The Irregular Growth Curves of the Baal Teshuva

My, how I have grown. I don’t mean “how much.” I mean, “how,” as in the manner or progress of a thing.

One of the cliches we hear, and learn to repeat, as baalei teshuva is the idea that you have to always be moving forward, growing, or else you’re doing something other than staying the same. “Growth,” improvement, development, are necessary components to an ongoing, meaningful life as an observant Jew. This is the mussar imperative, and perhaps also a concept also found in chasidus, though it is not obvious from a casual study study of Judaism. To some extent the implantation of this idea early on in our development as orthodox Jews is the placement of what may propel most of us to “the right.” But this description of movement is facile… one dimensional.

On a graph along the X and Y axes, one would think that — if there were some way to quantify it — one’s avodas Hashem would be represented by a nice, smooth curve of upward spiritual growth. But we have discussed here many times how seldom it is that the experience is an unadulterated parabolic delight — or perhaps more accurately how the experience can be perfectly parabolic, in the less felicitous sense of featuring both the up and the down side of the curve.

Really, we should use integral calculus when measuring our ups and downs. As we all know, integral calculus means measuring the area under a curve, defined by f(x), between two points (say a and b). The area under a curve does not care what the shape of the curve is; its value is absolute. This value we may hypothesize as actually being the true measure of a meaningful Jewish life. Any life. Your life. (Yes, I recognize this steps a little on the toes of my most recent post on a related topic. Let us call this a… refinement.)

My curve in the last few years has been… funny. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It wasn’t, perhaps, what I would have thought it ought to have been. The route it has traced along those famous axes has taken me places that I am sure if you had asked me ten or even five years ago I would not have volunteered to go. Life is full of surprises, though.

In my case, at a certain point I was in a holding pattern. I had not really continued growing. The pressures of family life, making a living, all those standard excuses, as well as laziness and, if I may use the term here, jadedness had probably kept me more or less meandering spiritually for a decade.

My curve dipped. It peaked; it valleyed. I needed to know, to feel, even to hurt more in order to be more, and God provided me with a number of extraordinary opportunities to learn more, some of which came at some risk to the safe and happy mental life in which I frolicked. For one, I got involved in new and different kinds of kiruv — don’t worry; all fully “sanctioned.” Also, through my professional life, I moved “up” in frum society, and thereby also gained behind the scenes looks at the sort of reality, sometimes squalid, sometimes glorious but necessarily anonymous, that does not get taught in beginners’ seminars. And, off a less beaten path, I chose to establish genuine friendships — not kiruv files — with people who had views about the Torah world and even the Torah itself with whom I previously would not have ever had anything to do, and I engaged them sincerely, as equals, and listened to what they had to say, and then some. In short, I exposed myself to the rough edges. Some pointy-rough edges, in fact, which were encroaching on me stealthily, anyway. But this engagement is what they tell us, as we leave BT school, we’re not supposed to do. And what I wrote in these very “pages” I would not do. But I did it.

The sort of engagement I took up, really, may not be for everyone. You have to have quite a bit of self-confidence, and ego, to follow the curves I have in this latest stage of my “growth.” I had to do it. I have to still. With my characteristic modesty I will remind those not already bored of hearing it that I was an early success, a quick learner, almost literally a poster boy for the movement. So I got “there” fast — and then what? After a period of stasis, I had to open the doors again (were they the same doors?) and walk through them and see who I really was, and who and what I could yet become. And I did.

And I am still here, never more sure of who I am, and the decisions I have made. I learned through these encounters to appreciate more than ever the world in which I have ensconced myself, — even if some of my new friends (and they will always be that, I hope) shake their heads more in wonder than ever about my choices, knowing me and my views and where we might agree about what they think are crucial things. They may not understand what they have done for me — how their passion, their honesty, the blood from their wounds they have bled on me and the gall of their own devices with which they have splashed me — have nourished who I am now, and what I can yet become as a Jew, if only because I opened my heart a crack … as a Jew really should do. I would never have dreamed, if you had told me about where I would “go” emotionally and psychologically in this process, how much stronger, deeper, wiser I would be at the end of it, how much more meaning there is in my choice, how much more love there is in my life.

