Being a BT and a Ger

When you meet someone who has become observant, they are usually either a Ba’al Teshuva or a Ger. I am both.

I grew up, like much of the current generation, in a relatively assimilated family. It is said that the majority of the Jewish community, outside of orthodoxy, are marrying non-Jews. Some of the non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism, but since those conversions are generally not done under halachic auspices, the non-Jewish spouses continue not to be considered Jewish. So what has become of the children of these marriages. Obviously, the children of those couples, where the husband is Jewish, are not halachicly Jewish, yet many of them were raised as Jews and believe that they are Jewish.

While doing “kiruv” work on college campuses, I developed several rules of thumb about how to tell whether a student was halachicly Jewish or not, through experience. One of them was by the student’s last name. If the student had a name like Goldberg or Rosenfeld, they were not Jewish. And if the student had a name like Diaz or O’Brian, they were probably Jewish. Intermarriage is so rampant out there that the likelihood is that almost every student has one non-Jewish parent. If they have a Jewish last name, then it is more likely that their father is the Jewish parent, and their mother is not Jewish. Whereas if the student had a non-Jewish last name, then in all likelihood the Jewish parent is probably their mother. Such are the ironies in a world of rampant assimilation.

Growing up, I was of the Goldberg/Rosenfeld variety. My father grew up in a reform Jewish household and my mother grew up belonging to the “Church of Christ” denomination. She married my father and converted to Judaism in their local reform temple. They brought me up Jewish in their reform temple. I was relatively involved in Jewish life as a reform Jew who was not halachicly Jewish. Later in life when I became interested in becoming observant, I learned that I was not considered Jewish according to the Orthodox standards I was learning about. I think that most other Jews, upon learning such news, would be turned off and reject that highly unpleasant message. However, my parents and community taught me to be open-minded towards others’ views, so I accepted that there were differing opinions about my Jewishness.

In addition to the normal hurdles faced by Ba’alei Teshuva, I also had to go through much of the same gauntlet that other Gerim go through because I had to go through a conversion to become Jewish, even though I had always considered myself Jewish until that point. There certainly were some interesting and amusing events that took place during that period when I was getting ready to be megayer, as I was living in all other ways as a frum teenager. One interesting fact, that I only found out about years later, was that there had been a meeting in NCSY’s national administration about whether to let this Shomer Shabbos/Negia/Kol Isha, tzitzis laiden kid who wasn’t Jewish on one of their trips to Israel.

Over the years, I have only met a handful of other Ba’alei Teshuva who had to go through Gerus because of the Jewish status of their mother. Most people are “regular” Ba’alei Teshuva who were always Jewish but became observant. It seems that it must be difficult for people in my situation to find their way back, which is a bit disappointing to me. If there are any of you out there, please comment! Hashem should help all of His children come back to him!

-Dixie Yid (
Originally Posted July 2007

Is Choosing Orthodoxy an Abdication of Personal and Intellectual Choice?

During the first couple of years that I was becoming religious, all three of my local reform rabbis back in Dixie made times to meet with me personally to bring me back to the fold, since I had gone/was going “off the derech,” to the dark side of orthodoxy.

It was a bemusing experience for young, intractable me, and I know it was a frustrating experience for them. (I’m changing names to protect identities.) First was Rabbi Sol Friedman, the head rabbi of our nearly 1000 family Temple. After our discussion, he commented to me that he was disappointed that someone as intelligent as myself would waste my potential in orthodoxy. I later met with the assistant rabbi, Rabbi Barbara Dawson. She couldn’t believe that I was using the sexist Artscroll Siddur and the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which she felt constituted being poreish min haTzibur, separating myself from the majority of the Jewish people who use the Americanized Israeli pronunciation. Last was Rabbi Ralph Feldman, rabbi emeritus. After our conversation, he was convinced that my contention that women and men are equal in orthodoxy was the product of brainwashing.

