Inferiority Complex

I was having a discussion with someone recently and he mentioned that one of the problems in the baalei teshuvah mindset is that BTs are often scared to question things they hear, especially from people who grew up religious because they anticipate that their own knowledge base is lacking in comparison. BTs just assume that because someone grew up in a religious home, with an Orthodox Jewish education, they necessarily know a lot more, and should not be questioned in regards to opinions relating to Jewish topics.

I also know from experience that linguistic mastery goes a long way in making a person sound like they know what they are talking about, and that the use of key Hebrew and Yiddish phrases can make a BT feel inadequate and ignorant. It’s a huge barrier to get over when becoming observant; I specifically had, and still have, a very difficult time hearing a lot of Hebrew or Yiddish and attempting to decipher what is being said. This language barrier alone made me feel very inadequate for a long time, until I got the guts to just insist that those talking to me speak in English or translate any Hebrew or Yiddish being said in order that I fully understand what is being said.

This feeling of inferiority in both language and knowledge is often just that – a feeling, rather than reality. And it often cripples a BT from really asking the important questions and clarifying for themselves queries they may have about specific things they hear. It’s important that a BT feel secure in him or herself, in his or her knowledge base, and in the validity of asking questions and thinking for him or herself. Otherwise, they might never come to feel like a real part of the observant community, and will sideline themselves as outsiders and inferior members, a feeling which they will, in turn, share with their children.

Now, I’m not talking about questioning every single thing one hears from a respected rav on the finer points of halachic decisions. But I am talking about having enough faith in one’s own knowledge to challenge what seems to be contradictory and at least ask for clarification when there is a seeming inconsistency, rather than accepting things that disagree with previous learning. And even when there isn’t a seeming contradiction, and one just wants to know more about where a specific halacha or opinion comes from, to have the guts to ask to be shown the source, rather than just accepting that it’s what “it says.”

BTs need to believe in themselves and the learning they have accumulated, whether that has been through formal yeshiva training, assorted classes or a lot of reading. Having the courage to ask questions leads to a better and more solid knowledge base. It leads to stronger convictions and hold on the lifestyle that has been chosen, because it is based on answers, rather than just acceptance of surface-level statements, with a view of the foundation upon which they have built their new lives.

And remember – there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

17 comments on “Inferiority Complex

  1. Excellently well said Shoshana!

    I marvel at the ease with which people can lapse into Yiddishisms and sprinkle their language with just the right phraseology. While I’m learning and understand quite a few things now, I’m afraid to try myself most of the time. I have Hebrew/Yiddish dyslexia … everything comes out backwards. Too many words sound the same but have vastly different meanings. It isn’t CHALLAH, it’s a KALLA. Stuff like that. ;-D

    Some days, don’t you feel like you haven’t even gotten out of the starting gate? But when I think of where I WAS to where I AM NOW, well, it’s pretty incredible.

  2. Heard recently at a shiur (quoted, but I forget from where):

    someone who is embarrassed [to ask a question] can not learn.

    While it is always a good idea to ask gently, especially when you ARE questioning the content of what was said and not just looking to clarify your understanding, there are no stupid questions – except maybe the ones that don’t get asked – *because* they weren’t asked.

  3. Mr Haller,

    That experience worked well as a catalyst for you, but as a Shabbos invitor I would be very careful about putting a new BT, or even more so, a potential BT on the spot like that. What is one man’s (or woman’s) catalyst is another’s “I’m completely mortified and I’ll never do this again”

  4. Embarrassing experiences can be a catalyst for self-improvement if channeled correctly.

    When I first started learning and keeping Shabbos in my early 20s I frequented a serious learning family for Shabbos meals. One of their minhagim, between the main course and dessert was to distribute Chumashim, open to the weekly Parsha and each person would take a turn reading a Pasuk (verse) followed by Rashi and then translating and explaining the passage. Not only was my Chumash Hebrew very weak at the time, the Rashi commentary was printed in that unique script which I couldn’t decipher. One time when I couldn’t either read the Rashi or translate, it was quite humbling when the 12-year-old daughter who could do both flawlessly wanted to help and she got me a Hebrew-English Chumash/Rashi.

    This was too much to bear. At that point I decided that this situation was never going to repeat itself and subsequently took every opportunity to learn to “taitch” (translate and explain) and read Rashi script as well as anything else. It took about 7 years at my rate but it was worth it. Then came Gemara, Mishna Brura……

  5. Interesting post, Shoshana. I can’t remember feeling this way particularly…I don’t think I’ve ever felt “FFB knows best.” Maybe it’s because I became religious at 18, which is sort of a snotty know-it-all age. That haughtiness stuck with me throughout my teshuva process. I never felt like I was really a newcomer, just reclaiming something that was mine to begin with.

  6. I have such a bad ear for languages that my kids can’t stand it when I use a Hebrew term, since I invariably mispronounce it. At least my Yiddush (a few words here and there) I can attribute to hearing my mother’s “Bronx Yiddush”. Early on I discovered that many English language seforim have a glossary – that was a great way to learn what some of the more common terms meant. But I do have to ask for translations from time to time.

