It was my third month at Ohr Somayach, and I had only recently come around to acknowledging the truth of the Torah and recognizing my obligation to keep the mitzvos.

Shabbos was easy; after all, eating, singing, and sleeping didn’t put too much strain on my impulse-control mechanism. Kashrus was easy; I had little money and ate exclusively in the yeshiva cafeteria and by my Shabbos hosts. Mincha and maariv weren’t too challenging, although I still davened in English.

Shacharis was a different story. After four years of college, my body clock had long been set for 9:00 wakeup, and rousing myself for 6:45 seemed downright fanatical. At that point in my Torah observance, I wasn’t even motivated to try.

My new roommate was motivated, but his body clock wasn’t any more cooperative than mine. He dealt with his problem by placing a smoke-alarm style alarm clock on the other side of the room. It took about 15 minutes of ear-splitting buzzing for him to get himself out of bed to turn it off. It took me about three weeks to move out.

I was just settling into my new room when Norman arrived. He didn’t want to be there, and he had no interest in Torah. In fact, he seemed to have little interest in anything at all … except girls. But his grandmother had offered to pay him a thousand dollars (or was it two thousand?) if he attended yeshiva for six weeks. So there he was, serving his time and sharing my room.

It was one of the most exciting periods in my life, challenging Rav Dovid Gottleib as he articulated the fundamentals of Torah philosophy, trying to pick apart his arguments and proofs, struggling to integrate my past into my present, and vexing over how much of my former life could be salvaged and how much would have to be discarded.

Norman wasn’t vexing over anything. He was just doing time.

Which is not to say that he was not engaged. He argued, he debated, he listened to our rabbeim present their ideas and their proofs and tried to rebut them. But never for an instant did he seem to seriously consider the possibility that he might some day become Torah observant himself.

I remember the day he packed up to leave. I asked him what impression six weeks in yeshiva had made on him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his answer.

“The rabbis are right,” he said. “They’ve answered all my questions. Their proofs are all sound. I can’t refute anything they’ve said.”

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

“Nothing. I like chasing girls.”

I still can’t understand his answer. He could have said that the concept of an infinite G-d is too grand and abstract for him to accept. He could have said that he believed that rabbinic logic was polished sophistry, and that the rabbis’ arguments were smoke and mirrors. He could have said a lot of things that I might have understood. But his essential rejection of mitzvah observance boiled down to this:

“The Torah is true. But I don’t care.”

How is it possible not to care? Perhaps this question is particularly poignant for ba’alei tshuva. Why else would we have recast our entire lives and worldviews, except because of the compelling magnetism of Torah? We can’t help but take the indifference of others personally, for it seems to negate everything we have done and everything we have come to believe.

After many years in chinuch, I’ve become adept at explaining answers to the same questions I posed to my rabbeim half a lifetime ago. I can teach ideas. I can teach information. I can teach skills. Sometimes I manage to inspire my students, and occasionally I can even get them to think. But the question that still haunts me the most, the one I still haven’t begun to answer, is this:

How do you teach someone else to care?

Maybe there is no answer. Maybe the only answer is that those of us who do care have to push ourselves to care even more.

Originally Published 02/13/2008

42 comments on “Norman

  1. In general, I agree with those who focused on the non-intellectual end of decision-making — the emotional and subconscious stuff that motivates our decisions.

    I don’t know what was meant by “control”. Norman as depicted is simply someone who didn’t generally live on an idealistic or spiritual level. So he went through OS and learned things on an abstract level, but not what it takes to be motivated to act on his knowledge. This isn’t a matter of giving up control, but rather whether the person chooses to hand control to his intellect or to let some middah (charater trait) or desire take the reins.

    Cognitive dissonance is when one has an intellectual conflict. The emotional parallel, ambivalence, is not only sustainable, but the Norm. Ask anyone who knows how healthy it is to be overweight, but doesn’t diet. Or smokers.