One claim that all three made, along with many others, however, was that choosing orthodoxy is choosing “the easy way out.” The theory goes something like this: One of a weaker moral and intellectual character needs and wants the structure of a lifestyle that allows an outside authority to dictate every detail of life and every moral decision. These types of people are fearful of the personal responsibility involved in making moral choices and therefore choose orthodoxy to allow the rabbis and the law books make the tough moral choices so they do not have to. In contrast, reform Jews are braver and of a stronger moral character and therefore do not require the moral crutch of the detailed laws of orthodoxy to make their moral choices for them. They are not afraid of individuality and making informed moral choices.

Is this argument valid? I would illustrate the wilful blindness inherent in the above claim with an analogy: Is a person weak-minded if he follows doctors’ and nutritionists’ instructions on how to live a physically lifestyle? An exercise or diet regimen will include, for argument’s sake, a certain maximum calorie count that one is allowed to consume in a given day, and, let’s say, 30 minutes of exercise three times per week. Those are very specific instructions. Although one might claim that letting doctors and nutritionists make one’s health decisions for him is depriving him of his G-d given right to make his own health decisions, this argument would obviously be also false. Why?

Even if one is following the guidance of a nutritionist that he should eat, let’s say, a maximum of 2000 calories on a given day, there is a great level of personal input and creativity in how one meets that standard. He could cook French, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, or Italian style cuisine. He can eat a 100 calorie breakfast, a 100 calorie lunch, and then splurge on an 1800 calorie dinner. There is so much leeway within fulfilling that standard that one cannot say, with a straight face, that one is giving up personal choice by limiting himself to the recommended 2000 calories per day.

In regard to exercise, one can fulfill his weekly exercise regimen by jogging, taking Tae Kwan Do, lifting weights, going to the gym, playing any sport he chooses, or running on the treadmill. The fact that one must exercise does not take away his individual personal choice. There are many ways to carry out the doctors’ advice, and following their guidance is not an abdication of personal choice.

Similarly, there are laws in halacha for every aspect of life but a variety of ways that we carry out those laws, as an expression of individuality. Those aspects of halachic decision-making that individuals are not capable of making on their own because the lack the knowledge and information to do so, are up to the Shulchan Aruch and Poskim to decide, just as the general guidelines for exercise and nutrition are decided by doctors and nutritionists, since they are trained and schooled to be knowledgeable in those areas.

For example, halacha says that one must daven 3 times per day. A man can decide in what Shul to daven, in which paragraphs of Shemoneh Esreh to insert personal tefillos, in what part of the day to be misboded and speak to Hashem in his own words, and in which word, out of the hundreds in Shemoneh Esreh, to place extra kavannah, depending on his own personal nature. And a woman has even more leeway and discretion in when, where, and how she davens.

As another example, people must learn Torah. Aside from learning enough halacha to live a lifestyle in accordance with halacha, the gemara says, l’olam yilmod adam ma shelibo chafeitz , a person should learn that which his his heart desires. Some learn 100% gemara. Others may learn 80% and 10% Mussar. Others might mix it up with Tanach, Halacha, Gemara, and Chassidus.

There is a vast space in halacha that is given to us in which to choose how to serve Hashem . This means that not only does adherence to halacha not take away choice, it actually lends greater meaning to the choices we make. Just as one who makes medical choices without consulting any doctor or expert will end up wasting his efforts on his own ignorant ideas, so too will one who tries to make moral choices without any true authority or expert, will find himself clamoring around in the dark. However, if one allows the light of halacha to illuminate his path, then the choices that he makes within that system will have meaning and direction, rather than a random shot in the dark.

-Dixie Yid
First Published Nov 6, 2007

How Much Time Daily Should I Spend on My Purpose in Life?

I recently received the e-mail below from a friend, asking for my thoughts on how he should allocate his time for a certain aspect of what he feels is perhaps his “life’s work,” the reason why he was placed on this earth. If you can, think about his question and my response to him. Perhaps you would have answered differently. Is there anything you would like to add? How do you approach the issue in your own life?

