Is Choosing and then Possibly Changing Your Observance Style Practical?

On his website, Rabbi Dovid Gottleib describes his own “Coming Home” experience and gives the following advice regarding selecting a “style” of Jewish Observance:

Many baalei teshuvah become convinced that the Torah is true and try to observe as much of Jewish law as they can, but become bewildered by the wide variety of styles of traditional observance.

In addition to broad differences of philosophy and priorities (Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Chassidic, etc.) there are endless geographic variations. Having no personal tradition to fall back on, they must decide for themselves, without waiting for a comprehensive investigation of all options. In fact, at the beginning of his exploration, the baal teshuvah is usually introduced only to a very small sample of the alternatives – often only one.

Still, one cannot postpone having a single, consistent organizing style to his observance (I’ve seen the mixed up results of trying to form one’s own supposed “synthesis.”) The solution is to adopt a style temporarily, and to explore alternatives as time and circumstances allow. In the meantime, one remains committed and open to change. This requires clear communication with others who depend upon him, such as his spouse, children, etc., since any subsequent changes will affect them as well.

Does this approach to selecting a style of Judaism make sense to you?

What alternatives to this approach of selecting a style can you think of?

Do you know BTs who changed their styles? Did you change your style?

Do you feel that you have the opportunity to change your style?

25 comments on “Is Choosing and then Possibly Changing Your Observance Style Practical?

  1. I think it’s important that BTs explore and interact with different kinds of communities besides the one into which they were m’kareved. Far from confusing or disorienting a BT, this can be very beneficial to one’s growth. Often kiruv people only provide a BT with one, narrow view (probably an attempt not to confuse them), but a BT who is truly looking to grow spiritually might find a better fit for them elsewhere. Suppose someone feels guilty, b/c they are not sure they fit into their community or they don’t always agree with the hashkafah of their rav or community. There may be another derech or community out there in wish they’d be much happier. We all know we do a much better job serving G-d and actualizing out potential when we are bisimcha! On a personal note I was m’kareved through a black-hat, right-wing, yeshivish kiruv organization (similar in style to aish). Often there were things that made me feel out of place and I yearned for a deeper spiritual and emotional connection to Judaism. I eventually became Chabad-Lubavitch. I am very happy with my choice and I maintain close ties to my rabbis from before as well who while they may not have understood my choice, are very kind nonetheless.

  2. I have to admit that I eat “Pas Palter,” ordinary bread baked by non-Jewish bakers (only with a reliable hechsher such as O-U or O-K or Kof-K). Many people who eat “Pas Palter” like us give it up and eat only “Pas Yisroel” during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva. I also drink “Cholov Stam,” inasmuch as I am lactose-intolerant and must drink Lactaid with an O-U instead of regular milk. (I love dairy products and can’t stand having to do without things like ice cream, but if I indulge I get terrible cramps).

    My youngest son (the “Yoshon” guy) is also as you might expect “makpid” on Pas Yisroel and Cholov Yisroel, so we have to make sure that on his monthly visits home from Yeshiva we have appropriate food for him to eat.

  3. If you did hold that you have to kasher from gebroks, then you’d need an extra set of utensils (or 2 sets, for milchiks & flaishiks) for the 8th day.

  4. “Now if he tells me to give up Gebroks for Pesach….THAT would be a problem! I love homemade kneidlach and matzo meal brownies and other matzo meal delights. If he insisted, I would give him soup without kneidlach and potato starch cakes. But I don’t think I would go so far as to Kasher my Pesach pots and pans from having been used for Gebroks.”

    Why would anyone kasher Pesach pots and pans if used for gebroks? According to all halachic opinions, gebroks is minhag, not halachah.

  5. My FFB husband Ira (Yitzchok) picked up a lot of his minhagim not from his father but from his rebbes at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. When our sons were in bais medrash for advanced learning at their respective yeshivos, Ira urged them to consult with their own rebbes and to discard / change anything they were personally not comfortable with. For example, Ira does not put on tefillin during Chol HaMoed, but he told our sons they could do differently if they felt it was better. To his surprise and pleasure, our oldest son told him, “Daddy, any minhag you have is our family minhag.”

  6. Mark, I think thats good advice, but often the style of the shul – if its a kiruv shul – isn’t really a style so much as a hashkafa, and the worldview it presents can be so limiting as to make a ba’al teshuvah believe that to seek out a different congregration/rabbi to emulate would be counter to the tradition.

    When the majority of ‘newbies’ are entering through a particular door to Judaism, saying to follow the rav/shul you’ve joined might not be the best advice. I’m not sure. Its just not clear to me.

  7. Tesyaa #13: If we’re waiting to eat from the new crops until after the special Omer-Offering of Barley is brought, then we are going to be waiting a very long time….until the Bayit Shlishi and the restoration of korbanot. I believe that was the problem in requiring Yoshon / Chodosh chutz laaretz. It’s not just the seventeenth of Nissan automatically making wheat from the new crops “mutar,” although that is the way it works nowadays with Yoshon observance. However, I am definitely not a “boki” or a “maven” in this topic, so please ask your local Orthodox rav for more guidance.

  8. Judy, as I understand Yoshon is considered halacha by many poskim, not minhag; but for some reason most people don’t observe it.

  9. Shira, I agree a Ba’al Teshuva is not aware of these distinctions and that is why I think I agree with Rabbi Gottlieb’s advice to follow the style of local Shul/Rav. When you understand things a little better there is room to make changes.

