The BT “Problem” That Won’t Go Away

I sometimes hear back through the cracks the complaints, sometimes justified, sometimes not, of the disillusioned baalei teshuva and, sometimes, former baalei teshuva. Sometimes, it seems, they were promised rose gardens. Some were not, but believe they were. Others just changed their minds, or followed their passions, or had a mental hiccup of some kind. It’s a complicated world. I can’t say I’m on a point of spiritual development that’s on a smooth curve from where I was 21 years ago, or that I’d be all that proud of what that graph would look like if I had to draw it … though sooner or later, it will indeed be drawn.

But there is one complaint about assimilation into the frum world that is so common that while I have yet to meet someone who used it as a rationale to stop doing God’s will as revealed in the Torah, well, it can’t be helping anyone.

It’s the Derech Eretz Problem.

On the one hand, derech eretz — the basic mode of behavior among people within a society — is laudable in the frum world. Let’s shave off the issue of corruption and crime; regrettably, we have our criminals, and they are all the more noticeable for their outer trappings of orthodoxy; but still we are not a particularly threatening group to each other or the rest of the world. Get past that and there are behaviors that are fairly common “out there” but relatively unheard of in the normative orthodox world and certainly in the yeshiva environment. Examples of bad social behavior rare in the frum world that spring to mind based on my own observation are disrespect of the elderly, physical confrontations, street crime and petty dishonesty, foul language, and, with limited exceptions, following the Boston Red Sox.

But when we gather around in little groups in our weaker moments, what we talk about is the Derech Eretz Problem.
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Driving from Teshuvah to Simcha

How many years did it take you to realize what was happening in the nusach hatefillah [the prayer liturgy] over the course of Elul and Tishrei? I’ve been at this for more than 20 years now but it was only in the last few years — when my Hebrew got good enough that I was not only no longer breaking my teeth on pronunciation, but was beginning to comprehend even uncommon parts of the liturgy such as selichos and hakofos — that I began to realize these two superficially opposite parts of the prayer service were one and the same thing.

It’s an extraordinary journey we take from the week before Rosh Hashana, when we awake bleary-eyed to push through the penitential prayers of selichos. Actually, for baalei teshuva it’s an extraordinary journey just to figuring the basics of selichos out! I remember as a young pup, being dragged by one of the leaders in kiruv today when he was a kiruv-shul rabbi in Twin Rivers, New Jersey, to the yeshiva in Adelphia, to steamroll the selichos out of those arcane paper pamphlets. Not only was my reading atrocious then, but these obscure paperbacks were positively confusing and compounded the disorientation. I paid my dues and eventually learned my way through the selichos, at least in terms of what goes where and what parts “no one really says,” and for a while I was happy enough to at least be able to do my duty by them.

At the same time I found hakofos, especially the versified encyclopedia of Judaism thrown at us on Hoshana Rabbah, more or less incomprehensible, as I did the services for Yomim Noraim. I spent the first ten — maybe more — years of observance mostly concerned with getting the points on the map right. I realize other, probably more sincere and serious, people have different approaches; they want to understand every word they say before they say it. This can have certain satisfactions, though one of them is not getting the hang of davening or even, realistically, covering as much of the liturgy as one is obligated to. I focused on learning what to say, when, and to pick up the idiosyncracies that cause variation from the what it says even in “dumbed down” English-Hebrew machzorim and compilations which seem to “bulk up” on obscure additions to the service in order to justify their existence.

Something happened, however, over time, which not only helped me appreciate the value of navigating this ocean of words, but also made me glad I had chosen fix my position by the stars and not count the drops of water. But, to drench this metaphor completely — and we will flop up onto dry land the rest of our journey — it could only happen, for me, because I kept paddling furiously. Now that meant, for me, a commitment to lifetime learning following a couple of years of full-time yeshiva. Well, if you learn an hour or two a day, using primary materials, and maybe raise a few yeshiva-educated children along the way, guess what? You learn! By which I mean, you learn some stuff — vocabulary, and halacha, and yidios [concepts] in Jewish sensibility and philosophy, not to mention aggadata [non-halachic Talmudical material] and scripture.

I don’t think there’s any other way to do it besides putting in the mileage. I don’t think all the transliterated, linear machzorim in the world will do it for you. I’m not so sure they even get you on the right entrance ramp… but let me not drive us down a dead end. The point: Okay, you put in your miles of learning and davening, and do your maintenance and of course fuel up at regular intervals, and after a while, guess what you figure out one morning before the summer comes up? Well, what do you think selichos is made up of? Those same yidios — those scriptural references – – those halachic and Talmudical allusions! They weren’t just dreamed up by holy medieval poets — they are made from the raw material of Judaism itself!

