How the Terms BT and FFB Stunt Our Spiritual Growth

Dedication- I dedicate this post to the URL of this blogsite- BeyondBT. Most simply deconstructed as Beyond Ba’al T’shuva. The implied purpose being to transcend the societal constraints and the sometimes suffocating self-perceptions evoked by the term “Ba’al T’shuva”. In a word… let’s get past it.

Caveat- This post is intended for those who’ve been Torah Observant for 5+ years. Its message is not for those who get ruffled when old axioms are challenged. It is for those who long for their earliest heady days of spiritual awakening and who intuit that there may have been a linkage between the passion for Yiddishkeit that characterized that long-ago-far-away time in their lives and their nascent iconoclasm that allowed them to smash the idols of received wisdom and preconceived notions on a regular basis.

Among the ways of T’shuva is for the returnee …to change his name
– Rambam Laws of T’shuva 2:4

I’ve always been a bit of a stickler about semantics. G-d convinced the angels of Adam’s profound wisdom based on his ability to assign names. The name changes of such great figures as Avrohom, Sorah, Yisroel, Binyomin and Yehoshua signaled momentous, historic metaphysical modifications. The bard may have said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” but his was not a Torah-informed sensibility. I believe that when the words we use to clothe raw concepts are skewed, wooly or unfocused, our conversations become the communicative equivalents of a fashion faux pas. Kind of like wearing gloves on our feet. At best an unattractive look and at worst a recipe for a pair of really sore feet.

In my estimation the acronyms BT and FFB have done incalculable damage to all parties concerned. Here’s why: T’shuva presumes being accountable for ones life and taking responsibility for repairing those parts of our live’s that we have damaged. What the term “Ba’al T’shuva” has meant historically is a person who had previously been an avaryon AKA a Rosha who had undergone the demanding and rigorous service of T’shuva until (s)he had “mastered” it to repair all that was broken. Hence the term Ba’al T’shuva = “Master of Repentance”.

According to the classic Torah literature on the subject the engine that drives T’shuva is sincere, profound and, according to some, lifelong remorse over the sin. In the historical model even the resolution for the future and behavior modification aspects of Avodas HaT’shuva hinges on the depth and intensity of the remorse. Ever tortured by the memory of sin, reminding a historically defined BT of their past sins is considered onoas devorim (insulting and hurtful speech) because it is the verbal equivalent of picking a painful and unsightly scab. According to Rabenu Yonah, the centrality of remorse and taking personal responsibility is also why “shame” (#6) and “one’s sin being constantly before him” (#18) are among his twenty fundamental principles of T’shuva.

While perpetual remorse and shame may not be the way an FFB relates to his/her past it is also not an apt description of how a representative modern-day BT relates to theirs. Nor should it be. How can we regret or be ashamed of choices that we did not make? If our great-grandparents chose to abandon Torah, if we were not afforded the barest rudiments of a Torah education or upbringing, if we were nurtured in a culture that is mostly antithetical to Torah and it’s ideals, in short if we are indeed tinokos shenishbu what, precisely, are we regretting? Is it our natures or our nurtures? How can this be when we were responsible for neither? G-d alone is responsible for the former and He, our parents, teachers and society for the latter. When doing T’shuva are we supposed to regret and be ashamed of what G-d has done or failed to do or of what WE have done or failed to do? This may be the subliminal message of the Rambam in placing the doctrine of human free will in his Laws of T’shuva rather than in the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah. He may be trying to teach us that T’shuva= remorse must always be about our own choices and never about HaShem’s providence and his administration of His creation. Far from engaging in a holy Avodah contemporary BTs who place too much emphasis on regret are in fact indulging themselves in a good old-fashioned fist shaking at G-d.

The arithmetic is simple; if pre-observance we were Tinokos Shenishbu but never reshoim, then we can’t be Ba’alei T’shuva in a traditional sense. Of course we can and do modify our thoughts, speech and behavior. We can also regret and DO T’shuva for those of our youthful indiscretions that we already knew were wrong in spite of our non/anti-Torah upbringing. (I don’t think anyone gets a “Tinok Shenishba” pass for shoplifting or harassing homeless people.) But that is hardly unique to non-FFBs. FFBs for the most part do T’shuva as well (at the very least during Elul and the Yomim Noraim =Days of Awe). Some obsess over T’shuva and really work hard, smart and effectively at it. But I’ve yet to meet one who would say that (s)he’s earned the moniker BA’AL T’shuva. Most FFBs are also fully aware of the beautiful Chazal that “Even the completely righteous (tsadikim g’murim) cannot stand in (i.e. attain) the [exalted spiritual] place that the Ba’lei T’shuva stand in”. So, for most everyone, to perceive oneself as a BA’AL T’shuva is at best pretentious and at worst self-delusional. Imagine a fellow fancying himself a Talmid Chochom or even a Gaon having studied only one or two Talmudic tractates or someone practicing halakhic stringency or two considering themselves a Tsadik or a Chosid. When such exaggerated self-assessment is conveyed to others it, unsurprisingly, evokes reactions of skepticism, defensiveness and mockery. These self-perceptions will not earn anyone friends or integration into a society of “just plain folks”.