    R’ Elya Lopian would say that Mussar is an exercise of moving something the distance of an ammah (cubit) — moving an idea from the brain to the heart. The Sefas Emes makes a similar point using a verse from Aleinu: “veyadata hayom vehasheivosa el levavekha — you shall know today, and respond to your heart.” Because even things the brain knows could still require inculcating into the heart. (This totally contradicts the Rambam [Guide 1:1-2, 3:54, and elsewhere], but that’s a different story.)

    Norman is in the same shoes as FFBs who continue doing the minimal possible to be an accepted member of their O community, but cut corners on everything beyond that. The O-lites of each flavor of O. They know there is an Ayin ro’ah ve’ozen shoma’as — if you have any doubts, catch their davening during Ne’ilah (or whenever), but the intellectual knowledge is not enough to change behavior.

    Where the guy fits the abNorm is that he went to Ohr Samayach at all. One thing kiruv learned in the past decade was that throwing more money and manpower at the problem didn’t increase the number of BT more than marginally. (I think the ’00s had twice the money invested as the ’90s, according to what was thrown around at the AJOP conference.) And I think (personal hypothesis) it’s because there are two very very fuzzy sets of people in their target audience. Maybe we should refer to two archetypes. The seekers were generally finding the kiruv people at the old level of investment, and the rest generally don’t care even if more programming is available to them. And so it was just the number of people who were potentially seekers who simply didn’t have the right button pushed, the right encounter, until now. A marginal growth.

  2. Steve I know about that and every time I hear the cute catch tune on the radio (yes they advertise out here i Chicago too) I wonder if the average American listening has the faintest clue as to where the car is being donated to. But why exactly did you direct that comment to me? Was it because I mentioned that humans have the capacity to be honest and still be weak morally?

  3. Bob-we don’t have such watchdogs on a communal level. However, in Baltimore, noone collects Tzedaka without R Heineman’s approval. Rabbis urge their members to give to the tzedakos and mosdos that they deem the most important. The mossad that I referred to makes no reference in its ads for car donations that any of its services to kiruv. One has to click a mouse and find a linked web site and tax return for that information. The car donation ads and blurbs refer to “underprivileged children”.

  4. Steve,

    Do we have watchdog organizations who fairly evaluate the performance of our charities? How do rabbis and shuls decide where to route their contributions?

    Does the mosad you referred to claim that its kiruv services go solely or primarily to children deprived of some non-material good thing (e.g., Torah) ?

  5. Gershon-there are few things that get me more upset than failing to adhere to Midas HaEmes in the many Mitzvos Bein Adam LChavero that affect not one of us, but potentially all of Klal Yisrael. Let me give a specific case-there is a mosad in the kiruv world that raises funds via donation of used cars. The advertising says nothing about the purpose or use of the donation except that one is helping “underprivileged children”. The facts are that if one follows the trail of a tax return and links, one reaches a kiruv site. When a local reporter exposed it, she was treated poorly by the person running this operation in a major Torah community. One can argue very convincingly that the whole operation is run in violation of a severe prohibition-Gnevas Daas. Yet, if one sees the posts on at least two other blogs, there is no shame-instead, one sees rationalization and justification of what can arguably called Chillul HaShem. Like it or not, such incidents and others of the same ilk can have a profoundly negative influence on a would be BT.

  6. THAT’s why we need Torah, Fern. The COMPLETE Torah. Our “strangeness” is the yeitzer, which seeps into the most kodesh places. Even our supremely rational mind. Nadav and Avihu gave “aish zara” that everyone says was truly kodesh, yet it terribly backfired, as an explicit punishment. How could that be? Now consider that the word zara has at it’s root zeir, which means crown,or periphery ring, like that which surrounds the Ark. What’s the connection??

    We humans are very strange indeed. As long as we are calling the shots, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to lead a successful kodesh life. Our Yeitzer will follow us even there… and then we’re in BIG trouble.