Here’s his question:

Recently I have been giving a lot of thought to whether I am spending enough time each day working on [a certain] project. On one hand, I am working on it at least 30 minutes a day/5 days a week. However, on the other hand, if this project is one of the reasons Hashem put me on the earth, then 30 minutes is certainly not enough.
Any thoughts?

And here was my response:

I don’t know know if there’s any connection between the thoughts that if something is one of the reasons one is created that one necessarily has to spend more than half an hour a day on that thing. Is it ratzon Hashem for you to spend more than 1/2 an hour a day on it? Well that would depend. What are the alternatives? If you did spend more time, would you not have enough time to be ma’avir sedra or to learn Gemara or halacha or whatever your other sedorim are? If spending more time on it would mean doing something that you have reason to believe is against ratzon Hashem, then that would imply that spending “only” 1/2 an hour a day on your project is ratzon Hashem.

And also, what do you mean by saying that the project is “one of the reasons why Hashem put you on earth?” If you mean that on its literal level (that it is one of many reasons why Hashem created you), then what about the example of politely smiling and thanking the check-out person at the grocery store? If it’s ratzon Hashem for you to do that at the moment you finish your transaction with her, then that too is “one of the reasons Hashem put you on earth.” Does that mean that you should davka spend more than 1/2 an hour smiling at check out girls? Obviously not.

Everything that it is ratzon Hashem for one to do at any given moment is “one” of the reasons why Hashem created him. But the amount of time one should spend on that thing depends on what ratzon Hashem says is the appropriate amount of time to be spent on that thing. For pleasantly thanking check out clerks, that’s probably about 1 second. For learning kitzur shulchan aruch yomi, it’s probably the amount of time it takes to learn that, let’s say 10 minutes.

For your project, my personal opinion on how to “divine” what the amount of time is that Hashem wants you to spend on it is: See how much time you have after all of the other things you have to do. And then ask yourself where you would get the time from if you increased how much time you spent on it. (e.g., some other learning seder, sleep time, family time, work time…) Then ask yourself whether, in the aggregate, you’d be failing to fulfill what Hashem wants of you in those other areas of life. If so, then perhaps 1/2 an hour a day *is* what Hashem wants from you. If not, then you know you should increase the time since it sounds like you feel a pull to increase the time.

Make any sense?

Originally posted here.

In Defense of Reform Sunday School Education

I read Beyond BT’s recent article by Azriela Jaffe, Vaccinating Our Children Against Prayer, with great interest. Based on my own reform sunday school and temple experiences, I also felt that those experiences not only vaccinate Jewish children against prayer, but also against any interest in Judaism in general. My theory was that having no Jewish background, rather than a negative background, gives people more of a blank slate when it comes to approaching Judaism for the first time. I theorized that when these “blank slate Jews” do come into contact with frumkeit for the first time, it will be with a more open mind because they had no preconceived notions based on negative Jewish experiences.

But based on later experiences working with a number of Jewish, not-yet-religious college students, I have come to a different, though not mutually exclusive, conclusion.

I worked for three years in a community kollel in the United States. In the “kiruv” portion of my job, I worked primarily with Jewish college students at four different campuses running programs, giving classes, organizing Shabbatonim, organizing trips to New York, and trying to refer students to programs in Israel.

The students I was able to come into contact with were a minority of the Jewish student population at the campuses to begin with. They were a self-selected group of people who were interested in identifying with and participating in something Jewish, but I was never able to meet the majority of the Jewish students.

But within that already self-selected minority, it is interesting to note the Jewish “denominational” background of those minority of the Jewishly identified students. 90% of the these students were identified with either the conservative or reform movements. The remaining 10% or so came from an “unaffiliated” background.