Those who fail to discern the qualitative difference of the pre-T’shuva states of having been a Rosha and having been born a Tinok Shenishba run the risk of diffusing an even more destructive fallout, one that strikes much closer to home. For many contemporary BTs who fall into this category, having no real sin to regret the focus of the remorse shifts to the putative sinner(s). Conflating the traditional and contemporary concepts of Ba’al T’shuva makes us regret and feel ashamed of people (including ourselves), experiences and friends we have no business feeling ashamed of or about. It leads to tortured relationships with friends and family, to suppressing rather than sublimating our pre-observance education, talents and accomplishments and, worst of all, it causes us to fixate and waste our energies on “passing” as an FFB rather than on becoming an Ehrlicher Yid. To conclude- the mostly inaccurate and hyperbolic appellation, BT, manages the slick semantical and psycho-spiritual trick of being both devastatingly self-deprecating and ridiculously self-aggrandizing.

FFB is hardly a benign word either. The first “F” which expands to “Frum” is never to be confused with “ethical” or “spiritual”. In it’s contemporary usage Frum has, almost exclusively, come to mean a soulless adherence to the letter of the law and a negation of its spirit. There is an innate putdown in the “from birth” portion of this acronym as well. It implies that whatever “religion” (but never spirituality) the FFB does have is an accident of birth. Whereas BTs might fancy themselves self-made millionaires FFBs deserve no admiration or respect because, as the name implies, they were born with silver spoons in their mouths. I’ve actually seen the term retooled on other blogs to “Frum by accident”. The fact is that we are all, BT and FFB alike, JFCs =Jews from (matrilineal) conception. No one is frum from birth. Jewishness=the potential for achieving the sanctity of Torah and Mitzvahs, is our bio-spiritual birthright. For want of a better word Frumkeit, i.e. actualizing that potential, is not. Even those born and raised in Bnei Braq, Meah Shearim or Lakewood are endowed with free will and, as Rav Dessler articulates in his famous Treatise on Free-Will, cultivate their relationship with G-d davka by those positive exercises of free will that they were not predisposed to doing by their parents, peer groups and teachers.

Any FFB that considers the term a compliment must have forgotten the Chazal that reveals the underlying meaning of the name of our evil uncle Eisov. According to the Midrash he was named Eisov (alliteratively Osu =done) because he was “done” and physically complete at birth. On an overt level this means that the newborn Eisov was hirsute and had a full set of teeth. But what it also implies is that he was spiritually/metaphysically finished immediately post-partum. The balance of his life here on earth was an entropic downhill slide toward the grave and represents the dross of his father Yitzchak’s holy middah of being conceived and born in kedusha. An FFB who luxuriates in that name shares more in common with the cartoonish Richie Rich than with any true Oved HaShem. Such FFBs are spirituality’s snooty and spoiled rich kids and about as attractive and inspiring as the socioeconomic kind. As it is in chronology so must it be in spirituality. Birth is the starting gate not the finish line.

None of this is to say that contemporary BTs have not had to work harder than their FFB compatriots to attain comparable levels of observance. Pain exerted to achieve spiritual gain is the main (but not exclusive) yardstick by which G-d determines reward. I may be overreaching but IMO part of this “extra measure” of reward manifests in the incredibly swift strides that BTs make in their Torah Study and Mitzvah observance vis a vis FFBs. BTs are to be admired, respected and celebrated for all the pains they took to become, stay and grow ever more observant. But we run the dangerous risks of hubris and divisiveness when we presume that one group in Jewry has a monopoly on the pain/ gain correspondence or on HaShem’s affections.

Make no mistake there are, in fact, many groups and factions within Jewry and the onus for ending the lingering feelings of otherness and alienation many veteran BTs endure still rests squarely on the shoulders of FFBs. To date FFB culture has done a comparatively superb job of being friendly to their non-observant and BT brethren but not as good a job of actually becoming their friends (or Mechutonim!). That said there are the larger questions and challenges that lie before all groups and factions. Among others: Must BTs forever remain a sub/counterculture in Yiddishkeit? As the Kiruv movement moves into its third generation are we any closer to true integration, equality and unity than we were 40-50 years ago? I believe that positive solutions to these questions will begin with our liberation from the inaccurate, pejorative or pompous labels “BT” and “FFB” and their attendant warped perceptions. I dream of a Jewry in which terms such as these will be considered unacceptable in polite conversation. How about replacing BT and FFB with “late beginner” and “early beginner”? “Observant from childhood” and “Observant from adulthood”? “Having religiously supportive parents” and “lacking religiously supportive parents”? Or, best of all, how about one single term that aptly describes all of us- Yidden! Perhaps then as in the days of yore at Simchas Bais HaShoayva in the Bais HaMikdosh all factions can join together in the exultant dance singing “Lucky are those that never sinned and those that did, let them return and be forgiven!”

First Posted 0n 2/21/2006 with the title: “Crafting a New Nomenclature”

34 comments on “How the Terms BT and FFB Stunt Our Spiritual Growth

  1. While the author’s point is well-taken in terms of how a ba’al teshuva (sorry) should view their past, the essay is based on the assumption that teshuva is specific to repenting from performance of sins. In fact, as Rav Kook explains at length in Oros HaTeshuva (see, e.g. perek 3) it is more the idea of bringing oneself closer to Hashem. Accordingly, in this sense of the term “ba’al teshuva” would certainly be a fitting one for a person who was raised not observing the Torah.

