By Yakov Lowinger
There has been some discussion regarding the reversion of some from religious observance due to a “bad religious experience” (BRE), which seems to cause the sufferer to swear off involvement in organized religion much like a bad omelet will repel one from associating with eggs in a pan for a good while. I personally feel strongly about this discussion and find many of its assumptions to be misplaced, and I hoped to share some of my insights gleaned from inside, then outside, then inside the frum world if I can be so presumptuous.
1. Being rejected is no cause to reject
The problem is that the lovable eggs in a pan that we encounter every day in the frum world, the ones that often drive us crazy and perhaps even give us real indigestion, are our fellow Jews who we are commanded to love and accept. Why are we so concerned on the contrary with their love and acceptance of us as ba’alei teshuvah, so much so that we take their little acts of rejection as proof of the error of our ways? There is a bit of the parable of the sour grapes in an ex-BT who turns away from observance mainly because he/she didn’t feel accepted. You don’t want me? Well I didn’t want you anyway. Unfortunately little of this dance gets either side closer to the questions of finding the Emes that becoming religious was meant to represent. The BT is no less obligated to respect and tolerate those in the community where he lives, as the community is obligated to respect and tolerate him.
2. The derech ha’emes is not contingent on our experiences, good or bad
The story of the aspiring BT who rushes toward ever-increasing levels of observance as long as it feels good, and then backs away once reality (i.e. other people) sets in, has a disturbing undertone. I would argue that Rabbi Jacobson’s comparison to Nadav and Avihu is nice but in the end, there is no distinction between the two brothers’ fate. A more apt comparison is to Rabbi Akiva and R’ Elisha ben Avuya, who went into the pardes together to learn the secrets of Torah. Rabbi Akiva came out unharmed, while R’ Elisha became a heretic and was henceforth known as “Acheir,” the other. In other words, a person’s greatness or lack thereof is defined by how he/she responds to a real challenge to emunah and a genuine exposure to holiness. In the case of the modern day BT, it is in response to a BRE, or even an overwhelming religious experience, that the title ba’al teshuvah is earned or forfeited. It is irresponsible to suggest that the choice between being a Rabbi Akiva or becoming an “Acheir” is ever in the hands of other people, regardless of how insensitively they may sometimes treat us. Those challenges are there for us to use in order to grow, not to become bitter like Acheir, who gave up completely and considered himself beyond repair because of his experience at the pardes.
3. No such thing as an FFB
Unless we take it to mean “filtered from birth”, there is no usefulness to the term FFB as it is generally used. In the first place, as it is meant to be the residual category of BT, it de-individualizes those who happen to have parents who gave them the gift of frumkeit. The argument then almost makes itself – those FFBs are anti-individual – much like saying that anteaters are anti-ant. The term ba’al teshuvah has an exalted status in Torah, considered in some respects higher than a tzaddik. The term FFB in contrast enjoys no comparable prestige, highlights no distinguishing feature of those so categorized except accident of birth, and therefore tells us nothing about those who supposedly bear this title. The label should be discarded, in my opinion, as the terms BT and FFB are in no way commensurable. The former is exalted and laden with meaning, the latter a mere statistic. The term FFB just gives frustrated ex-frum people something to bandy around, some identifier that we all supposedly understand and relate to and toward which we can direct our complaints. By relying less on these labels, we can more easily identify the real source of our challenges, which is more often than not in ourselves and not in those ______s out there.
4. Cluelessness and misplaced meticulousness
That said, it is not as if there are not prevalent problems in certain frum communities that might drive a sensitive person away from strict observance. I will just point out two that I think are important. Compared to what they are used to, BTs are likely to encounter a certain clulessness about the world at large that may make them uncomfortable. The reality is that the strong filters that we grow up with as frum yidden foreclose the possibility of relating to a BT on most things of interest to them, and thus create that familiar dynamic where we look quizzically at the BT as he tells his/her story at the shabbos table and make him/her even more uncomfortable. This would normally lead to some sort of alienation on the part of the BT who just can’t be understood, whereas a healthier approach might be to accept this limitation and even offer to give some background on the topic in question, in a way consistent with the decency implied by a Torah lifestyle, instead of rolling eyes or sighing knowingly. This cluelessness should be treated with sensitivity and understanding, and the BT should take the acharayus to educate his or her new friends and family in a way that establishes the basis for mutual understanding. Those in the frum community in turn should take it upon themselves to listen and learn from the BT. Their strong filters should be more than adequate to the task.