Had I been a greater teacher, I would have been able to communicate with each person on their level and in a language that they understood. However, I was not such a great teacher. I found the conservative students the easiest to speak to about Jewish things. The next easiest group of students to speak to were the reform ones, but they were still harder to connect to, in general, than the conservative ones. And the most difficult to connect to were the ones from an unaffiliated background.

My impression was that the main thing that separated these groups was the extent to which there was any “common language” or “frame of reference” that they shared with Judaism and/or myself. To the extent that these students had any Jewish background at all, whether it be an awareness of the practice of certain mitzvos, certain famous stories in the Torah, or knowing a few common Hebrew words, I had some frame of reference, some common language with which to have some kind of jewish conversation with them.

The other problem with having no common language or frame of reference is that there were few values or morals that could be used as a frame of reference. Even without any specifically Jewish knowledge, someone with some of the values that are, on some level, shared by Judaism, is better equipped to relate to a Jewish message based on values, even if not based on more ostensibly “religious” aspects of Judaism.

So I think that having some Jewish background, even if it involves bad reform or conservative sunday school memories, gives those kids a leg up in two respects.

One, it gives them a somewhat greatly likelihood of having the propensity to expose themselves to occasional Jewish experiences during their lives to begin with. Without at least some jewish involvement, contact with frum people becomes less likely. You have to be in it to win it.

And two, those kids that had some Jewish background were, I think, more likely to have some common language or frame of reference, so that if and when they do come into contact with frumkeit, it enables at least some greater level of communication and connection. with Jewish people and Jewish ideas.

My main point is that even some level of affiliation by non-observant Jews is somewhat better than being unaffiliated. It’s at least a point to ponder!

-Dixie Yid

Should We Teach People That The Torah is the Best Worldly Tool?

When I was first becoming observant, one book that had a great effect on my thinking was Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism. It was written by a non-frum sociologist who immersed herself in two different communities of Baalei Teshuva to learn why they chose to become observant and in what ways they differed. She spent a few weeks studying at a Beis Chana Chabad Seminary for Baalos Teshuva and several weeks with the Lincoln Square Synagogue, a center for many modern orthodox Baalei Teshuva in Manhattan.

One of the major impressions that I had from this book, which, to me, reflected negatively on the modern orthodox approach to teaching Baalei Teshuva at Lincoln Square, was that their whole approach was completely this-world centered. They taught how Judaism and observance leads to a better life in this world. They showed people how being observant was healthier physically, emotionally and socially. They showed people how, if they became more observant, they could have better lives in this world. This was their main approach to outreach.

In contrast, the approach at the Chabad seminary was to encourage the women to grow in their committment to Yiddishkeit by focusing mostly on the spiritual side of it. They showed the people there how they could transcend this world and connect to G-d through keeping the Torah.

My impression was that the more “right wing” approach was to take a more direct route and actually focus on the real deal, which is that religion is supposed to bring a person closer to G-d, not merely a more “effective” life in this finite world.

However, I saw a very interesting Kedushas Levi in Parshas Vayishlach (5th piece) which speaks about this basic concept. He talks about two different stages in a person’s development. He says that when one is first beginning to get closer to G-d, the yetzer hara is very strong. The person is still so steeped in “this-world”, that they have no language or frame of reference for really focusing on the transcendent, which just doesn’t move the person at that stage because he just doesn’t speak that language yet. In order to grow in observance at that stage, a person can only fight their yetzer hara by focusing on all of the good things of this world that a person gets by keeping the Torah. In such a way, the yetzer hara is pacified and lays off a bit, and the person can grow.

But in “stage 2,” when a person is already davuk, cleaving to Hashem, then he should no longer focus on the good things of this world that the Torah will bring him. Rather, he should only focus on giving nachas ruach, pleasure to Hashem as his only motivation. At this stage, the nefesh haEloki, the G-dly soul, is so revealed that one does not need the crutch of focusing on the worldly benefits of Torah anymore to subjugate the yetzer hara. The lure of greater deveikus with Hashem and the ability to give Him nachas ruach through one’s avodah is incentive enough.

