Am I Still a Baal Teshuvah?

By Shlomo

I grew up in a relatively unaffiliated Jewish household. About ten years ago, I began on my path of religious observance. I studied in Yeshivas in America and in Israel, learning what it meant to be an observant Jew. However, I never was able to “fit the mold”. Anyone who knows me knows that I march to my own drum and that I am fiercely independent. I had no issues being the only one in shul wearing a sweater while every other male wore a suit. I believe that the community or Rabbi you chose is a reflection of yourself and who/where you want to be and fit in. I don’t go to an orthodox shul, nor do I define myself as Orthodox or with any other affiliation for that matter. I find myself as sort of a religious hodgepodge. There are things I like from all forms of Judaism, and I incorporate them into my life. I am just as comfortable in a conservative shul as in an orthodox one and I am not afraid to find spirituality in any nook possible. Yet, I know and observe more halacha that many people who define themselves as orthodox.

I recently bumped into someone I knew from my early Baal Teshuvah days at a Jewish Eastern spirituality event that used these forms of spirituality within a Jewish context. I was very surprised to see him there, although I do see Chassidim and other frum people at gatherings like this on occasion. To be frank, these practices are clearly not stamped by the OU :) This “acquaintance” of mine was clearly new to this “path”, and was trying something new. We spoke after the event, and he asked me if I was still a Baal Teshuvah. Oddly enough, I have never not considered myself to be a Baal Teshuvah. Granted, I practice in ways that are different than most readers of this blog, but I have found a level of Shabbat, kashrut, and daily observance that is right for me. I have always taken to heart the midrash that each soul heard a different torah at Har Sinai, and I am practicing mine.

Along my spiritual path, I have met hundreds of Jews who have connected to their faith at a later age, although not in what we know as an orthodox context. It never occurred to me until this person unintentionally questioned my status as a Baal Teshuvah that I might not be. I have friends who I dormed with at Yeshiva that are now Chabadnicks and others that are reform.

So, my question is: is anyone who has taken it upon themselves (aleynu) to find a deep, personal, and spiritual form of Judaism deserving of the title “Baal Teshuvah”.

29 comments on “Am I Still a Baal Teshuvah?

  1. Comment #28 seems to argue against Shlomo’s approach on strictly pragmatic grounds. What about its central conceptual problem, the negation of our Mesorah except when it appeals to him?

  2. FKM, that is a point I heard often as a young man. In fact, we always used the term ‘hozer beteshuvah’ (admin: returning in repentance”) for that reason. Rav Dov Bigon used to also use the term ‘hozer besh’ailah’ (admin: returning in questions (?))for a seeker, until that came to mean on the street someone who was rejecting tradition.

    Shlomo, I can’t say I exactly agree with what you’ve described for yourself (not that you asked), but I think the others are missing something here. We have quite a few notions in halacha of people being somehow included in some manner in the Jewish nation/culture, even though they are in fact, not Jews. I would argue similarly that if a born Jew (and therefore definitely a Jew) chooses a path which doesn’t conform with our understanding of tradition, but nonetheless is clearly attempting to remain somehow within the realm of Judaism, there is a place for that. Not that I personally would advise it or even agree with it; but it is a manner of pursuit of Judaism. Again, not what I would teach someone to davka (admin: specifically) do; but I recognize that it is probably not even totally unique in our history. Communities have always had a varied range of people with different ideas about and practices of Judaism. That doesn’t make it all correct; but it doesn’t cast them out of the realm nor mean that what they do has nothing to do with Judaism. Again, I am not advocating in favor of a break with tradition; just recognizing that the boundaries can blur or flex before we are actually outside.

    Whereas I find FFB’s comment a bit smug, I think there is some truth to it (though how we document its accuracy I don’t know). What you’re doing, Shlomo, sounds to me like personal religion within the greater realm of Jewish life. That personal approach isn’t something you can really pass on to the next generation. That’s the difference between nostalgia and tradition – a nuanced difference that depends as much on attitude as content.

    I commend you, btw, for starting this thread. It is thoughtful and important, and maybe even requires a little courage.

  3. Shlomo, your derech (admin: aproach) is 100% valid and “true” and is exactly what g-d wanted from avraham avinu who did not have to live in a jewish community. But now there is a klal yisroel (admin: the congregation of Israel) and there are physical, financial, social, and yes, spiritual/halachik (admin: jewish law) compromises one must make sooner or later in order to live in a jewish community. Just as a parent doesn’t want a child to be a social misfit, g-d wants us to fit in spiritually, and so we have a halachik system, where g-d allowed man to interpret the Torah and create halachically/socially binding norms that allow us to live together. Obviously there are many details remaining to be explored/explained, such as the role of different groups within observant judaism, but I think this line of thought is worth considering.

  4. If it deviates by design from Torah MiSinai (admin: lit. the torah given on mt. sinai, used to mean the Torah the G-d gave us), which includes the Oral Torah, it’s not a “form of Judaism”.