A second difficulty is the misplaced meticulousness displayed by many in the frum community. This goes for BTs and non-BTs alike. In short, it goes like this. I am frummer than you in outward appearance. This causes me to displace my concern for my own frumkeit (what should I do to be more frum, which I may not know) onto you (because it seems that I do know what you need to do to be more frum). I nitpick on your appearance and seeming observance in my head rather than on my own faults which may not be so visible to others on the surface, because it is easier and seems equally valid. The problem is that nobody benefits from this arrangement. I don’t improve and neither do you. If I became as meticulous in my observance as I was in staring down/talking down to the BT on the other side of the shul we would both win. When we self-professed frummies see someone whose appearance makes us uncomfortable in some way, we should see it as a wake up call to fix what’s lacking in our own avodah. Because anyway, I can only be meticulous on my own account, not yours.
5. Living in a frum community requires a thick skin
We are all growing, hopefully, and learning every day. A BT should try to make him/herself sensitive to this and apply it across the board when confronted with the dreaded BRE. Because that BRE is going to happen. And it may even be horrible (I’ve heard some downright Jerry Springer ones — I bet he’s had a few himself). Here’s where the thick skin comes in — tough up and remember that those people responsible for your BRE are having one too. Rather than have it prick at all your sensitivities and throw you off, which in all likelihood it’s designed to do, remember that it’s also put there by Hashem to make you a stronger, more serious and committed Jew. I know people who have actually gone as far as to thank those who threw really terrible BREs at them, because they couldn’t be who they are now without them. Once your done being carried away with all the fun frills of being frum (I’ve heard there are a few), stare down that BRE in the face and become who you really are meant to be. And as for those bitter acheir’s out there, it’s not too late either. I hope there’s something here for all to take to heart.
Well, I’m assuming that if you took the trouble to count the words, you probably read a few of them, too. So if you want to justify your angsty haikus with actual references to things I’ve said, that would be perfect.
I don’t know, we’ve all suffered emotional pain, some greatly so. What is it that makes one person stronger from it and another weaker?
By the way, leitzonus is the ability to take any rational argument and make it sound like “blah blah blah”, which is exactly what you’ve been doing here.
As Bob asked, how WOULD you suggest people respond to BREs?
Again, Tzvi, what should one do under such circumstances other than try to make the best of them? You act as if such an approach somehow justifies other peoples’ behavior that led to the problem, but I don’t see anyone claiming that. Are you suggesting wallowing in the pain, retaliating,…or what?
“Make blockade” – that’s basically what you said in your original 1,500 word post, isn’t it? You could have saved us all a lot of trouble just posting that originally. Here’s an even shorter one for you to consider: don’t worry, be happy.
Basically this is laitzonus, you dismiss emotional pain with a cliche like you would shoo away a fly with the flick of the wrist.
Have a nice day.
When life throws you blocks, make blockade.
Avoid those people who are out to injure you, if necessary, but don’t throw out the whole Emes because of other people’s bad choices.
I agree that one doesn’t have to live in a religious community; it’s just quite a challenge not to once one has already accepted upon oneself to be religious. So what we seem to be arguing is that if one wants to be fully observant, better to do it in a religious neighborhood; if one wants to be partially observant, better to do it where no nosy neighbors are around?
Unless you’re suggesting that you can be fully observant in a place with few/no other religious people, which I know from experience is a full-time job and hardly worth the effort of making everything from scratch, being shut indoors on Shabbos, being an oddity to your neighbors, and on and on. THAT’S where I say grow a thick skin and forget about the yentas, it’s not worth letting them control your life one way or the other.
Tzvi, someone doesn’t look for trouble, but when it finds him, he has to make the best of the situation. What’s the alternative?
If someone puts an obstacle in front of a blind person, the subsequent fall (BRE) should be viewed by the blind person as the raw material for spiritual growth. An entire community full of blind people and stumbling blocks — so much the better. Just grow a thicker skin to avoid the scrapes.
I didn’t mean to turn the thread into a personal rant. I was just pointing out that religious communities have their time place and season or whatever.