After seeing this piece in Kedushas Levi, I realized that both approaches, the Lincoln Square approach and the Chabad approach from that book are both necessary for different people, and for the same people in different stages of their development. I don’t actually know whether the teachers at Lincoln Squqre are actually aware of “Stage 2” or not. I don’t know if they intended to help influence the members of their community to the more spiritual, G-d oriented, transcendent side of Yiddishkeit when they were ready or not. But the Kedushas Levi is teaching that this method should not be shunned. It is something necessary for each of us in the beginning stages of our avodah (which can often take a lifetime) and should be used without embarrassment because for those of us coming from a secular culture, the worldy benefits are the only ones which will speak to us until we learn how much more is out there.

I don’t think that only one or the other approaches are right. We have to know ourselves to discern which strategy to pursue when fighting our own yetzer haras and which is the right approach when teaching others. We have to know which language we and others understand and which we don’t. IY”H, we should all be zoche to take the right approach in our own inner work and when trying to be mashpiah in a positive and productive way on others.

Originally posted at Dixie Yid

Passing It On When You Were Almost Passed Over

This post first appeared on A Simple Jew’s site

Pesach definitely is special to me. It has always been kind of a “self-made Yuntif” for me. From the very earliest time that I was becoming religious, I was always in charge of kashering my parents house and leading the sedorim, and I did not have the opportunity to go to other frum families for Pesach.

One funny story very early in the process for me (before I was shomer Shabbos or really shomer much of anything), in a fit of newbie Baal Teshuva zealotry, I decided a few hours before Pesach came in, in the afternoon of Erev Pesach (after the Isur of Chometz has already taken effect) that I would clean out my parents house as best I could. As part of this effort, I started to go through my parents’ pantry to get rid of any obvious chametz. The problem was that I really had no idea what chametz actually was. So for help, I called up one of the Shomer Shabbos ladies in the neighborhood, and asked some very important Pesach sheilos, like “Is oatmeal considered Chametz?” and “Does everything have to have a Kosher L’Pesach kosher supervision symbol on it?!” Poor lady and my poor parents!

While I went to halacha shiurim before Pesach and learned the halachos in in many books like the annual Bloomenkrantz guide (yes, there’s a 2008 edition) and Rav Eider’s sefer on hilchos Pesach, I never actually got to observe any mainstream frum families observing Pesach and the sedorim. As things stabalized and my parents happily let me kasher their house for Pesach, I used various haggadahs to help create a theme for each year’s seder like Rav Avraham Dov Kahn’s The Chosen Nation Haggadah, or Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap’s Mei Marom Hagaddah (He was the Talmid Muvhak of Rav Kook).

However, since I never had a real example of a frum seder to base myself on, there was always a certain amount of “winging it.” One example of this is the minhag of wearing a kittel at the seder. Since I never saw anyone doing this since I really never saw anyone other than myself leading a seder, it didn’t occur to me that I should be doing this. I had read that some have this minhag, but I just assumed that this did not apply to me. However, after hearing a couple of friends mention that they were wearing a kittel at the seder, I decided to ask my rebbe if I should be doing that. His response was “Of course!” (Remember, he was speaking to me, and this does not mean that this guidance would necessarily apply to everyone.) I didn’t know it was so obvious, but it brought home the more general point that as a BT/Ger, I lack elements of the mesorah, the “תורת אמיך.”

But I think that, as I heard from my rebbe in YU, Rav Aharon Kahn, Hashem would never leave those who lack a real mesorah, through no fault of their own, completely without all benefits of that mesorah. Therefore, he said that it is his belief that whatever level of benefit “FFBs” get from growing up with the mesorah of frumkeit from an early age, will somehow be given by Siyata Dishmaya, Divine help, to the BT or Ger.