  5. I’ve been reading all the responses, and I thank all of you for your input.

    I think that the form of Judaism you chose is a decision you make based on your personality. 10 people studying at Ohr Sameach (which I did) will lead to 10 different paths. I was always drawn to the spiritual side of Judaism, over a pure halachic (admin: Jewish law) approach. I know this is an wierd thing to say, but when analyzing what I should or shouldn’t do, I use a catchphrase often heard in America and shift it a bit. I think “What would g-d do?”

    I found that the more and more I learnt and studied talmud, our teachers would ask that very same question, looking for each and every hint available, and more often than not, they disagreed. I find myself incredibly lucky that there are so many streams of Judaism found in America today, that when I ask myself “what would g-d do”, I can find a place that is right for me. Now I know many of you just read that and are gonna say “well what if you like eating pork, or something along those lines”. Please be mature, I’m mature and intelligent.

    Did Avraham pray to the Amidah (admin: the standing prayer that is the centerpiece of each synagogue service)? Was his prayer structure set so that he could take a break for the havtorah? I have found meaningful prayer within a Jewish context, and I’m doing what my forefathers did…….finding a right path. And if it means practicing in a different way that what traditional orthodoxy preaches, than so be it. That was a decision that I agonized for years.

    Does g-d care whether I wait an hour, 2 hours, 3 hours, or 6 hours to eat dairy after meat? I’m sorry, but I believe the answer is no. And to all the thinkers out there, chickens don’t even produce milk:) I respect your decisions, so please respect those who have chosen differently, and I don’t like when you say that because I chose differently, it means i’m “off the derech”, cause there are many roads. Am I breaking passover because I eat rice, and am not sefardic?

    I’m not purposefully trying to be argumentative, just trying to make a point. My form of Judaism is meaningful and makes me serve whatever g-d is with passion and pleasure. I hope that all of you are blessed with the same.


  6. Shlomo,

    Back in 2006, I wrote something about this about myself to this site, wondering if I am a BT or not. In truth, we all are (to some degree, if we are trying to grow spiritually, as we should), but my question was since I always felt I was Frum to some degree, and now that I’m more Frum, does that make me BT? In a way, it does.

    I would say that if you are always on the ladder going up, hopefully you will never feel that you reached the top rung, and then, you can still be a BT.

    Much hatzlacha!


  7. Perahps the title “ba’al” in the label “ba’al teshuvah” is what is causing the confusion.
    Teshuvah can be done on many different levels with many small gradations.
    But being called a “ba’al teshuvah” i.e. someone who has “mastered” the teshuvah process and brought it to a practical definitive conclusion should perhaps be defined more rigorously (and used more sparingly?).

  8. EL-there are many similarities between Gerus and Teshuvah, and one can argue very convincingly that Gerus and Teshuvah are both ongoing processes for a Ger and a BT. It is not a question of whether a Ger or BT accepts 99% and rejects 1% of the halacha or even one Kal VaChomer, which is essentially a way of stating that one rejects rabbinical authority and Torah and rabbinic law derived by one of the means of interpretation, but whether a Ger and BT sees himself or herself in a mitzvah by mitzvah process to Torah observance, which in the case of a BT can be a lifetime process and in a potential Ger, a long process until he or she is ready for Milah, Tevilah and what constitutes Kabalas Ol Mitzvos.

  9. If I like to play basketball, but I prefer to tuck the ball under my arm and run with it to the hoop, am I playing basketball? No. I’ve made up my own game which is similar to basketball, but I would be penalized if I would use the same rules when playing on an official B-ball team.

    If a person is a “Religious Jew”, but out of principle does not follow halacha, than how can this be called Judaism?

    (In other words, there’s no such thing as a religious thief. If he’s a thief, he’s not religious!)

    Someone who was not religious to begin with also does not observe everything all at once. It is even unwise to do so. But he takes on things little-by-little, working his way back to full observance of halacha. He accepts halacha fully, but just can’t do everything all at once.

    This is not comparable to someone who, out of principle, does not adhere to all of halacha.

    If a convert says, “I accept the entire Torah except for one mitzvah,” then his conversion is invalid. It may be Jewish-style, but it’s not Jewish.

  10. I don’t think the “it’s all good” approach is very useful … teshuva means RETURN, and that applies you are trying to go somewhere, made a wrong turn, and are trying to get back to where you were. If you pave over the entire forest, you don’t need a path through it, but neither is there any path to anywhere, and it’s all just kind of a stupid, pointless exercise.

  11. Ron, you’re absolutely correct. The path of Torah is very broad and inclusive, but clearly there are manners that are on the shoulder and some that are simply off the road altogether.

    Whereas many notions within the Torah have precise definitions and fairly limited parameters, I would argue that Teshuvah is by definition a rather broad term with more varied possibilities than many notions of Torah.

  12. Ron and David,

    Your posts complement each other nicely.

    Ron’s answer suggested to me that the Torah is amazingly broad, yet it can be narrowed for use as a guide to our actual practices — we are responsible for keeping all mitzvot in effect for the time and location in which we live, and some mitzvot have specific applications in given aspects of our lives.

    David’s answer suggests to me that if something is questionable, consultation with a Rav MAY reveal that the practice is permissible in its entirety or with some modification. This provides a framework in which to determine if there are in fact kosher approaches to those with an “eastern” approach.