    People like Norm realize that. In a certain way they are to be commended. And then we must learn the lesson… and daven our hearts out to learn how to live HIS Torah on HIS terms.

  7. Sorry, I hit the submit button too soon…

    The funny thing is, that I can remember very well exactly where I was and what I was doing when I realized that I didn’t believe in the Reform interpretation and that instead, I believed that Torah was true and it applied to me. I was eating fast food with my mom, in my car. But it took a couple of years for me to seriously start investigating what it meant to live an observant life. I think there was a part of me who really identified with what the young man Ellen described did. There was a disconnect between what I believed and what I wanted to do. I have an uncle who essentially is permanently stuck in that disconnect. He davens regularly at an Orthodox shul and with Orthodox minyans, he accepts the Orthodox understanding of Torah and mitzvot…but he just likes eating treif food and using his microwave during Shabbat. Yaakov Eric is right. We humans are very strange creatures!

  8. “I doubt that many people actually make a decision to become a Baal Teshuva based on rational explanations. Almost every one I know who really looked back at their decision to become Orthodox talks about their good experiences – the community, the shabbot meals etc.”

    I made the decision to be be observant before I had ever met an Orthodox Jew, let alone been invited to a Shabbos dinner. I was raised Reform but when I was in my early twenties I realized that Reform’s interpretation of Torah didn’t make sense to me. Why would G-d give us an explanation of how to live and then not expect us to follow all of the directions, and why would I want to follow directions on how to live if they were written by men who made mistakes when they were writing the instructions? After I had that realization, I started investigating the Orthodox understanding of Torah and mitzvot. The rest is history. ;-)

  9. How about considering him as being machmeer in the first part of “v’asisa es ha’yeshar v’ha’tov b’einei H'”?

    Before we get to the Tov, we need the yeshar.

    How many people do we know who have dived into the world of Tov – of kdusha and tsedek and din and emuna – but remain far from the world of yosher? As per the shabbos morning tfillah:

    B’fee YESHARIM comes before all mention of Tsaddikim, chasidim and kdoishim!

    True Tov takes time.

  10. Knowing the truth, knowing you are trying to live up to it – these are pleasures of a sort.

    Rav Dessler discusses the person who is simply not interested in such spriritual or intellectual pleasures – who considers them a burden. These are the “Esau” types who can been exposed to great Torah personlities, and reject their connection to them – who can say “we’re all going to die anyway, so what good is it to me is to be Isaac’s firtborn?”

    The question illustrates the mindset that produces it: what’s in it for me – using the basest, most material definitions of “me” and “benefit”.

    Pretty common attitude among products of modern materialism and secular indoctrination. Kiruv workers will tell you that the greatest attrition comes before the lecture – most people simply bow out. They’re not interested.

    What’s unusual about Norm’s story is that such an indifferent fellow was induced to actually sit down and listen.

    And perhaps the author thought that the beauty/truth/power of Torah must inexorably effect people who are exposed to it. Didn’t happen.

  11. The fellow who said this to me is a serious and very sensitive kiruv guy who has worked for and headed some of the best known kiruv initiatives ever — and who is an FFB from a well-known American yeshiva family who is no stranger to the seamy underside of pretty much everything. More than this I can’t say without as much as spelling out who he is, except to say that if I could say it, his words would be even more surprising.

    Having said all that, perhaps for these reasons his take is entitled to a lot of credibility. We certainly must always be awake to the power of rationalization, after all.

    But it’s hard for me to abandon my original thesis.

  12. Steve, what you say doesn’t contradict my point, which is really that packaging of people or products or whatever can be deceptive and we need to be on guard. If we had been more attentive, we might have detected your jailbird’s problem before charges were even filed.