  2. Above, Rabbi Klein states that

    “I spoke of accepting some form of responsiblity and regretting “missing out” on that relationship with Hashem during that period of time.”

    I don’t understand this statement. Are married people supposed to regret not having met their basherte sooner?

    Further, isn’t there enough to regret in terms of our current day to day relationship with Hashem? How much time do we waste every day when we could be cultivating that relationship?

  3. Have you ever read 1984? How we use words effects the way we think.

    Who ever heard of parenting, downsizing , outsourcing or manning-up 20-25 years ago?

    Maybe if we changed the way we spoke we’d begin to solve many of the practical problems you allude to.

  4. There are practical problems to uprooting old, names for people and things:

    1. PR does not easily break habits
    2. The new, improved name looks like advertising

    The question was posed about what teshuva does a tinok shenishba do? If we think of teshuva as returning to HaShem, our movement in His “direction” is teshuva, regardless of our starting point. If we’re committed to that direction and make progress, we’re ba’alei teshuva in this sense. Our time might be better spent raising consciousness about today’s BT’s, and the true connotations of “BT”, than about inventing a new term not likely to catch on.

    As for “FFB”, some people really are frum from birth!

  5. Kiruv ranges from very passive to very active. Choose wisely where you want to be on this spectrum.

    The Baba Sali, so I’ve heard, believed in putting food out in front of his guests, and then backing off.

    On the other end, there’s this story:

    “The Talmud (Bava Metzia 85b) relates that when Rebbe Chiya reintroduced Torah in a generation in which it had been forgotten, he began by planting flax. From the flax he made nets to capture deer. Upon the skins of those deer he wrote the Five Books of the Torah. He would then travel from town to town teaching Torah to five boys in each town. With each he learned one book of Chumash. To six older boys he taught one order of Mishnah each. Each then taught the others what he had learned, and in this way, Torah was once again established.”

  6. I think I was reading some of my own experience into this. As I became frum in a non-Kiruv environment and attended an “alternative” yeshiva before moving to a more yeshivish environment, I had never encountered an attitude like, for example, my fiancee (now wife), who actually thought about what the ramification of how she now acted and dressed on the shidduch and school possibilities of our (yet to be conceived) children 10-20 years down the line. I think that certain seminaries and yeshivas actually teach their students how important this is! I disagree 90% with this attitude. I think the appropriate hishtadlus is to serve hashem and try to be the yourself you really want to be. I don’t think there is any point in trying to influence the general community, other than by example.

  7. YM,
    The question is often “What is the appropriate hishtadlus?” Should we try to change unhealthy attitudes in the frum world? Can we change them? Through what means?

  8. YM,

    May years ago, I “bumped in to” Rav Simcha Wasserman, zt’l not knowing who he was. I reveived the most radiant smile, recognition and greeting. I thought to myself : “Boy, that is one happy person!”

    Then I walked in to the lecture hall where I was to be going to hear a “big Rabbi” speak. Well, you guessed it, it was Rav Wasserman. What a tremendous impression that made upon me. I, with my lack of exposure at the time, never would have thought that it possible that this brilliant Rabbi and simchadicke person could have been the same individual.

  9. Regarding Comment #13 from Aryeh Leib Ecker, I think all of us (BT and FFB) are in the same boat (some of us in first class, some of us in steerage).

    I ususally, in describing myself, say that “I have been trying to be observant for almost 8 years” or “I committed myself to observance almost 8 years ago”. Or something like that, versus self describing as a BT. So for Rabbi Shwartz, one thing we can do individually is not describe ourselves at BT.

  10. I think this whole topic is just not worth wringing our hands about. The goal is to serve hashem. If other people think they are better than you, just make sure you are not acting like a stumbing block for the blind. – in other words, make sure that you yourself are not behaving in a way which causes this, and if you are not, don’t worry about it.

    Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his book, Letters to a Buddhist Jew, says that when Rabbi Simcha Wasserman was asked why he was always smiling, he said somthing to the effect of “If I see a problem, I ask myself if I can do something about it. If I can, I try to do so. If I can’t, I don’t worry about it.”

    Furthermore, we believe that Hashem makes shidduchim. If an “FFB” doesn’t want to allow their children to marry our children, the fact that that particular shidduch isn’t going to happen is hashgacha pratis. So again, why worry about it. Same thing with getting our kids into certain schools or Yeshivas. We just have to do our hishtadlus, then put it in Hashem’s hands.

  11. Michoel, Shalom!

    Are you sure about that ‘shva nach under the Pey’ in P’rushim?

    It seems to me that a shva under the first letter of a word is *always* a shva na, ala Netzer (Hanikud halacha l’maaseh) and other sources.


    mordechai y. scher

  12. Peirushim, with a tzeirei under the Pey, means commentaries. That might be shortened to Peirushi to mean one that accepts the Oral Torah. P’rushim, with a shva nach under the Pey, means those that are separated. The “Orthodox” camp in the time of the gemarra were known as P’rushim, not Peirushim. Even in modern times (80 years ago in Europe) the word P’rushim was used to describe members of a kollel p’rushim because they went away to learn in kollel leaving (being poreish from) their wives.