    A common example is the study of yoga or self-defense, where the students engage in cultural rituals of the (usually eastern) society that founded the discipline, and may also use meditative/contemplative practices of that society.

  13. The post also raises the question of whether someone who is seeking “spirituality” in places that (at the very least) are questionable from a halachic standpoint is considred to be on the road of teshuvah.

    It also raises the question of whether there are “kosher” places/approaches for the sincere Jew who finds himself drawn to a more “eastern” approach.

  14. Mordechai, the thrust of your argument is valuable, but obviously there must be “limited criteria” for defining a term or a concept or it is meaningless, right?

  15. I’m all for avoiding labels. Adamantly. And certainly the notion of teshuvah can include many notions and applications. Just as the Torah is far greater, broader, more inclusive and with more possibilities than we tend to recognize or admit – so teshuvah which is the core of all Torah is probably a far more expansive notion than we recognize. In any way, and in all ways, that one longs and seeks and tries to find their place(s) with God and His Torah and His people, in the realms of religion and the realms of history and social realities – in all these senses one is engaged in a manner of teshuvah.

    So, how would we define teshuvah by a limited set of criteria, when the notion is as broad as Hashem’s Torah itself?

  16. One can argue that teshuvah is a mitzvah by mitzvah process that requires a lifetime of ups, downs, growth and setbacks as well as doubts in which one learns how to swim, as opposed to being thrown into deep water without a life preserver. IMO, any forward looking process should be applauded, even if he or she is not yet totally observant.

  17. It’s a really good question, though. Clearly Shlomo is at least a little intrigued by it.

    I would have to say that the literal answer to the literal question at the very end of the essay is “no,” for reasons already well expressed above. Fundamentally such a definition would make anyone who sincerely believes he is “where he ought to be” a BT in the sense that we mean the term around here.

    But Shlomo has clearly added more mitzvos, more meaning, more Torah, more commitment to his life than he had before. Isn’t that a kind of “teshuva” in that same sense?

    It may be… or may have been, and not be any more. Len hit this on the head.

  18. Personally, I’d like to think that the definition of a BT is not based on where a person is presently (or where he has been, necessarily) but that he or she is continuing to grow in their observance. Someone much smarter than me said “Better to be on the lowest rung going up than the highest going down.”

  19. Squarepeg613 did not say anything pro or con labels, but only suggested that Shlomo’s attitude toward labels is inconsistent.

  20. I agree with Squarepeg613 (message 5) that Jews should avoid labels. I also agreet with Abe (message 3) that most people misuse the phrase “Baal Teshuvah.”

  21. Shlomo, I get the impression you try to avoid labeling yourself religiously — Orthodox, Conservative, etc. Why would it be important to you to label yourself as a BT?

  22. Abe, words get new meanings from time to time. BT now is taken to include those who are returning to a place they’ve never been in this lifetime.

  23. Newsflash to you and the readers of this blog. If you didn’t grow up religious, then you are not a “baal teshuva.” You just became better informed. Spiritually educated. Once you have been observant for MAYBE 10 or 20 years, and then if it so happens that you do an aveira, then you can, for the first time, try to do “teshuva”.

  24. Two of the elements that matter are:

    1. Intent

    2. Actions

    It’s common for a person’s intent to be lofty while some of his actions are inconsistent with Torah commandments and values. If the person recognizes that such actions need attention and correction, and he keeps making needed changes over time, he is on a teshuvah track. If he digs in his heels about such things based on subjective feelings or whatever, he has put teshuvah on hold in some respects.

    If others are also operating by their own rules, that is irrelevant.

  25. Shlomo:

    The key to understanding your entire journey back ‘towards’ Judaism is found in the following words that you wrote: “I have found a level of Shabbat, kashrut, and daily observance that is right for me.”

    Are you a ba’al teshuva currently on the road to return? Quite clearly the answer is ‘yes.’ Have you arrived at the destination that is required of every Jew? The answer is: not yet…but, G-d willing, you will get there soon.

    Shlomo, I am certain that you must be at least viscerally aware that the raison d’etre of a Jew is NOT to do that which is right/comfortable/acceptable to our limited intellectual selves. Rather, we are bidden to do that which is right in the eyes of G-d, the unlimited intellect Who created us.

    The 613 mitzvot are not metaphorically akin to the listings on a chinese restaurant menu; you know how it goes, “I’ll take one from column A and two from column B” because they suit my taste.
    Rather, we embrace the entire menu…in our case, as laid out from Hashem’s Torah in the Shulchan Aruch — literally (and appropriate to this metaphor) the ‘set table’ — the table from which Hashem feeds both our bodies and our souls.

    I am sure that you are aware of Klal Yisrael’s declaration at Har Sinai: “Na’aseh V’nishma,” “we will do” even before we have any understanding of the whys and wherefores of what we will do. This, because what we DO understand, fundamentally, is that ALL of your Torah is RIGHT for us. Shlomo, coming from the Ribbono shel Olam (Master of the Universe) how could it be otherwise?

    May you continue on your journey as a ba’al teshuva and always merit Hashem’s bracha as you proceed along the way. Chazak!

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