This principal is especially relevant to Pesach, with its theme of transmitting our mesorah to our children. The biggest mitzvah of the seder night, specifically, is “V’higadeta l’vincha,” telling over Yetziyas Mitzrayim to your children. It is a difficult challenge to pass on the mesorah of our emunah to our children, especially for people who didn’t grow up with that emunah. But with Hashem’s help and some preperation ahead of time, we will be zocheh to bring down down our mesorah into our and our children’s lives!

A Deeper Understanding of Rabbinic Authority

Several years ago, my wife and I had a very intelligent Baal Teshuva at our home many times, who had become observant through one of the Baalei Teshuva yeshivos in Israel. Over time, as he learned that things in Yiddishkeit are a little bit more complex than he had originally believed, he started to get bothered more and more. This was probably exacerbated by his chosen profession and passion, which involved some activities which are not permitted according to halacha, which may have created some cognitive dissonance for him. He is no longer observant, as far as I know right now, and this has bothered me.

One kasha that bothered him and he asked me, and about which I could not adequately answer him at the time, was the following; With the large number of halachos d’rabannan (Rabbinical Laws) that we keep, and the idea of Daas Torah and Emunas Chachamim (faith in the Sages), and the mitzva we have of “לֹא תָסוּר,” not to disobey the sages in every generation, it seems like the idea of rabbinical authority is almost a foundation of everything orthodox Jews believe in. But the truth of that authority seems so weak when there is only one little pasuk that backs it up; Devarim 17:11, “לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ–יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל.” “Do not stray from the thing which they tell you, to the right or to the left.” How can such a brief and unclear pasuk be the source for such all-pervasive power and authority over the whole Jewish people?!

Recently, I was speaking with a local Rav who turned most people’s initial understanding of the relationship between the Oral and Written Torahs on its head. We were talking about how to learn a certain halacha out of a pasuk in the Torah (“בנך הבא מישראלית קרוי בנך ואין בנך הבא מן < העובדת כוכבים> {הגויה} קרוי בנך ,אלא בנה”, Kiddushin 68b). He told me that according to the opinion of Rebbe Akiva, all of the principals, details, and minutiae of halacha were given on Har Sinai to Moshe Rebbeinu. However, the actual parshios, the text of the Torah, was not fully given, according to whatever method, until the end of the 40 years in the desert.

If that is so, then what is the gemara always doing when it figures out how to derive all of the halachos of the mishna from psukim in the Torah? All of those halachos were known anyway from the time of Ma’amad Har Sinai! Why do they bother “learning out” those halachos from the Chumash, when they were known independently of the text of the Torah anyway?

He explains that part of our mitzva of Talmud Torah, learning Torah, is that Hashem gave us all of the halachos, and he also gave us his “notes,” or “shorthand,” for what is written in the Torah. One of our jobs in learning Torah is that Hashem wants us to find all of the hints to all of the halachos that we received orally on Har Sinai in His “notes,” the Written Torah. This means that we are not so much “learning out” halachos from the Chumash, but are rather “learning in” halachos into the Torah! That is how we are zoche to find all of the places where Hashem “hinted” at the halachos in the Written Torah. (The fact that there is machlokes about many halachos and which pasuk to “learn them from” is also Hashem’s will, and is due to human forgetting, and is a separate issue from what I am talking about here.)

One major ramification of this new understanding of the relationship between Torah She’bechsav (Written Torah) and Torah She’ba’al Peh (Oral Torah), is that it totally changes what we would expect to find in the Oral Torah. Those aspects of Halacha which are most obvious and known to the masses of the people, need to be hinted at in the Written “notes” Torah the least!