  13. Jacob Haller-

    As the thrust of the post was to pop an assortment of self-importance balloons it would be kind of ironic for me to think that “my” post is really going to roll back the clock to an era when the terms BT or FFB did not exist. As far as the Gerrer Rebbe and the Ohr Somayach tutor A) The story has been posted in it’s entirety on this blog- comment 9 on the 1.30.06 post “Not Passing and Proud of It” and B) In essence mine was a long-winded rant to expand the sentiments that the Rebbe had expressed in a few short words. In spite of AL Ecker flattering me (I think?) as a “pundit” public policy for Yidden is determined by Chachmei U’Gedolei Yisroel and not by pundits. You quite accurately wrote “Any reawakening or re-examining of terms will have to evolve from similar sources.” I was attempting to be a small link in this “kosher” evolutionary process.

    As a rule I think that for kol boay oilom sensitivity to other people’s sensitivities is a good thing. And so I stand guilty as charged of echoing the sentiments and methods of the word-tinkering nabobs of PC but you know what… maybe they’re on to something? (Today Onoas Devorim, tomorrow Nivul Peh the day after, who knows, maybe even some zehirus in Loshon Hora). But, seriously, as I opened the piece I do deeply believe that accuracy in names and words are extremely important. Far from trying to foment any real etymological revolution I was trying to appeal to the target readership of BeyondBT to reassess their own self and societal perceptions in order stop beating themselves (and, at times, others) up so much. I hope that the ultimate point, that there are few BTs and no FFBs- that we are all just Yidden trying to grow as Yidden with patience and benevolence- was made.

    Aryeh Leib and Adam- Other than our shared faith that rooting for the Cubs is a sure sign of intestinal fortitude and moral fiber, any resemblance between George and me is purely coincidental

    Mark- or probably, more importantly, “Who took the ‘From Birth’ Out of FFB?”

  14. Phil-More on the name game

    Yehudi- Since the Rechovom/Yerovom split the Northern Kingdom was known as malchus Yisroel (or Ephraim) and the southern kingdom was known as Malchus Yehuda. I presumed that the prosaic meaning of Yehudi was a subject of the southern kingdom whether you were from shevet Yehuda, Binyomin or Levi. There is a rich literature in Chazal, Sifrei drush and chasidus about the various names for our people including Bnei/Klal/Kneses/Shearis Yisroel, Bnei Yaakov v’Yosaif, Shearis Yosaif and Ephraim.

    The S’fas Emes says that Yehudi captures the essence of Jew in that, like the original Yehuda, we are about gratitude “for getting more than our fair share.”

    P’rushi- I can’t recall where I read or heard this so maybe it is not credible but I thought that P’rushi meant a believer in the Divinity/veracity of perushim=explanations of the text offered by Torah SheBa’al Peh in contradistinction to the Tsadoki-Sadducee who were Biblical Literalists denying Torah SheBa’al Peh (named after the founder of their sect much as a communist might be called a Marxist)

    Mitnagdim ** would they call /themselves/ ‘opponents’? No. I’ve never heard anyone who did. Most prefer MO, Litvish or Yeshivish

    The point of your comment is well taken. It reminds me of a funny radio spot that Geico has been running for a number of years in which a voice asks “Who coined the phrase ‘We cut out the middleman? It certainly wasn’t the middleman!’” Which is essentially my point. Whoever coined the terms and however they gained wide currency there is nothing sacrosanct about them and IMD they would be better off disappearing.

  15. Admin note: Rabbi Schwartz had sent us an updated document with spelling and grammar errors corrected, but we had already posted the first version.

    So we take some responsibility for any errors.

  16. Aryeh Leib Ecker writes:

    “Rabbi Schwartz,…George Will has nothing on you.”

    Forgive me, but actually George Will has impeccable spelling and grammar.

  17. I think that one term that we should banish is FFB. I don’t anywhere in Shas or Rishonim where the terminology exists, as opposed to either BT or a Tinok shnishba. Even the Neviim use the term “mitzvos anashim mlumadah” which means just going thru the motions. I would suggest that a BT is anyone who is on an upward trajectory in his or her Avodas HaShem via Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim , regardless of where they started from as the Gerer Rebbe ZTL remarked when someone told him that a certain yeshiva was only for BTS.

    I do think that one can question whether today’s yinok shenishba/BT requires a lifelong obsession over one’s past. Maybe I am overstating the case, but in my opinion,, there are too many books written by returnees that focus on these issues as opposed to the beauty of their initial Shabbos, their first attempts at learning, etc.

    The Talmud seems to imply that teshuvah meahavah eliminates this need whereas it may be a factor in teshuvah miyiarah. The Rambam in the last perek of Hilchos Teshuvah gives a wonderful and almost lyric description of Teshuvah meahavah that sets forth no doubts that Torah and Mitzvos are the path to this approach, as opposed to obsessing over one’s past. No less than R Wolbe ZTL assured a questioner that all forms of teshuvah are accepted even if one does not reach the heights set forth in Shaarei Teshuvah.

  18. Rabbi Schwartz,
    I believe you have a future in being a pundit. George Will has nothing on you.

    I struggle myself with the idea of being a BT as I still fall in many of the same areas that I stumbled in back before I was religious.

    In fact, I often question whether or not I have the right to say something such as “before I was religious” because I ask myself “Am I takka religious?” Am I so differentiated from Joe American non-frum Jew?

    Sure I keep Shabbos to the best of my ability, and keep kosher, etc., but I still get a chuckle from things I hear on the radio, I still get angry and have bad middos and fail the tests my yetzer hara lays out for me. So am I really so differentiated? Sometimes I am not so sure.