  13. Bob Miller-Unfortunately, there are many people of stature within the Torah observant world who are very willing and eager to rationalize conduct that is a Chillul HaShem. Today’s NY Times mentioned a lawsuit by a ritually observant person serving a hefty Federal prison sentence for financial fraud whose complaint is that he cannot daven in his cell because there is a toilet in the cell.

  14. As long as some types of public behavior and special garb earn respect, there will also be perp types who outwardly act and dress the part but with evil intent. Our job as mature adults is to not be taken in by superficialities.

  15. Like it or not, both a BT and FFB should be upset when someone who purports to be a “spiritual leader” but who in reality is just a “ritually observant” Jew walks a “perp walk” for a white collar offense. It is a sad reality, but one can find Federal prisons where there are Daf Yomi shiurim and litigation over wearing beards and being provided Glatt Kosher food and the ability to keep Shabbos, etc, reported in the Federal case law reports. FWIW, RSZA was agast when soneone suggested that there was a mitzvah of Pidyon Shevuyim for such persons. R Y Kaminetzy did not believe that such a person should recite a bracha upon his release from jail because there was an adequate basis for his being convicted and sentenced in the first place.

    FWIW,anyone who has read about a certain “spiritual leader” and his indictment on multiple Federal violations of securities laws and who apparently operated under the view that ignoring Anerican law was no different than ignoring the royal edicts of a European monarch because the ends justified the means of “saving” his mossad should be disturbed and upset at the use of such an inappropriate rational. IMO, kiruv professionals should be willing to say to anyone that such conduct is wrong, as opposed to exercising in rhetoric that can only be described as “blaming the victim.”

  16. Ron Coleman mentioned a conversation with a “kiruv professsional” in which that person blamed the “yetzer hara” of a potential BT. WADR, that approach strikes me as cyncical and displaying a lack of empathy for a BT’s place and point of origin, impatience and high standards that he or she may expect and have for the FFB world.Like it or not, pictures of FFBs and or their purported “spiritual leaders”, regardless of their hashkafa, doing a “perp walk” for white collar crimes, raise or should raise questions within our communities of the midos or lack thereof of such individuals and the origins of such behavior that is such a potential Chillul HaShem-as opposed to blaming the victim and his or her Yetzer Harah.

  17. Yes, Gershon, his honesty was impressive, but that’s really the source of my consternation.

    It is strange to reflect that at that same time in my life you were telling me not to get upset over mispronouncing every other word in the gemara, since only a few weeks earlier I had been misprouncing EVERY word.

    Maybe I’ll write my next post about you. But, of course, I don’t want to embarrass you. (-;

    Say hi to my daughter this Shabbos.

  18. Most of us rationalize our yeitzer haras. We don’t simply declare our indifference.

    He was more honest than most people but still had moral weakness, that’s all.

    I know/knew 4 people like that. I commend them for their honesty – Well, 3 of them. All 3 came back eventually. The 4th person was never really in, in the first place. That person simply told me that he doesn’t wasn’t to discover the truth and change his life.

  19. Am I missing something here? Norm said he didn’t want to remain in yeshiva, and would rather chase girls. Did he say that he didn’t want to be a shomer Torah u’mitzvos? My son has a friend whose mother wasn’t Jewish when he was born but converted 2 years later. Years later, after his first trip to Israel, he also found truth in Judaism. But being in his very early twenties, he also realized that once he formally converted, he’d have to give up his lifestyle. So he decided to get the rest of it out of his system, then returned to Israel, learned in yeshiva, and he became ready to assume “ole malchus shamayim”. Incidentally, he went to the mikvah twice because he was concerned over the “kashrus” of his first tevillah.

  20. I am curious about the pressure he was receiving back at home. Like you said, he was only serving time… It could be that he was hellbent to prove to his grandmother that he will make her happy and go to Yeshiva, yet still remain the same person. I have found that most bts I know stumble upon Torah, and then struggle with it, and then maybe even fight for it, as opposed to just being plopped into a yeshiva/seminary.