  7. Shoshana: Thanks for the important reminder to ask questions. That idea may seem obvious, but it often gets buried in the effort to belong.

    Albany Jew: reminds me of when I was expecting and people kept saying B’Sha’ah Tova. I couldn’t figure out why they were wishing me a Shana Tova nowhere near Rosh Hashana! Only when I picked up a sefer on halachos of childbirth did I finally get it.

    Fern: I sure relate to that predicament. Anyway, it’s kind of nice that someone thinks of us as “Super Jews!!”. Also, hovering between modern and litvish style observance, I am seen as machmir by the modern, and modern by the litvish!!!!

  8. The funny thing about being a BT is that you’re stuck between two totally divergent feelings when it comes to discussing Judaism with others. On the one hand, your less observant family members think you’re some sort of Super Jew because you keep kosher and can discuss even a small bit of the halacha behind some aspect of religious practice. But on the other hand, when you’re around frum friends or shul members, you feel like the least learned and informed person around.

  9. I really enjoyed this post and can relate to this on many dofferent levels. One thing that I find is that many people who grew up in the Frum community feel that since they went to a day school or Yeshiva they know everything and no longer continue with their learning. As we learn from our Rabbis, we need to constantly learn and review otherwise we will begin to forget. Because of this mentality that many in the Frum community have, a BT probably knows more than them because they are constantly trying to learn more and review what they have learned. I have been in certain positions where I have corrected an action by someone on Shabbos and they have told me I was wrong. They later came back to me after they looked up what I corrected them on and informed me that I was correct. Unfortunately this has happened to me more than once and I think the problem lies in the idea of continuing to learn and review. I heard a teaching of the Lubavicher Rebbe that said the following regarding Shabbos Zemiros. When you have guests at your Shabbos table, you can never be sure about their backround and how much they know, so rather than singing the Zemiros in which one has to be familiar with Hebrew, a niggun without words should be sung instead because a niggun without words someone could learn and join in after hearing it a few times. It is important not to be afraid to interupt someone and ask them to translate something for you. I do that many times when I go to shiurim. Everyone can benifit from a translation especially since everyone who lives in America usually has English as their first language. Sometimes I feel that when certain people are constanly using Hebrew words or Yeshivish words, they are only doing so to show off or try to fit in with some sort of crowd because of a complex they might have.
    The last thing i want to comment on is what Shoshana said last which was there is no such thing as a stupid question. That is true because sometimes fear of asking a question can lead to a mistake in understanding properly what someone said and lead one to break a halacha because of this misunderstanding. Everyone can learn something from this post not just BTs.

  10. Sometimes persons get intimidated by questions. And they often misinterpret questions as tryin to trip them up in théir long held beliefs of questionable origin. When in reality the questioning person just doesn’t have that same understanding or inherent beliefs due to different ways of processing information. Some are born with defaults that include faith belief and all that intangible spiritual stuff. Some need other affirmations to reinforce or reaffirm those latent beliefs. Some will need to reconcile contradictions before they can actually give up théir intellect and believe stuff.some don’t bother involving théir intellect. Some join Scientology orgs. Some join kiruv orgs. Some run far àway from all orgs and insist and figuring stuff out using the old fashioned teacher mr Exxxy Experience. Some trip and fall some pick themselves up and find people to pester with for théir questions.some don’t bother anymore and don’t even care about the answers anymore çuz maybe there aren’t any answers anyway. Just soothing assuaging assurances that are like Duane Reades cotton balls for cushioning and healing a brain sprain.

  11. Many outwardly observant Jews who arrived in the US from Europe before World War 1 became much less observant or even non-observant. If you learn by rote and follow out of habit and also because the people around you are doing it, you miss out on the motivating factors built into Torah understanding. When the path of least resistance became assimilation, and Shabbos observance became a major sacrifice, many were not grounded enough in Jewish concepts to be able to remain religious Jews.

  12. There’s another aspect to this as well, the often mistaken assumption that someone who went to Yeshiva knows more then you do. For instance, a few months ago we went to spend a Shabbos with some friends. The husband is a BT, the wife attended day school. Comes Shabbos morning, and I see her putting things directly on the part of the blech where the burner is, something I learned isn’t permitted. But that ole BT inferiority complex crept in, and I was afraid of questioning my close FFB friend, because I didn’t want to come off (after being friends for over 20 years) as a Chinucky (sic) BT.

  13. There is absolutely no such thing as a stupid question. And someone who doesn’t want to answer a question or tells you “That’s just how it is” is taking the coward’s way out.

    Great post, Shoshana.

  14. Very good post!

    This issue goes back to the very beginning of the process. I remember being at my first frum simcha with my wife and someone asked me if I davened Maariv yet. I thought he asked if we were married, and I answered “yes we are, thank you” The person just shook his head and walked away. It is funny, but it was embarrassing. The questions are unending and we must not be embarrassed to ask. And we must also be patient with the new BTs as well. (I won’t even get into the time I got Shomer Negiah and Hava Nagila confused).

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