of participating and contributing.

Additionally, the tools we had from before learning Torah most likely were useful in contributing to this large vision of a society of the Jewish people. We had models like Rav Begon who left life on a non-religious kibbutz for Torah, and founded a yeshiva and outreach organization. We also had models like Effie Fine who returned to the army, Chanan Porat who went to rebuild Jewish life in Gush Etzion and work in education and politics, and the recent Nobel Prize Laureate Prof. Aumann, to name a few. These are not compromises. We were taught that if the goal is developing and refining the Jewish people as a society, then in Rav Kook’s vision there are many (almost infinite) ways to fit it, and ‘make it’ as an observant Jew, loyal to Hashem’s Torah. This does not detract from the primacy of Torah and lomdei Torah; but on the societal level it not only condones, but requires that people make other contributions as well.

This is absolutely not meant as a critique or swipe at other schools of thought in Torah. Call it an ‘anthropological’ observation, one that helps me clarify for myself why I have difficulty sometimes understanding or relating to where some of my holy brethren are. For some, this may be a first insight into the Torah that is foundational for the boys in yeshivot Hesder, Mercaz Harav, Kibbutz HaDati , and the like.

6 comments on “Rav Kook’s Vision of T’shuva and The Ease of BT Integration

  1. Of course it’s a process. Any FFB will tell you that they never stop learning, either. That’s what it means to be Jewish. Always learning. Always growing. Always trying to do more, to be a better person. To better do the mitzvos, etc.

    What I was talking about was the stigma (good or bad) attached to being a BT. And the fact is, a BT will always be just that. I will spend the rest of my life learning to live in a different world that I grew up in. Growing accustomed to. Feeling comfortable. Understanding the inner workings. Understanding the mentality of the frum world. That’s just the reality of it.

  2. Wow! Rabbi Scher’s writes a fascinating post stressing that Teshuva is a process, — for every Jew — and not a yes/no proposition with an endpoint. And all the responders come back to how long they’ll be a BT, or whether they’ll ever be accepted. Either they didn’t get Rabbi Scher’s point or they chose to ignore it. Why?

    I think it’s because of the hard societal reality of trying to gain acceptance into a very insular society when coming from a different background. It is frustrating, especially when I perceive that those who I look to as role models and have sacrificed so much to emulate are rejecting me in some way.

    So it’s hard for us to take the broader view that Rabbi Scher is describing, of focusing on our obligations and opportunity for improvement, without paying attention to how others regard us. Hard — but perhaps necessary.

    What do y’all think?

  3. My family is very fortunate that we stay most Shabbosim either at the Chabad House or at the home of the rabbi. It’s like living with a family and I see how the mother and father interact with the children. What the children are allowed to do. I learn what is acceptable for adults, too. I am so grateful for this experience. As for other things, I feel that it’s my responsibility to ask for help. Just last night, I sat down with an FFB friend and asked her questions like, “Is being shomer negiah a choice or halacha?” “What do you say when someone passes away? When something good happens? etc…” Little things that I would have no way of knowing. Little things that ffb’s just know because that’s how they grew up.

    I do know that many ffb’s won’t let their children marry ours. Fine. Doesn’t it make sense to marry someone with a similar background? If my husband is from Russia and my kids speak Russian, wouldn’t it make sense for them to marry someone who has at least one Russian parent? They would better understand each other. Children of bt’s are often aware of their parents’ frustrations and lack of knowledge in frumkeit. When children of bt’s marry, neither one can feel superior to the other since they understand the other’s parents’ situation.

    And why is someone responsible for you just because they have helped you to make the decision to become frum? Did they force you? Did they give you an ultimatum? The choice was yours. You must take responsibility.

  4. I think most ffb’s see the bt’s that have “made it” if they fall in line with their though of school, but if a person or family goes a different path then what they see fit then they didn’t make it at all. We should be able to learn from all type of frum jews yesheva crowd, modern orthodox or chabad.

    ffb’s consider us liabilty if we are not just like them, and have wealth and no problems. I know wealthy bt’s that still have issues.

    after you have been bt’s for a few yearsof time ffb’s move on to do more keruv. Mean while the bt process has just begone. who will teach the kids? the schools, of course. What about all the other stuff ffb’s know how to do at home, like run the house and kids family, train the kids to want to learn holiday’s homework? who helps these familys? Is there anyone out there that has got help in the home process of teaching their kids, if so please reply. what kind of programs did they offer what kind of programs should they offer.



    I have asked for help, didn’t find it.

    If can help please reply.

  5. Yetta–I think being a BT is treated as a liability because in some instances it *is* in fact, a liability. This blog has posted stories of people whose children have had a hard time finding a shidduch because they are BTs. Or who feel the need to lie about where they went to high school because they went to a public high school before they became BT. Many BTs also have experienced being treated like they knew nothing of Torah or Yiddishkeit because they’re not FFB. I’m not saying that life is horrible as a BT; I’m not saying that in the slightest (it’s the best thing I ever did!). But let’s be real. The FFB community does not always treat BTs as equals. Sometimes they admire us for knowing what shrimp wrapped in bacon tastes like and still keeping kosher. Sometimes they don’t want their children to marry our children because we’re BTs. Sometimes FFB admire us and sometimes they keep their distance.

  6. It’s funny that people think of being BT as some kind of liability. Many FFB’s have told me that they wish they could have made the sacrifices that we have made. They envy our status. Basically, though, it was explained to me that my husband and I will always be, BT’s. Our children will technically be FFB’s, but known as children of BT’s. Very simple and nothing to be ashamed of.

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