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.