    Ironically, it is usually after I question my level of committment that I am then most able to turn to H” in tefilla and weep that I am just a phoney balogna.

  19. Rabbi Schwartz,
    Also, I apologize if I was intemperate in my initial remarks; I read certain parts of your essay as actually meaning the opposite of what you later wrote. For example, rather than understanding your argument that *newer* BTs should focus on inner change rather than externally “passing,” I understood that paragraph as implying that “passing” is unnecessary even for a more seasoned BT. I do agree with you regarding a new BT; however, a BT must eventually become aware of fitting into his new community, and many BTs do not take this necessary step.

  20. Dear Rabbi Schwartz,

    Thank you for your clarification. I appreciate the extent you went to to explain this aspect of tshuva. And of course I agree that even without intent we can harm ourselves and for that we have to do tshuva.

  21. “I am sure you are aware that everything we write could be misinterpreted and misread. This can cause a hillul hashem/people being misguided.”

    Rabbi Klein-
    Anything that any of us write could be misinterpreted and misread. I hope that I have not and will not be guilty of this in reading and responding to the comments. It was actually your Tuesday, January 24th post “Sibling Rivalry –How Do We Stop It?” that was among the stimuli that motivated me to write this post. I have sat on and rewritten this post for close to a month in an attempt to write with clarity. But some of the ongoing and recent tortured comments about revealing details of our past, ceaseless angst and run-ins with parents, self-images and anxieties over how our children will perceive us compelled me to finish it and get it posted posthaste. I believe that it expresses a more compassionate (albeit humbler) attitude and not a distortion of the truth or Hashkofas HaTorah. Of course I am aware of the Chazal of “Hizaharu b’divreichem” and I am only human (on my good days). As yet I haven’t seen any commenter understand my post to mean an abdication of personal responsibility. I hope that none do and will BL”N try to the best of my capability to disabuse them of such notions should they arise. I suppose that there might be other readers who never comment who may misinterpret the post. When writing or speaking, especially publicly, there has to be a balance between zehirus and zerizus. All any of us who post at all can ever do is to hope and pray that we do not slip off of the zehirus/ zerizus tightrope.

  22. Dear Rabbi Schwartz,
    I appreciate your answer. I don’t believe that I nor Mrs. Menstch advocated that a BT needs to feel shame and humiliation for sins commited before Tsheuva. It is clear shame or humiliation for that time period would be counter productive to most BT’s. I spoke of accepting some form of responsiblity and regretting “missing out” on that relationship with Hashem during that period of time.
    I agree we need an emphasis on the present and future and less on the past. With that said, people need to clearly understand Torah Haskafa.
    I have seen people( not you) express on the blog, opinions about the issue of Tsheuva that are not Torah concepts yet they state that they are. I don’t believe they do it on purpose. I think they are misinformed. I am sure you are aware that everything we write could be misinterpreted and misread. This can cause a hillul hashem/people being misguided. Continue with your wonderful work at the JHC.

  23. Dear Rabbi Klein and Mrs. Mensch,

    Illustrating the principle of yaish lo Yedeeah b’soif The Rambam in Shegogos 2:6 writes: “ For example a Tinok that had been captured (by and grew up) among Idolaters and is ignorant of the Jewish people and their laws (i.e. religion) and did melokha on Shabbos or ingested forbidden fats or blood or anything similar (i.e. Khiyuvay Korais). When the fact that he is a Jew and was proscribed from these activities becomes known to him he is required to offer a Khatos=sin offering FOR EACH AND EVERY SIN (committed).”

    My understanding of this p’sak of the Rambam is based on my more general understanding of the need to do T’shuva for shogegin (accidents) altogether.

    Every aveira has two components, the moral/ethical and the metaphysical/spiritual. Aveiros are both “bad” because they are insubordinate to G-d (and thus on the most overt level compromise the terms of our relationship with G-d and create a distancing between G-d and the sinner) and “bad for you” in that, as programmed by the Creator, they constrict the conduits of Divine Hashpoa (emanation), destroy unseen worlds and constrain and injure the spirituality of those who committed them.

    What the precise “damage” is varies from avaira to avaira, and Chazal have even revealed some of these mysteries (e.g. forbidden foods causes timtum haLev) but some metaphysical/spiritual damage is present in every avaira (at least d’Oraysa) even when insubordination is not. Avairos b’Shogeg and the metaphysical need for kappora that they engender is like, on a natural level, an unconcerned person drinking toxic cleansers who needs his stomach pumped whether or not he understood what the skull and crossbones signifies. The miraculous power of T’shuva (and its supplementary means for Kapora like korbonos) is effective in repairing both aspects of sin. By definition shogeg lacks the insubordination factor and so I understand the korban for shogeg to primarily address and repair the metaphysical/spiritual aspect of the sin.