Who said anything about “alone”. I don’t need the warmth, gratuitious emotional and spiritual support groups and related non intellectual community activities for religious women. One thing you can count in many orthodox communities, plenty of hilchos shabbas lectures for women. No matter how educated the lecturer, rest assured, he is doin a hilchos shabbas series. Apparently women cannot get enough of hilchos shabbas lectures.
Anyway I’m not into any of the indie denominations and new age ideologies at this time. I’m not an orthodox feminist either.
Anyway my point before I got carried away is some individuals don’t need religious neighbors and religious community props, some do I guess. Everyone should eventually belong to a community they are happy in.
Really, whatever floats your religious raft merrily down the river of De Nile or was it Re Ligion.
Then I am sure with all this growing, then, Jaded, you will soon be very, very big. You never know how that will work out. I make a living arguing myself and though I still have not reached the six feet in stature my father as much as promised me, I can barely stuff myself into triple-E shoes.
It is actually an axiom of the Torah that a Jewish person needs to live in a Torah community. I have no trouble understanding why that might not work out sometimes, Jaded. Some frum communities seem to have the effect of driving people away from frumkeit. Annoying would be the word, yes.
But the opposite is not true: You can’t do it alone. No matter how swelled you are!
Interesting points. Thats why I think fading FFB’s definitely dont need to choose a religious community of all communities to belong to/become part of when deciding where to live for the long run.They’ve already done the religious community thing by growing up in one.After a while it just becomes annoying I think.
When they miss their religious nieces and nephews they can always go back to visit for a spell or whatever. As long as one has their halachic priorities /arguments and questions down straight everything is all good.
As previously mentioned, I actually don’t think that living within a religious community is a pre-requisite for making G-d and the Torah a part of one’s life.
In fact I’ve found it to be a definite detriment at certain points and instances in life, and definitely not a pre-requisite and or a spiritual stimulant of sorts. I think it makes more sense logically speaking, to pack up the oh sooo precious collection of bad religious experiences, and complementary spiritual growth hormones (can they be used in zinnia and cosmo gardens too?) and resolutely relocate to a thriving, somewhat more Conservative climate.
It’s not clear why you are so enamored over the religious community concept in general.
Why the steadfast loyalty to religious communities.
What does acceptance and sour grapes have to do with anything ; it’s really not that difficult to belong to any number of annoying religious communities sprouting up like dandy dandelions on a greener patch of grass on the other side, especially in the tri-state area.
The warmth and friendliness is kind of nice but can sometimes actually be somewhat stifling in certain contexts. And I’d take intellectualism over warmth any day.
And let’s not forget about the ubiquitous yentas that can be found in many parts of New York and New Jersey.
There needs to be some kind of AntiYenta Act put into place.
And there should be some kind of disciplinary action taken when yentas become a personal nuisance for the wrong reasons. As there is no reasoning with these sketchy yenta women hell bent on saving souls/ matching souls and making babies come hell or high bathwater.
Yeah, the Arguing Based Asking Journal.
Growing through arguing is my new thing.
Jaded, are you reading the ABA Journal or something?
No I don’t think we should blame either the community or the BT for a BRE, and of course we should be there for anyone in the throes of a spiritual crisis, to provide whatever institutional support that may be lacking.
On the flip side, it’s not exactly always the case that family or community are there for frum people (fine, your FFBs) once they start to have that bad experience. Maybe it’s there to fall back on when times are good, but when real questions and struggles arise families and close friends are often the first to back away.
Sure these can be devastating experiences, but there are also many people who are much stronger for having had them. It’s a question of emphasizing bitter feelings vs. trying to hold on to the inspiration that got us where we are and somehow reconnecting with it. Well, it’s unfortunate that so many people here seem to identify with the BRE so much so that it’s hard to see past the bitterness. All the best Jews I know are BRE veterans.
yl, I think it makes sense that we should try to grow from all experiences, including BREs. It could be that your post is being perceived as flipping the tables of a BRE to be the responsibility of the BT instead of those inflicting the BRE.
Unlike FFBs who usually have some family support structure and Religious experience, BTs often go it alone and therefore when they experience a BRE it can be quite devastating.
