Written All Over Him

Oh, to be a squeaky-clean Ivy League “BT.”

Oh, you have your “wild” times — beer pong! woo-hoo! — find religion, clean up your act a little, snag a nice job in an investment bank or law firm after a couple of years in Israel learning Rashi script, and you can be very pleased with yourself and your perfect little route to repentance and, well, perfection, right? Special attention in yeshiva — quick acceptance, a better dorm room, special tutoring. You’re a poster boy for the “movement.” Eventually you end up in the video for your yeshiva’s college kiruv program, and they shoot your segment from your office overlooking Central Park, and you are proof to all the world of how a “normal,” “accomplished” person can become a religious Jew . . .

Meanwhile you still even send in cleverly-phrased updates to the alumni magazine. Still all those valuable contacts, after all — it’s a parnassah [earning a living] thing, believe me, you don’t hold of it at all . . .

You think I think there’s something wrong with that? It’s not a bad life. On the contrary, it’s a very fortunate life. E-Z teshuvah for the all-’round high achiever.

There are grittier stories, though. Harder climbs. Less celebrated ones. And while we all say we must never stop climbing, there are some whose uphill journey never reaches a suitable-for-framing plateau. You know, where you can just drop off your pack, take in the view, maybe even turn your BlackBerry around and take your own picture from up there to send to your friends when you get back to where the signal kicks in.

Many of the baalei teshuva who take these ascents aren’t the write-this-up-for-a-blog types. But being a poster boy means sometimes looking beyond your own marvelous reflection, right?

Doing so can be quite beneficial. Purifying, even. (Humbling? Well, now, let’s not push it. Still . . .)

So, there’s a powerfully touching story about the Satmar Rav. I have seen it written that it took place upon his taking leave of Eretz Yisroel, where he lived briefly after the War, or after one of his extended visits there, but the story essentially is this:

One of his devoted chasidim asked him, “Once you who leave, who can we take a kvitel to?” [A kvitel is a letter or note requesting that a tzaddik seek Divine intervention on behalf of a petitioner.] The Rav replied, “Anywhere you see a man with a number tattooed on his arm putting on tefillin — that is someone you can bring a kvitel to!”

This always compelled me, in many ways, but the beauty of this story is often lost in retellings of it.

What the Satmar Rav was saying was not that a person who survived the Holocaust takes on saintly status. Rather, it is that such a person who still puts on tefillin — which are nothing but an os, a symbolic affirmation, of faith — is a saint. For whose emunah [belief] has been proved more than that of such a person?

The Satmar Rav knew well that it’s easy to be a what in Yiddish they call “ah tzaddik in peltz.” The trick is to be devoted to Hashem and his Torah in a less luxurious skin than you’re comfortable in.

Whereas if you’re never really tested — E-Z teshuvah — what are your “religious” accomplishments, even if they are unconventional compared to the rest of your classmates?

Mere trophies.

And there are all sorts of tests.

Now, I have never been all that comfortable with the phrase “spiritual Holocaust” to describe the spiral of self-imposed national destruction Jews have imposed on themselves known as assimilation. But in light of the foregoing story, and an observation I made in the mikvah [ritual bath] a few years ago, I began to think that perhaps the term was more apt than I had thought.

The juxtaposition occurred to me after I went to the mikvah once on an erev Shabbos, as is customary among many men. And there I saw a young man who — you couldn’t avoid noticing it — was covered, chest to ankle, with tattoos.

Covered, big time. Purple. Green. Black. Monsters, whatever. Quite a sight.

He was the same young man I had seen in hasidic levush [garb] in shul. Quiet, unassuming, as earnest as you could ever like. Maybe to a fault.

I knew he was a baal teshuvah. I knew a little of his story, in fact.

But I didn’t know about . . . this.

I couldn’t get the picture that that tattooed torso out of my mind. And it occurred to me, eventually, that, well, you can wash off a lot in the mikvah, spiritually speaking. And I am certain there are people with tattoos who have less need for spiritual cleansing than many of the lilliest-toned among us.

But to go to the mikvah knowing that you look like that, and having a pretty good idea of what people will think, or being a meek person yet aware that they will notice, and . . .

How many of us poster boys would be up for that?

No, I have no rebbe. So except for what I send every couple of years to the Alumni Weekly, I don’t do kvitels.

But if I did — to that fellow, I would give my kvitel.

Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Confusion.

15 comments on “Written All Over Him

  1. Would always taking the strict line, even when the full set of these strict positions isn’t halachic-logically self-consistent, be akin to OCD? It might just reflect a lack of self-confidence.

  2. Steve,

    As I said, I liked the article. Regarding the general theme of the article, he’s trying to balance two seemingly opposite concerns; at most, to play devil’s advocate, one might disagree with him in terms of overall emphasis, especially if published for a broad audience like in the JO(which it wasn’t). Regarding the context of the Keser Rosh, etc., specifically, he elaborated on his approach in a lecture for professionals sponsored by Ohel this February which is available on his website in MP3.

    Regarding OCD in halacha and hashkafa, there is a recent shiur on YU online from Rabbi Willig(“The Line Between Piety and OCD “); Dr. Avigdor Boncheck also recently published “Religious Compulsions and Fears”(Feldheim) which was reviewed in the Winter, 2010 Jewish Action.