    To illustrate further, there’s a major difference between high cholesterol dieters of today, 30 years ago and 60 years ago. In the forties hardly anyone was aware of the connection between high-cholesterol diets and heart disease, by the sixties the correlation was gaining wide acceptance in the medical community and today it has wide, near-universal currency and is accepted as fact even by most laymen. The arteries got clogged 60 years ago just as they do today but the patient’s level of responsibility is very different. (The dissonance between moshol and nimshol is that whereas Lipator and angioplasty for artery cleansing is available today and wasn’t in the past, korbanos were available only in the past and IMY”H in the near future. In the present we must settle for appropriate T’shuva and korban surrogates.) While the Rambam paskins like Rav and Shmuel vis a vis Tinok Shenishba I don’t think it’s a stretch to differentiate between the Shogeg of the Tinok Shenishba (more like high cholesterol consumption in the forties) and the shogeg of someone born and raised with Torah education (more like high cholesterol consumption in the sixties) that is more a function of inadequate vigilance or willful ignorance. If this is true then there must be a parallel difference between the attendant centrality of shame to the diverse T’shuva/ Tikkun processes. If someone “tied one on” and while inebriated enters the Kings palace and makes a mess of things (generic shogeg) he is not as egregious a “mess-up” as one who does so while sober (Maizid). But if the King orders someone drugged and blindfolded (Tinok Shenishba) and that person proceeds to make a mess of things in the palace, the King may decree that he must, still, repair the damage, but is shame and humiliation an appropriate feeling? Apparently the “mess-ups” were themselves the will of the King. All I’m arguing is that IMO contemporary T’shuva requires more of an emphasis on the future than on the past (Incidentally the Chidushei HoRim writes that this is the correct emphasis for all those doing T’shuva and not just for Tinokos Shenishbu).

    When you ask, “In fact, how could he punish anyone who isn’t one of the followers of the 7 laws of noach? Most of the world doesn’t know that those laws exist.” I believe that you’re referencing the first Ma’amar in Rav Elchonon Wasserman’s HYD Kovetz Ma’amorim. Time and space don’t allow me to discuss that right now but I hope to do so ASAIC.

  24. I don’t think the terms FFB and BT have done such trememdous damage. I think people understand them at their basic level to mean someone who was born into an observant home and someone who wasn’t, respectively.

    The additional positive and negative connotations associated with each term are in the eyes of the beholder. And we all have a halachic responsibility to look at both categories positively and judge every Jew favorably, with some very limited exceptions.

    On a related note, when I went to the Aish Kiruv training session, they said that one of the four main reasons people don’t investigate Torah Judaism is that they feel that will be judged negatively.

    The presenter suggested explaining to such a person that anybody who judges you in a negative light should not really be considered religious, just like we wouldn’t consider them religious if they eat cheeseburgers at McDonalds.

    It’s hard to believe that if we each would work on our own view of people, it would make a tremendous impact. But I believe that is exactly what Hashem wants of us. We can point out problems with the belief that a good Jew wants to know and improve, but our main work needs to be on improving our own perceptions of the world and our fellow Jews. That is something that is really in our control.

  25. Is taking on a project of changing semantics really worth it?

    According to Rav Berel Wein, the term “Orthodox” (from the Greek “ortho” meaning singular) was actually “forced” upon the Torah observant communities by the newly nascent Reform movement. Furthermore, the term carries an undercurrent (if not outright) air of derision by those who labeled themselves as modern, free and avant-garde.

    Nevertheless, Orthodox is now the term of choice for a spectrum inclusive of Young Israel, to YU, to Lakewood, to Satmar, to Neturei Karta. There’s little that can or should be done despite the possible negative associations. How many members of the Reform movement can define the etymology of “Orthodox” let alone know that the term was hatched by their ideological forebears. Furthermore, how many Reform members can cite anything brought to the “Pittsburgh Platform” 120+ years ago.

    Point: Perhaps a case can be made that someone labeling themselves as “Ba’al T’shuva” is synonomous with the self-agrandizing “Tzadik” “Gaon” “Tahor” etc. However, what’s the aitza? True, the politically correct scions invested countless hours (and have been largely successful) into coercive sensitivity, redefining everything from midgets (vertically challenged) to petitioning professional sports teams to alter their monikers out of respect to “Native Americans”. But do our priorities dictate a similar investment of precious time and resources?

    Here’s why I believe the gesture of adjusting the nomenclature is a noble but overall unqualified one. Yes, there is potential for self-aggradizement and self-deprecation with the term “Ba’al T’shuva”. On the flip side there’s potential among cruder elements of the “FFB” world to display their own self-aggrandizement celebrating a now elevated level of FFB yichus which means by rule deprecating the “BTs”.

    My wife grew up in Bais Ya’acov schools. It’s very rare that we talk about our FFB/BT gaps (usually only when there’s a family simcha on my side that involves Shabbos or non-Orthodox house-of-worship issues) but she once mentioned that she admired BT’s because they approached Judaism as “self-starters”.

    Of course BTs searched out Torah on their own, but does that comment create a (false) dichotomy that FFBs are categorically passive in regard to their Yiddishkeit? To the diffucult types of personas constantly looking for faults, yes it could appear negative, but it’s reasonable to conclude that it was merely an example of praise.

    In other words, ANYTHING can interpreted as g’nai (deprecating) or shevach (praise).

    The previous two examples are meant to illustrate that the perceptions of BTs by FFBs could be as numerous as the numbers in the population. There are sensitive types careful of Ona’as Devarim (hurtful words) who will tread lightly on the Ba’al T’shuva issue since in some cases it could be a sore point and not pry into someone’s background. Then there are less subtle types, often Ba’alei Gaiva who are convinced they have “the right to know” about this “new tzadik’s” past history.