    I think it would be very beneficial if Rebbeim and Kiruv professionals taught beginning Baalei Teshuva the permitted leniencies of halacha with the understanding that your halacha practices should change as you mature as an observant Jew.

  10. Mark in Post #6 –

    I don’t think a ba’al teshuvah is aware of the levels of distinction you are making enough to make choices like that. And in big communities, there aren’t such community wide minhagim. In terms of shul and Rav, many end up in a shul for geographic reasons, or because of the ‘feeling’ but not because of the Rav, and seek halachic advice elsewhere. So that isn’t so clear either. Everything is further complicated by not even knowing – what is a different way of following halachah vs. what is a different choice of minhag? It just doesn’t seem like it could be so systematic as you are defining it.

  11. My youngest child (who is an FFB) decided to take on the minhag of Yoshon. Most of the time, he’s at his post-high-school Yeshiva anyway, learning in Bais Medrash, and I suppose that the Kashrus of his Yeshiva includes supervision for Yoshon. I was so disappointed when he declined my home-baked chocolate chip cookies for that reason, but how could I yell at him for that? He’s just emulating his BT mom (me) who couldn’t eat her own mother’s cooking due to Kashrus concerns. So I went out and bought flour with a hechsher for Yoshon, and pasta with a hechsher for Yoshon (real easy, just look for the word “YOSHON” on the package, doh). Ironically, my son doesn’t have a problem with the Duncan Hines O-U brownie mix (he says it’s “winter wheat” which is always Yoshon).

    Fortunately the Rabbi Blumenkrantz Pesach guidebook has a very informative chapter on Chodosh and Yoshon, which helped me to understand the differences between “spring wheat” and “winter wheat” and what is involved in keeping Yoshon. I would never keep this minhag myself, too complicated, but if my son won’t eat my home-baked chocolate chip cookies, well, I have to accommodate him. He’s such a great kid, and it’s such a small thing to do, and so easy.

    Now if he tells me to give up Gebroks for Pesach….THAT would be a problem! I love homemade kneidlach and matzo meal brownies and other matzo meal delights. If he insisted, I would give him soup without kneidlach and potato starch cakes. But I don’t think I would go so far as to Kasher my Pesach pots and pans from having been used for Gebroks.

  12. In today’s weak economy, people are often less mobile than in recent decades. What do the stylists say about dealing with mismatches between a person’s preferred style and the styles available locally via shul rabbonim?

  13. Many of the comments here assume that FFBs mindlessly replicate the “style” of their parents and communities.

    Outside of some very prescribed Haredi circles, this isn’t exactly true. There are gradations of practice, optional minhagim, new ideas picked up at yeshiva, and compromises between inherited family practices.

    Everyone is “synthesizing”. Expecting to find a “style” that suits your unique soul(s) is like wearing an off-the-rack suit without alterations.

  14. one of the problems with choosing a “style” is that the new ba’al teshuva knows so little about Torah that he has no idea what the different “styles” are about much more than style. eventually each person has to find the approach to Torah that works for him, but at first it’s hard to know what they are about.

  15. Rabbi Gottleib is not advocating synthesis he is advocating choosing a style. Perhaps he should have been more explicit about what that entailed since he was using a new term (style).

    I think the first broad division among style is whether you are following halacha and the community wide minhagim according to the Modern, Yeshivish or Chassidish poskim.

    Within each of those groups there are further divisions which will depend on your Shul and your primary Rav/Rebbe.

    Within those broad division there are sometimes additional choices to be made such as Standing/Sitting for Chiddush, dress during davening, Gebrokts, Tefillin on Chol Hamoed, etc.

    There is not so much room to mix and match after you’ve chosen your Shul and Rav/Rebbe.

  16. From what I have seen, it might be easier to be a synthesis in the States than here in Israel.

    The communities that I experienced in the States were mixtures of all observance levels.

    That is much harder to find in Israel.

  17. Unless you join a very specialized group, the mix’n’match method is all you are really left with, isn’t it? Here, there are different minhagim depending on what shul you go to, what hashkafa you ascribe to, what family you belong to, etc. Everyone does everything in various little different ways. How can you help but mix and match, when trying to incorporate practices?

  18. I liked his comment about those “synthesizers” out there. Of course we are many of us synthesizers, especially BT’s; but the mix and match approach does not probably offer a great long term plan for most.

  19. I’m reading style as ‘packages of minhagim’. I know BTs who started out MO and wound up chassids.

    On the individual minhag level, we started out keeping chalav yisrael and gave it up, on my wife’s part due to cost and availability reasons, and me because I never supported that minhag in the first place. We kept 42 minutes after sunset for Shabbat and now keep 60, for reasons of matching our community practice. Our first rabbi encouraged us to gradually become stricter about which hecksherim we accepted. We tried to conform to community standards about that, but our community doesn’t really have a single standard.

  20. Mid-course corrections, or at least, reflections, are central to teshuva. The corrections may need to be large or small, depending on the person and the situation.

    In this context, I don’t think “style” is the completely right word. After all, content is involved, not only theme, packaging or organization. Maybe “style” was used to suggest that the elements of our lives should be internally consistent. Which gets to another point: is there necessarily an appropriate prepackaged style out there to suit each Jew, or is our input also important to put something of ourselves into our style?

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