I would also like to point out that there is definitely such a thing as an FFB, just as there is such a thing as a BT. I for one think that it is important to recognize differences and deal with them appropriately and not wish or write them away.
For a BT, the usefulness of the term FFB is realizing that the person is coming from a different perspective, which doesn’t make them bad, just different then the perspective that a BT is coming from.
“Despite the noble IDEA of seeing every challenge as an opportunity for growth, the REALITY is that all too many are known to take down very great people, and certainly the avg Yid.”
At the end of the day, our noble ideas are all that go to bed with us. What’s wrong with that? The fact that many people don’t grow from challenges (at least not right away) doesn’t mean that they don’t have the opportunity to. What does a person gain from your “realistic” attitude, except another reason to be cynical?
“there is often tremendous response of gratitude and devotion (positive growth) far beyond what they could have achieved by staring down those challenges on their own.”
Who says they should “stare down challenges on their own?” The more support, the better. Where do you get the idea that a challenge implies not being helped from outside. We are Jews after all, the go it alone attitude has never been part of what we stand for. I’m getting pretty tired of defending against claims I never made. In the words of Mr. Burns, “are there any REAL questions?”
“Are you suggesting that bad religious experiences discriminate against FFBs when it comes to providing on the job religious growth training ?
And only provide their services to the individuals you’ve decided to tag as BT. Really you should get out more often. ”
The opposite; I’m suggesting that they are equal opportunity. You don’t have to be a ba’al teshuva to be on the receiving end of a BRE, nor do you have to be born frum to be on the giving end.
Again, I don’t see what is wrong with suggesting that we turn our BREs in our favor and grow spiritually from them, which is in all likelihood why we have them, instead of using it as a shield against any future inspiration. There seems to be an unwillingness to debate the points here.
I’m having a little difficulty following the underlying premise and logic of your argument.
How is your description of BT “exalted and laden with meaning” less subjective than the mythical meaningless or sometimes meaningful but false or not… descriptions FFB is generally associated with ? Frum from birth can be twisted about in many directions to include achievments that are “exalted and laden with meaning ” too.
Are you suggesting that bad religious experiences discriminate against FFBs when it comes to providing on the job religious growth training ?
And only provide their services to the individuals you’ve decided to tag as BT. Really you should get out more often.
I’m not sure what either of these two sets of alphabet letters have to do with an individuals connection and understanding of G-d and or his torah.
There are no major shareholders at Torah Law is for Lovers LLC. Far flung and flung far from frum, never been frum, already been frum , flirting with frum, frolicking in frumkeit, feverishly frum and or unaffiliated forever and loving it, all have been given the very same stock option agreement. Torah Law is For Lovers LLC is fair like that and does not discriminate against birth place, frum status in baby buggy and or sex.
So if one chooses to cast it upon the water, ignore, mock, love , loathe, misconstrue,place neatly in shredder, plead indifference, weep, cry, argue, re draft, leave unsigned, cash in or quit and litigate, these activities have nothing to do with other individuals who happen to be a party to the very same kind of contract. No matter how much better it feels to sue for tortious interference with prospective spiritual growth and or unaffiliated intellectual growth.
Its definitely more fun to live life in exhilerating litigative mode.
I know there are kinks in the when was the contract received part of my point. I’m not sure how Gd works legally, with regards to employees that have to request the stock option agreement as opposed to being given it the first day of employment. But I don’t believe that’s part of your argument here so ill leave that for now.
And it definitely has nothing to do with how the end user reacts and utilizes the stock option agreement.
I found though, that at the end of the day the smartest aspiration in life is to work hard understanding halacha on a deep level in order to be able to argue effectively. So that eventually I can live an exhilerating litigative life as a Judge in a bona fide Jewish court of law. And for the sake of G-d of course.
“What is so provocative… that we make the best of them, rather than poison..”
Despite the noble IDEA of seeing every challenge as an opportunity for growth, the REALITY is that all too many are known to take down very great people, and certainly the avg Yid. Conversely, its common knowledge that when we make an effort to reduce the michloshim (obstacles) in front of our fellow, there is often tremendous response of gratitude and devotion (positive growth) far beyond what they could have achieved by staring down those challenges on their own.