    Once heard an FFB say that he didn’t “need” a certain shul with a very inspiring rav, since as an FFB he was “already there” and didn’t require inspiration.

    Conversely, Another FFB is leading several Daf Yomi shiurim a day for free since he believes with his background in learning he would be remiss not use his gift from Hashem and disseminate the Torah to the widest possible audience.

    That’s life. There are all types out there and coupled with the gritty environment of New York it’s not always going to be a fun ride.

    I’m surprised Rabbi Schwartz didn’t include the famous anecdote from Rav Yissocher Frand about a yeshiva bochur who met the Gerer Rebbe in Yerushalayim. When asked where he learned, the bacur replied “Ohr Somayach, but I’m not a Ba’al T’shuva”. To which the Rebbe replied “far vus nisht?”, –Why not?

    Any reawakening or re-examining of terms will have to evolve from similar sources.

    I’m fortunate B”H and perhaps this has colored my world view to appear mostly positive. My in-laws, who without exaggeration are part of an illustrious family in the Torah world, never made any indication of displeasure of my Ba’al T’shuva background. That’s not to say my Mother-In-Law has always been pleased with me in general but it’s likely for other reasons.

    Furthermore, found a kehila, found a chevra which likely includes both BT and FFB. One can see that I’m not inclined to take inventory on my chevra-members’ yichus since my friends, are….well, my friends. And like chevra members, my learned “FFB” chevrusa also doesn’t make an issue out of my “BTness”, we just click and it works. If my background was so important to someone, I would just look elsewhere.

    One disclaimer before concluding. The rav I sought out as a mora d’asra, moreh derech and posek is quite aware of the BT’s situation vis a vis family situations and is well-versed in areas where “yaish makom l’hachmir v’yaish makom l’maykil”. (There are correct times for both stringencies and leniencies). An indispensible part of a successful experience.

    If all the above appears as naive, reader take note that this is the result of years of hardening reality and lots of cheshbon hanefesh in dealing with the realities but also not getting tangled up with often debilitating theories of what it means to be BT in an FFB world.

    My oldest children just started yeshiva but I prefer not to get caught up in shidduch resumes right now. At present, priorities include monitoring their academic progress, and developing a love for Yiddishkeit.

    Let’s daven intensely. A common requirement.

  26. I think that people are missing the main premise that Rabbi Schwartz is working with in this article. While it’s easy to argue semantics and to grapple with the surface issues- what the Rabbi is getting at is far more profound than it seems people are grasping. I took from this article a rejection of the ‘verbose delineations’ that keep people from truly understanding that teshuva is universal and just because one is blessed with privilege of birth, it in no way constitutes and easy ride through yiddishkeit.

  27. I once blessed an FFB that he should not be an FFH (frum from habit) and he blessed me that I should be a BBT (a baal baal teshuva).

    Speaking about names:

    There seems to be a pattern of words that describe groups of Jews that were not coined by that group of Jews themselves.
    Here are some examples:

    ** Jew ** “The term “Yehudi” (Jew) is found very rarely in Talmudic literature, and in those rare instances where it does appear it is usually in quotations attributed to non-Jews” (this and the following theories are taken from Rabbi Eliezer Segal of Calgary at ) Since it refers to the tribe of Judah, I doubt the descendants of Binyamin were tickled pink with this term.

    ** Pharisees ** “When Talmudic documents mention the word Pharisee (P’rushi) (‘separatist’) as the name of a religious movement, the word is usually being used by their opponents, the supporters of the priestly Sadducee party. When referring to their own origins, the rabbis employed the term “Haverim” (comrades).”

    ** Marranos ** Would they call /themselves/ ‘pigs’?

    ** Mitnagdim ** Would they call /themselves/ ‘opponents’?

    ** Orthodox ** “The word ‘orthodox’ was derived from a Christian context and was first applied to Jews with ironic derision in 1795 by a Reform polemicist.”

    Finally, ** baal teshuva **. Following this pattern of cynicism-in-naming, lets try on this theory: Imagine a colleague of a fellow who “went frum” sarcastically refer to him as “the guy who thinks he has all the answers. Here comes The Answer-Master, the Baal Teshuva.”

    Well OK, maybe maybe not. But it seems reasonable to think that the modern “BT” label was not coined by a BT, and the “FFB” label was not coined by an FFB.

    It kinda makes you wonder what other labels our parents, teachers, and childhood friends stuck on us, labels we never bothered to examine, and if need be, shed.

  28. I completely agree with Rabbi Klein’s response to Rabbi Schwartz, and was somewhat offended by some of what Rabbi Schwartz writes. A tinok shenishba has to bring a korbon, but not multiple korbonos corresponding to all his past aveiros. Similarly, a tinok shenishba/BT must do a singular tshuva; we are not to beat our chests on Yom Kippur for all past sins we did not know was wrong. Why? As Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz of Yerushalayim explained, Hashem holds us accountable for NOT SEEKING HIM out sooner! Our responsibility, like everyone’s, is to search for the truth. We must regret that we never questioned all that we were doing. Of course this is a high level, but it is what Hashem expects of us.

    On a different note, I find offensive Rabbi Schwartz’s depiction of what the term FFB supposedly implies (“Soulless adherence to the letter of the law and a negation of its spirit”)

    I do not know ANYONE who has a perception of FFB’s as “soulless adherents to the letter of the law etc.” or even had an idea that this is a negative appellation. Did he pull this one out of a hat? In fact, in becoming frum, we BT’s are trying to emulate the frum person! They (at least the admirable ones, of which there are many) are our role models! Far be it that these families hear that some BT’s think of them like this.

