By Shira. After getting married, Shira’s husband became a BT. They’ve worked together to patch a semi-frum lifestyle together which includes attending an orthodox shul, keep a kosher home, and keeping shabbos.
As a BT who went off, daughter of another BT who went off, and having encountered more than a few who were BT, went off (or almost did), and some that came back, I’ve come to have a few ideas about why this happens.
Not in any particular order of importance:
1. Kiruv is generally one-sided, hashkafically. Recipients do not necessarily realize that other ‘brands’ are legitimate within Orthodoxy when what they are presented with is the ‘right’ way. Its not that other groups of Orthodoxy are ignored or put-down, so much as never mentioned. Someone says, “This is how you do this,” and a BT hears, “This is the way God wants us to do this.” Hearing, “This is one of the ways that Jews believe God wants us to do this,” would leave more paths open in a BT’s mind for questions of hashkafa. Hashkafa is such a muddy area for a BT to navigate, it should be made clear from the get-go that there are many ways to be orthodox, and one is not lesser or lower than another. In the kiruv environment, a lot of differences in how to do a mitzvah are categorized as different ‘levels’ of observance – and everyone doing at their own level of the moment. This implies that those who seem to do ‘less’ are doing a lesser form, when in fact many cases of differences in observance are based on equal but different interpretations of halacha, rather than instances of leniency and stringency.
2. Seeing immoral actions done by so-called frum people, and even by whole communities, is huge. Who counts as ‘frum’ seems to centre around certain types of mitzvahs, while other areas are neglected. Yes, outward mitzvahs are more visible, so its more easy to judge who is frum by them, but that doesn’t make it spiritually healthy for a community. A person becomes BT and wants to fit in… what seems to help one fit in most is to conform with those outward mitzvahs first. Shabbos, kashruth, etc. This is a problem in the frum world in general, not just the kiruv communities. Judgement of others, whether outright or subtly, needs to change. Emphasis on the good that a person does, the mitzvahs that a person does which are not necessarily ritualistic, should be made more of a priority. Assumptions about a person’s character, integrity, or commitment to Judaism should not be based on the visible trappings that person has taken on. When BT’s are turned off by the immoral actions of communities and community members, they are often given the line “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” What a shallow answer to such a big problem. Judaism looks more like the Jews, today, than what God originally handed down at Sinai. Real Jews, who made immoral choices as well as good choices, created Judaism as we practice it, Rabbinic Judaism. So, its not so easy to tease out what is Judaism and what is “the Jews.” The answer just does not suffice. A better answer is to recognize that every group in the world contains good and bad people, including Judaism.
3. The Judaism offered by kiruv is most often very shallow. It doesn’t address real difficulties in life, it doesn’t bend for different people. BT’s don’t know enough to realize that there are leniencies and ways around. They don’t know enough to realize there are other streams of orthodoxy which might suit them better. They don’t realize that they can daven less than what the class they attended called the ‘minimum’ and they whip themselves internally for not living up to what they think are God’s expectations of all Jews.
4. This is a tricky one. When a BT is unhappy with how they are living, it isn’t necessarily visible to those around them. Its easy to hide behind the ritualistic day-to-day living and not let anyone know the difficulties that are going on inside oneself, especially if it doesn’t seem like anyone else is having those types of difficulties. If such a BT person does reach out, and ask tough questions, and question the Torah and mitzvahs, and generally express their unhappiness with what they are living, no one says to that person, “Stop doing mitzvahs.” The message given out is to ‘go slow,’ not take on ‘too much too soon,’ etc. None of it is directed to someone who’s already gone too far. No one tells a BT to stop doing a mitzvah, if they look unhappy. No one says to step back, take a break, reflect without doing, do less, try again later. The advice you might get if you are asking for help is to ‘try harder’ or find different ways to get connection out of continuing the do the mitzvahs. For some people, who went too far too fast, it would be better to tell them to stop practicing some parts and give themselves time to catch up with their changes.
5. BT’s expect more of themselves than perhaps the religion expects. Much of the kiruv experience focuses on how to practice Judaism… and the BT doesn’t encounter examples in Jewish history of characters who were ‘less than.’ Hasidic stories about about seemingly perfect rabbis. Efforts are made to interpret the ‘mistakes’ of the forefathers as ‘not really mistakes.’ There is a lot of guilt for a BT in not living up to what is perceived as the base-line. It doesn’t help that the idea of “If you aren’t moving up, you are moving down” is common. Sometimes the effort of staying in just one spot, or just even slowing one’s descent, is more than a person can do. The idea that you must keep striving for better is damaging without more context. And especially this idea is very dangerous because it is often mixed up with the idea of ‘levels’ of practice, and differences of hashkafa.
Of those who I became frum with, who remained observant over the past many years, I’ve observed that they did so because they were able to reframe and find new reasons for continuing on, even when sometimes not completely satisfied. I think such people are less likely to be perfectionist, and give themselves much more leeway in making mistakes. They are people who are good at forgiving themselves, and believing that God forgives them. The BT’s who left, that I have encountered, for the most part seem to be people are are extremely deep thinkers, who have a very high sense of morality, who look for integrity in Judaism, who set high standards and ask very difficult questions.
I’m not really sure how kiruv people could even identify the type of person I was, in order to slow them down or give warning, or teach differently. I was the person who knew every answer in the kiruv classes, who conformed in most every way, who always had astute questions to ask, etc. I looked like a model student.
I also wonder how successful kiruv really is. How many of those who are brought in, stay?
Another thing I’ve noticed, which I didn’t see as a BT, was that even the most observant people I’ve met don’t necessarily put on and tie their shoes in the correct halachic order. The most pious Jews still have areas where they don’t know or don’t bother. Every Jew I’ve encountered who I categorized as ‘very frum’ turned out to have an area of halacha which they chose to ignore the fine details of. A blind spot. Something they’ve chosen not to find out more about, for fear of needing to change, or from lack of interest, or other reasons I can’t fathom. But its interesting that BT’s feel obligated to pursue and ‘do correctly’ any new halacha they hear of, while others who are long-time frum (BT or FFB) seem able to just turn a blind eye to some areas.