  21. As Rav Nota Schiller is famous for saying: Man is a psychological and not a logical creature.

    I suppose that my own inability to internalize the very obvious answer to my own question about Norman proves Rav Schiller’s point. Nevertheless, some choices are so obvious that free will seems no longer in play. I don’t stick my hand in the fire or swallow industrial cleaner because the consequences are self-evident.

    I suppose what continues to bother me about Norman is his unapologetic refusal to act upon what he conceded to be true. Most of us rationalize our yeitzer haras. We don’t simply declare our indifference.

  22. Capital-C Chassidus is any of a number of competing philosophies or sometimes ways of life promulgated by different hasidic traditions.

    Chassidus is the quality of being pious, righteous, etc., regardless of one’s Jewish “style.” When we say in davening, “al tzaddikim, v’al ha-chasidim,” we mean people who have achieved this — not (necessarily) people with peyos and beaver hats and long coats.

    These may intersect, but they are not the same thing.

  23. I fail to see the mystery here. Norman is normal.

    Think of how many otherwise intelligent, ethical, responsible people, including most of the Orthodox and including most BTs know that they’re obligated to take care of their health, but refuse to (or find it inordinately difficult to) restrict or eliminate their intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, refined sugar, salt, hydrogenated and other oils, fried food, refined white flour, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, synthetic sweeteners, hard alcohol, caffeine, and soda to mention some major offenders, and at the same time refuse to increase their intake of the healthiest foods on the planet: fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains? And this even in the face of being (sometimes very significantly or even grossly) overweight, sluggish, and often plagued with both major and minor health issues! And worse, it isn’t just that they eat this noxious stuff, but they feed it to their children, predisposing their children to cancer, heart disease, and other serious illnesses later in life! (See Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s excellent book “Disease-proof your Child.” for documentation of this claim.)

    Most people are impervious to logic, truth and even to self-interest in most areas of their lives. Even Baalei Tshuva, who’ve shown radical openness to truth in embracing Torah, are blithely resistant to other truths, because they may take them outside their comfort/pleasure zone, and might put them in conflict with the culture they’ve embraced.

    So Norman is no mystery. He is us. (And we are him and we are all together . . . goo-goo-goo-joob.) Thus there’s little cause for feeling superior or even baffled (well, okay, it is baffling that people won’t embrace the truths we’ve embraced -but that’s unfortunately entirely normal.): we’re all of us willfully blind in one way or the other to things that are true, and things that are beneficial. It’s human nature. We all have areas in our lives where if we’d really sit down and analyze the situation rigorously and honestly, that we’d see that we’ve been in the wrong: it could be in politics, business/livelihood, religion, diet, leisure, relationships -anywhere, and we ought really to do this. And our own blind-spots ought to give us understanding of other people’s obtuseness.

  24. I do not see the suprise that you have in Norman. I doubt that many people actually make a decision to become a Baal Teshuva based on rational explanations. Almost every one I know who really looked back at their decision to become Orthodox talks about their good experiences – the community, the shabbot meals etc.

    Ask the average Baal Teshuva to give you a detailed explanation of Orthodox Theology or Proofs of Judaism and you will likely get a vaguely worded answer with little detail. Ask them to tell you about their first experience with the community and you would likely get an hour long discussion of who was nice and how they were invited to meals…

  25. R’ Yonason, great piece!

    Hope you’re doing well. Interesting to think that while at exactly that same time in your life I was learning with you 12 hours later each day. Who knew about your shacharis schedule? :-)

    Ever read the book Off the Derech? I think the answer to your question lies in that book. People who don’t find happiness in Yiddishkeit look for it elsewhere. It’s a basic fact. Just as people are drawn to Yiddishkeit because it offers hope for a happier life, so too people leave Yiddishkeit when they feel that they will be happier elsewhere. Right or wrong doesn’t matter to a person who is dealing with intense emotions. Sad but true. For that fellow, while the debates were all fine and dandy, he could have used a huge dose of simcha in his Jewish diet.