    Most of us are friends with those raised in frum homes and BTs alike. In fact, the “frum world” is very mixed, and as we know the entire community has “moved to the right.” Many who were brought up in Modern Orthodox or Conservadox homes have chosen a more yeshivish way of life. The FFB world is not one-dimensional and this sort of person also had his challenges in choosing a more Torah-oriented way of life. Obviously the only meaning the terms FFB/ BT have which have any real meaning at all is the extent of the change ie did you grow up in a home which practiced Shabbos and kashrut etc. Meaning the challenge of making a choice for Torah was obviously harder for those who did not.

    I was also offended by the assertion that those raised in frum homes do not benefit from their training in mitzvos when trying to cleave to Hashem (FFB’s “cultivate their relationship with G-d davka by those positive exercises of free will that they were not predisposed to doing by their parents, peer groups and teachers.”) Maybe I don’t understand the Rav Dessler he is quoting, but is he implying that we should therefore not give our children a Torah schooling? I think Rav Dessler is merely saying that a FFB’s point of free will choice is much different/higher than the BT’s. The classic example is that they do not crave the cheeseburger, but they may have difficulty with kavana in davening after so many years. But in fact these FFB’s *were* given the tools by their teachers, parents and peers in Torah homes and schools to overcome these difficulties; that’s what a Torah education is all about. The hard part is implementing them. BT’s on the other hand were given far fewer, if any, tools.

    On a final note, I would like to comment on the negative press the concept of “passing” or “integrating” has gotten. I believe passing is a form of Tznius. We understand that it is not appropriate to “stick out” and draw attention to ourselves based on externalities. Tznius stands for always appearing dignified and appropriate in any given community. If one chooses to move to Boro Park or a similar community, he is frankly being attention grabbing by dressing in blue jeans or if a woman wears sloppy or outlandish styles popular in BT seminaries. (though in keeping with the basic dinim of tznius). Attempting to “pass” is merely the implementation of being tznius, modest, trying to appear “normal.” It is not a denial of who one is because anyway, we are not (or should not be) defined by our clothing. This concept is another vestige of secular thought vis a vis the importance of fashion in self-expression. And frankly, anyone who does not get that point is going to have problems later on with their children who will cringe with embarrassment at the fact that their parents “are so weird.”

  29. I must add that there are plenty of BT’s that don’t tranform their complete lives into that of a frum yid and that is where they get into trouble. They are neither here nor there. They sit on the fence. They never feel like they fit anywhere. Torah is not about doing rituals. It is a way of life and way of thinking. We are supposed to see the world through the ideals of the torah, not through the western, secular ideals that most of us were raised on. That requires a complete transformation of mind and action. It is a hard act to balance when dealing with our pasts but it is a necessity otherwise we become Americans who keep the sabbath on Saturday.
    Kol Tuv

  30. Rabbi Schwartz,
    I must 1st say that I enjoy your comments on the site. I find you clear and inspiring. The topic you wrote about is an interesting one. I agree that people that harbor guilt, etc and try to erase everything from their past including the good, make a mistake. Keep the good and put away the bad.

    However, regarding the tsheuvah process, the Rambam clearly says that a tenok shenishba needs to bring a korban chatas for pas aveiros done when they were tenok shenishba. Why if he doesnt hold any “responsibility” for past sins? Also we see that Avraham Aveinu recognized Hashem when he was 3 years old. Hashem built into the system that people could recognize him from an early age on even if they are in precarious situations. I am not saying that he expects everyone at 3 to find him. All I am saying that there is the possibility for people to learn about the creator at a younger age. If this wasn’t true, how could Hashem punish the cannanim, or any other of the other nations for idol worship? How could they have known better? In fact, how could he punish anyone who isn’t one of the followers of the 7 laws of noach? Most of the world doesn’t know that those laws exist. How could an idol worshiper some in from far away country be held accountable? You might say that they aren’t but we know that in order to get a share in the next world, they need to be followers of the 7 laws of noach.
    Obviously Hakodosh Baruchu has his din vhesbon(he should have complete rachmonus on us all).

    What about the person who enjoys his past memories of his “aveiros” when he wasn’t frum. Is this permissible? Of course not. It shows that complete Tsheuvah( returning to Yiddishkeit) wasn’t done. According to the way I read your premise( please forgive if I am wrong) then he could still enjoy the memories of the forbidden fruits because he was not accountable so in one sense they weren’t forbidden. I can’t agree with that.

    We live in a world that most people dont want to take responsiblity for their own actions. Take a big CEO for example. If his marketing department makes a big mistake, is he supposed to say don’t blame me, blame them? Even if he was on top of the managers who were managing them and they still messed up, he needs to accept ultimate responsiblity.

    A BT shouldn’t dwell on before he was a BT however we must recognize that it was a wrong life. The only way a YID can get closer to Hashem is through the mitzvohs. So if we lived without them then we were very far from him.

    I agree with you that we need to stop focusing on labels. We also need for BT’s to “be normal”. keep a hobby if it is kosher, etc. unless it reminds them of their past too much (the negatives in it).
    Kol tuv

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