    (Regarding the finer-points of “nekudas habechirah” and how it affects responsibility, if you can get a hold of some of the other articles in the JO, it might be clearer what was being debated at the time –I mentioned what I remembered and what was available online)

  3. Shades of Gray-thanks-FWIW, I think that the article on Perfectionism is must reading . How many of us have seen OCD behavior masked as frumkeit? How many of us have heard of the views of the Keser Rosh and R Wolbe ZL in the context in which they are cited in the article?

  4. Steve,

    Those are two different articles.

    The one the JO published in 1996 and which I linked was “Bechira: How Free is Free Will”. The article on Perfectionism(which I also like, although I think his overall thesis can be discussed further) was based on presentations he gave and published elsewhere, not in the JO, as he mentiones at the beginning of the Perfectionism article. I quoted above from the part of the latter that related to an aspect of Nekudas Habechirah that was the focus point of the discussion following the JO article.

  5. Shades of Gray-IMO, I the essence of Dr Sorotzkin’s article is the balancing of striving for perfectionism with emotional health and balance. Having read the article a few times, WADR, I am surprised that the JO published the same-especially given the Keser Rosh’s quoted and highlighted language that points out a misquoting and improper emphasis on one part of one passage of the Zohar.

  6. “Are you reading it differently or did you bring in Dr. Sorotzkin’s article for some other reason?”

    I linked the JO article because it’s an explanation of Nekudas Habechirah with psychological depth that I like and find helpful in understanding Kuntres HaBechirah, and I thought I would link it for anyone interested and also give the background and clarification of it’s points as I recall it originally discussed and debated in the Jewish Observer and in Dr. Sorotzkin’s subsequent writing.

    As far as R. Aryeh Carmell’s translation of MME, I have not seen it recently(like R. Wolbe, I suppose :) , so I can’t comment on any disagreement with Dr. Sorotzkin, but the basic point seems as you say. IIRC, R. Carmell also has an essay in “Challenge” on the topic.

  7. Shades of Gray,

    I read the Torah part of Dr Sorotzkin’s article and I think he is understanding Rabbi Dessler as Rabbi Carmel explains it in Strive for Truth, i.e. Dr Sorotzkin agrees that our Bechira point changes and therefore there is always an area of challenge and therefore growth and Teshuva.

    Are you reading it differently or did you bring in Dr. Sorotzkin’s article for some other reason?

  8. I would highly reccomend Dr Sorotzkin’s “The Pursuit of Excellence” for anyone wondering concerned about perfectionism, especially the verbatim quoted language from the Keser Rosh ( from R Chaim Volozhiner)and how the Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim emphasized an “emotionally healthy and balanced approach to frumkeit is concgruent with the Torah.

  9. Re. R. Dessler and the concept of Nekudas HaBechirah, the following link, by Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin is a discussion of Nekudas HaBechirah as it relates to psychological determinism. An earlier version of this was published in the Jewish Observer in 1996.


    At the time, there was debate in the JO about some points of the article, one of them being(as I recall), the question of Nekudas Habechirah and responsibilty. However, in “The Pursuit of Perfection”, Note 8(also available on Dr. Sorotzkin’s website), he seems to clarify this point by writing that “Yiddishkeit recognizes that life circumstances can restrict a person’s level of free will and subsequently, his degree of responsibility, (although Rav Dessler emphasizes that an element of בחירה , at some level, always remains)”.

    In his rejoinder in the Jewish Observer, I recall Dr. Sorotzkin writing that that he went to R. Wolbe in EY to clarify issues raised by critics of his article, but very interestingly, the latter said that he had not studied the Michtav Meliyahu recently and could not comment! I see this as a lesson regarding R. Wolbe’s care in understanding the meaning of the Michtav Meliyahu.

  10. Ross, Mark’s point is my point. But I will of course demand whatever credit I have “coming to me”!

    Bob, your point I have heard phrased as, when spoken in by an FFB, “Oh, he’s a baal teshuvah? I wish I could be a baal teshuvah.” (As opposed to a “BT.”)

    Thank you, Neil, and you too, Ross.

  11. Rabbi Dessler talks of the free-choice (bechira) point or point of struggle. This point changes as we grow (or fall).

    There is no E-Z teshuva unless you define the end of the process as becoming Shomer Shabbos when in fact that is probably the beginning.

    The idea that the difficult teshuva process continues when we fully embrace mitzvah observance does not negate anybody’s accomplishments to date.

  12. I guess the point of the “yuppie-turned-BT” type of kiruv recruitment story is to recruit more yuppies as BTs. That’s a pretty worthy effort, too!

  13. “E-Z teshuvah for the all-’round high achiever.”

    After 120 years, a sharp looking angel will show you a gold box which is stuffed with unexpected merits. You’ll say, what’s this? He’ll say, it’s yours for your so called “E-Z tschuvah”. You’ll say, Huh? But all I did was find religion, get special attention in yeshiva, quick acceptance…

    He’ll say, So? For YOU, this was AWESOME! This caused us to throw a party in Shamayim (woo-hoo!)which lasted a week (except when we had to stop to sing shirah).

    I would give you my kvitel. (If you don’t charge a lawyer’s rate.)

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