Maybe my particular wrestling matches were not for everyone, but there is some juncture… some moment… some challenge… some “hard” or obnoxious question, from which each of us, depending on who we are, and where it is, and when, should not walk away. For our own good, our own eternity. That encounter is different for all of us, but at this time in history, in our place, each of us must, at some point, engage this world.

The formula that defines my curve is mine alone. The measure of it all is, I say, what is accumulated under the curve and, with God’s help, in its continued progress… yes, upward. Because of where my formula has taken me in the last few clicks along the x-axis, I will never be the same, after too long of being just that. Is there any other way to define growth? For me, there was not.

Originally Published April 2, 2008

8 comments on “The Irregular Growth Curves of the Baal Teshuva

  1. Learning to accept that my “growth” doesn’t have to be at a constant, steep upward slope has helped me to make more progress overall, Jewishly and personally.

    I’ll paraphrase and embellish something I recently heard on a Jewish radio station: Life cannot be a straight line, it’s going to have ups and downs. You wouldn’t want a straight line for an EKG, would you?

  2. bb–You lost me at the mention of asymptotes…You know the really sad thing? My dad is the chair of the math department at a large public school and teaches calculus and trig.

  3. bb, I meant for my metaphor to include that possibility, although the exact one you posit is by far the strongest attack on my model. But I am saying that even if you’re not always “growing,” and even if you put yourself in a challenging situation, you can always draw on that absolute value of “the area under the curve.”

  4. Look at all the ups and downs of the Jewish people, the teshuva nation, throughout history, in our land and in exile. It’s anything but an ever-ascending curve, at least to my uninformed eyes. There are periods of ascent, consolidation, decline, more ascent, you name it. We can try to impose our own patterns or theories on the raw data in hindsight, but not all, and maybe not any, are really on the mark. We have an assurance from HaShem of eventual success, but the road is still rocky (or in my neighborhood, full of potholes) and the map is often hard to read.

    As for calculus:
    Individually and collectively, we all have to strike some balance between differentiation and integration. The splintering of our people into ever-tinier cliques can cause problems, but so can the submergence of personal or group identities within a larger group.

  5. I’m a long time lurker, never yet commented. First, sorry to say I’m an FFB, so it may disqualify me from commenting, but here goes.

    The integral calculus analogy you used is not valid because you are measuring the total area under the curve. If I posit an asymptote of 0.00001 (on the scale of 1-100) of yiddishkeit, the area under the curve would constantly increase even though your connection to Judaism is constatntly decreasing.

    I think the way you describe the constant growth that people talk of is not the best characterization. I prefer to characterize it in the following way. Judaism (besides for the technical nature of following ritual) is having a relationship with Hashem. Relationships, such as friendships and marriages, have their peaks and valleys in terms of the closeness one feels to the other party in the relationship. However, the real key to defining that relationship is – do I care about it? If the answer is yes, then I should work on it. If I don’t care about it, I let it go to waste. So too my relationship with Hashem. If I care, I work on it, if not, I don’t. The measure isn’t how close I feel, the measure is do I care to work on it. Do I try to understand what is interferring with the relationship? Once I understand the problems, do I try to correct them. Not all issues are resolved quickly, or ever. But if I care, I try different approaches to enhance the relationship.

    I am not sure how to characterize this mathematically, because the measure isn’t the total nor is it the actual observable growth. It probably needs a meta-mathematical model.

  6. “As we all know, integral calculus means measuring the area under a curve, defined by f(x), between two points (say a and b).” (emphasis mine)

    LOL. I chose my undergrad major by the amount of math required. Hence my BA in Art…

    Another great essay Ron! If you are the poster child for kiruv success, I’m the reason why kiruv workers never give up on the “lost causes.” Although I am too early into my own curve to say for sure, I think I started off in a holding pattern. For me it was, “yeah, I agree, Torah applies to me and I should follow what it says 100%, let me just do a whole bunch of things I really shouldn’t do and get back to you in four years.”

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