For example, the halachos of having a lunar calendar tremendously affects our lives, in determining what date our Yomim Tovim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Rosh Chodesh, and Sefiras HaOmer fall out. However, all of that is hinted at in one half of one pasuk in Shmos 12:2, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים!” Whereas the halachos of Tuma and Tzara’as (Vayikra 12-15 ), which hardly ever affect anyone and only the kohanim need to fully understand how to pasken, take up perakim in sefer Vayikra! This can now be understood. The purpose of the psukim in Torah for, for purposes of halacha, is not to be the primary source for how we know these halachos. Rather, they are the notes that hint to those halachos. So just like one needs less notes for things that they understand better already, the Torah needs to say less when it comes to important things that are already well known and part of society. So there is little need for reminders about the halachos of the calendar, something people live with every day, while there is a greater need for hints (more detailed “notes”) to remember the halachos of Tuma and Tahara and Tzara’as, which are not well known and understood on the whole.

Similarly, with our problem regarding “לֹא תָסוּר,” rabbinical authority granted in the Torah, we can now understand that the written Torah is not, its self, granting this rabbinic role and rabbinic power, in which case one could understand why that would seem like a terse and oblique granting of that “power.” Rather, the rabbinical role of protecting and guiding the Jewish people in all generations is an integral part of our lives, and Hashem vested them with that responsibility and the necessary authority to exercise it along with all of the other halachos on Har Sinai. Since it is such an integral part of our Yiddishkeit and our society, like many other well-understood parts of halcha, little “reminding” was needed in Hashem’s “notes”, the written Torah. That is why the reference is so brief.

At least next time this issue comes up with someone, I’ll have a better understanding for myself, so that I will be able to understand the inyan better and be better able to explain it to others next time!

Am I More Judgemental of the Non-observant Since Becoming a BT?

Mark and David asked in their suggested topics: Am I more judgemental of the non-observant since becoming a BT?

Often times when we are becoming frum, we are at just about the most judgmental times in our lives. When it comes to non-frum friends and family one thinks, “If I could see the truth, why can’t they? They have no excuse!” On the other hand, we think about the frum people, “How can they talk during davening? How come he goes so fast through davening that when I’m starting “Ata Chonein,” he’s taking his three steps back?! How can people sleep through their Friday night seuda without any Zmiros?”

Of course, when Yiddishkeit is new and exciting, it is easy to get overconfident and judgmental about others. However, I would make two comments. One is that we all know that after a few years go by and things are not so new anymore, we start to understand our frum friends a little better, as we become, or are inclined to become, more like them. Once the davening becomes fluent and we aren’t excited by it anymore, there’s a desire to speed through it to things we want to do more. It becomes, then, easier not to judge frum people because we are more like them now.

When it comes to judging non-frum people, I think it’s good to step back from yourself and ask the question, “Why did I become frum to begin with? Was it because I was the only one who was intellectually honest and searching, examing all the evidence with disinterested objectivity?” No! I, at least, became frum because I was inexorably drawn to it, once I began learning about it. There was an inexplicable pull that caused me to incredibly fascinated with Torah and Yiddishkeit. I reflect on the fact that I know dozens and dozens of people who were exposed to the same people and teachings that I was exposed to. Yet they remained unmoved, while I was blown away and drawn after it.

I cannot explain this difference in reaction by any natural means. I can’t say that I’m the only deep thinker that I knew. That would be ga’avah and it would be false. The only explanation I have come up with to explain this phenomenon is Siyata Dishmaya. It may sound strange but I don’t put my teshuva in the context of a truly free-will decision for me. I was drawn. Others are unmoved. It seems to me that the hand of G-d plucks out certain Neshamos, for his own inscrutible reasons, and brings them into the fold. (For more on limitations on free will, see Mei Hashiloach Parshas Vayeira, D”H “Vatitzchak Sara,” and Parshas Pinchas. See also, Tzidkus Hatzadik 44.)

I think that we can avoid the feeling of ga’avah and judgmentalism by meditating upon the fact that you and I are only zocheh to be here because of the kindness of Hashem in bringing us close, and not due to any personal intellectual or spiritual greatness.

May Hashem bring all Jews closer to Him soon in our days!