  26. I think that Ron Coleman has mostly seen it. But, the proper word isn’t – in the first instance – “care.” It’s belief. That’s the fundamental point. R. Godson believed, so he cared; Norman didn’t, so…

    Also, the $1,000 or $2,000 may have been meaningful; but what Jew doesn’t listen to his grandmother? His parents, well – that’s the nature of life; but his grandmother?

  27. I think Norman is the norm, but what made his case stand out is that he was in touch with his feeling and expressed them. People who become observant are a small minority of people exposed to Torah.

    But I do like some of Ron’s distinctions above. Perhaps we can take it a step further and say that our view about G-d, Torah and Reward & Punishment (the fundamentals) run on a continuum from faith to belief to knowledge. Possible we here on Beyond BT are in the belief to knowledge segment. Norm was in the faith to belief segment making it easier for him to push it off.

  28. “The Torah is true. But I don’t care.”

    On second thought, frankly, I think there’s another way of looking at this.

    He doesn’t really think it’s true. He can’t. That level of cognitive dissonance is not possible.

    He is really saying, in my opinion, “I am too lazy to continue arguing. You guys have done your homework. I’m not prepared to fight any more. But it has not reached into me. You have not made me know it, merely ‘believe it’ [shout out to DK!]. I’d rather just ‘concede’ whatever it is you’re talking about and get out of here before I really do come to believe it. So, okay, you’re ‘right,’ and I’m out of here.”

    Just throwing this possibility out there. Because I believe most of us know Torah is true on different levels of internalized truth, and when we do what we ought not, or fail to do what we should, we are not maaminim (believers) at that moment — we don’t really really believe God is going to hold us accountable the way He says He will in the Torah.

    This is an inside-out way of describing the famous “spirit of shtus, foolishness, that the Sages tell us descends upon us when we sin. This must be the case, because we are not wicked; we are not sinning to spite God, but because we don’t really really believe it when crunch time comes.

    As I said, Norm is really pretty normal.

  29. <>

    This inertia can be oversome by suggesting a small, concrete action the person could actually accept readily.

    Like putting on tefillin each day, or saying Shema twice a day. Especially something that doesn’t make them look different or act different than they’re used to behaving.

    From there, hopefully, a mitzvah brings another in its wake.

  30. How do you do it? You need to show Ahavat Yisroel! Teach some Chassidus! Don’t think of it as trying to convince the person. Be a true friend and living example!

  31. Ron,

    The “inexcusable, unforgivable and callous actions or omissions by one or more orthodox Jews” that you referred to above and earlier could also have happened because “people just want to do whatever they want.”

    That is, those Orthodox Jews, frum as they were or seemed, may have been following their own yetzer hara to do whatever they wanted, and, as a result, another Jew became alienated.

  32. I’m not so sure you friend departed so far from the Norm at all, Rabbi.

    I recently discussed with a very experienced kiruv professional and friend my “blame the Jews” suggestion, mentioned here a couple a week ago, that people get turned off usually after encountering “a series of inexcusable, unforgivable and callous actions or omissions by one or more orthodox Jews.” He leaned back and laughed gently. “No,” he said, “it’s really not true. It’s usually the yetzer hora. People just want to do whatever they want.”

    Well, if he’s right — I’m not so sure — but if he is, then all the more so before they make a commitment… there’s your Norm.

  33. Logical proofs aren’t enough. You have to get into someone’s soul and emotions. Not easy! It is hard enough to do it with our own children who are raised in it.

    Regarding Norman, some people are able to change their minds quickly. Others take more time. Sometimes people’s minds change before their emotions have a chance to catch up. Perhaps Norman later did decide to embrace Torah. You never really know what affect you will have on someone, and what they show on the outside doesn’t always reflect what’s going on inside.

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