Hence the myriads of chesseds that characterize the Jewish community throughout the ages. Why do them if the challenges are such good “raw material” for growth?? Why train doctors, for that matter? Don’t we learn that Yaacov Avinu, for starters, reached such high spiritual levels once he got ill?
The fact is, yl, that many modern late beginners in Torah devotion (euph. called BTs) staddle this fine line; some growing from the challenges, many falling. The community of insiders, incl older BTs, are obliged to do their best to prevent those falls.
Yes, BRE’s are the spiritual raw material of our lives. We all have them. What is so provocative about the suggestion that we make the best of them, rather than poison the world with our bitterness?
Tzvi, really, put the words back in the order I said them and then comment as much as you like. But don’t stick your own cholent of resentment in my mouth, I never said any of that stuff.
“~ Who says how “little” those acts are?? By definition of the modern BT being someone who comes from a very different and often productive and self sustaining cultural mileu, for them to pull themselves out of that and try to weasel their way into a very demanding, differnt set of norms and beliefs highly sensitizes them to ANY rejectful inuendo.”
True. But unfortunately, so is the equal and opposite reaction. It’s very difficult for some people who have not been exposed to these other milieux to be accepting of the “modern BT”. The problem is when we take this as evidence of the error of our ways and slip back into comfortable lifestyles. When a new spouse criticizes us for some old, old habit, it is wrong and it hurts. But I’m sure the solution is not to run out into the street with someone who make us feel better.
“~ Don’t you understand that what we mean by the contemporary title BT is VERY far from the pure meaning of the term? In fact the reality that the frum world has dubbed this movement as such says reams about their deeply confused intentions in welcoming us. Halavai that we’d ALL become true BT’s! In the meantime what do we do with those non ffb’s who are trying to learn the essence of frumkeit at such a late (and often baggage laden) stage in life?”
What other title would you suggest? Someone who has permanently left behind their lifestyle, and embraced yiddishkeit is a BT, regardless of how many bags they’re checking. What “we” should do is treat them like the kings and queens they are (who else travels so large). The problem is that frum schools breed a culture of naive disdain for the world and BT’s are too often seen as representatives of it (even sometimes by other older BTs) when they are not.
Bitterness is one quality to avoid, as it poisons all one’s efforts. And if we think we have the right to be bitter, that’s not reason enough.
I totally agree with all the points made here. Let’s just grow a thicker skin, stop misplacing our cluelessness, just worry about the search for emes (who needs to belong among a community when one truly has the emes?) and love those who reject us, especially those same ones who once wanted to m’karev us. Oh, and stop labelling them FFBs. How about KYs (kosher yichus). Honestly, why should a BT expect any different treatment than, say, a goy or a mamzer?
Your substantial effort to constructively clarify aspects of BREs that might be salvagable is commendable. The general thrust of shifting focus onto the BT as “an exalted status within Torah” which has at LEAST as much responsibility in ah’ Yis’ as an ffb is insightful.
However, there are a number of assertions in this post that are far from being truly sensitive to the reality of the typical, contemporary BT with BREs.
For one: “we take their little acts of rejection as proof of the error of our ways”
~ Who says how “little” those acts are?? By definition of the modern BT being someone who comes from a very different and often productive and self sustaining cultural mileu, for them to pull themselves out of that and try to weasel their way into a very demanding, differnt set of norms and beliefs highly sensitizes them to ANY rejectful inuendo.
Perhaps it’s comparable to one who’s been born outdoors and educated to believe in nature as his home and the sun as the source of his pleasure. Then one day he realizes he’s being scarred by excessive sunburn and decides to seek shelter. Lo and behold he discovers a wonderful community of homeowners who do alot to welcome him in but never take the time to really appreciate the nature of his pain that drove him to them. Subsequently they find themselves slapping him on the back and can’t understand why he winces so deeply!
For another: “it is in response to a BRE, or even an overwhelming religious experience, that the title ba’al teshuvah is earned or forfeited”.
~ Don’t you understand that what we mean by the contemporary title BT is VERY far from the pure meaning of the term? In fact the reality that the frum world has dubbed this movement as such says reams about their deeply confused intentions in welcoming us. Halavai that we’d ALL become true BT’s! In the meantime what do we do with those non ffb’s who are trying to learn the essence of frumkeit at such a late (and often baggage laden) stage in life?