And guess what else? What do you think the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is made up of? Not only these concepts and words — but of selichos themselves! It’s the same selichos, only sideways! It takes forever to figure out how to say them, where they go, but once you do, why you can recognize them even when they’re dressed in kittels [white robes worn by some men during High Holy Day services]!

And what is most gratifying of all? Realizing, as you put together the words and the concepts and the patterns and the verses themselves — that over the period of a month, those terrifying, intimidating selichos have been transformed — by time, by the subtle change of season, and by the process of Tishrei — into the joyous simcha-songs of hakofos. The pleading recitations of spiritual misery, recited in a crouch with your head bowed down and your fist striking your chest, are — by the magic of teshuva facilitated by the chagim [festivals] and elucidated (brilliantly, really) by the Sages — transformed into a parade of upstanding, proudly-produce-wielding New Men. The very sins elucidated in the selichos become the merits and praise of the hakofos. It’s one magnificent manifestation of that teshuva process we’ve been hearing about since day one. It’s one that takes work, and an investment in one’s own spiritual and intellectual life, to appreciate. Maybe not just work, but time and commitment, too. It took me about two decades to “get it,” and, well, I’m not all that slow on the uptake, you know?

Could this level of appreciation of our tradition, this multifacted weaving of our entire national philosophy into these magical couplets, possibly have an actual spiritual impact?

Well, could it possibly not have one?

That’s what I am going to try to take away from the Elul-Tishrei intersection as I drive into the rest of the year. The longer we stay on the road, the more milestones we pass. Unlike a drive on Route 95, however, we should do more than recognize the similarity of the rest stops every 50 miles — we eventually learn the way. That means knowing where we’re going, and where we’ve been, and yes, of course, how we’re getting there. Which, as they say, is more than half the … dare I say, “fun”? (No, I am not suggesting the arba minim [four species of Succos] as hood ornaments, okay?)

As we say at the end of Hoshana Rabbah, a guten vinter. With sweet memories of my late-summer spiritual travels I’m putting on my spiritual snow tires, and with God’s help — and that of my family and friends and correspondents — I’ll keep it between the lines!

Sartorial Splendor and the Introspection of Elul

Elul is upon us and the time has come for a heightened degree of introspection, which means “too look inside.” The question is, Inside of whom?

Becoming a seriously committed orthodox Jew necessarily requires both internal and external changes. And there is controversy about how important, and how advisable, external changes are. Some question whether they are necessary at all, within the bounds of halacha. Obviously men cannot, say, shave their heads, nor can women (or men) wear immodest clothing; where these propositions are controverted, we are having a different conversation. Even on the “right” side of things, we can and do debate whether group identity is appropriately signified by the use of external signals — e.g., “yeshivishe” garb — when one is a relative newcomer to the subculture of strictly orthodox Jews, or when, as the gemara asks in Berachos, there is a serious question of whether tocho k’boro [“the inside is like the outside”], i.e., whether the book matches the cover.

We know from this, and from many other sources addressing kavod ha-brios (personal dignity) and tzenius (“modest” but translated by Rabbi Yitzchok Berkowitz as a concept more akin to “dignity”), that in Jewish sensibility there is indeed a link between what is inside and what is outside of a person. We do not say “clothes make the man,” which improperly elevates the superficial; but we reject as well the proposition, dominant in our time and place, that slovenliness and even a grossness or outrageousness in appearance are irrelevant to the degree of respect to which a person of normal means and sound mind is entitled.

What irks some people about the levush [dress] of the yeshivishe world is that they perceive it as a sort of uniform, and the choice to don it as a surrendering of individuality. Baalei teshuvah, those who love them, and frequently those old observant friends whom they may have “passed by” as they almost inevitably migrate to the right in their journey wrestle with this issue, among others, and ask: Is my personality, as expressed by my “look,” the price of admission to this community?

And let us take as a proposition that, unlike in some other demanding religions, in Judaism we do not consider the surrendering of personality a desideratum. Perhaps we can debate that point another time; but for here, let us hold it as a given that we do believe in individuality in expressing our avodas Hashem [service of God] and in our relationships bein odom l’chaveiro [between people].

The answer to the question here, however — as we so frequently say — is that the “question isn’t a question.” (This is to be distinguished from the maddening cliche used in the telling over of brilliant divrei torah that the answer is “really very simple” when it’s actually quite ingenious!) In other words, the premise is incorrect: Sincere self-expression, which is to say the expression and articulation of personality, is not a strictly, or even meaningfully, a function of clothing. And yet clothing is not irrelevant to how we place ourselves in a social context.

Using our costume as a way to “speak” for our individuality suffers from several deficiencies. One of them, pointed out to me recently by a very talented orthodox layman, is that it makes our realization of personality dependent on the reactions of others to our external show. Another is that it is eminently falsifiable. In minutes one can “change his personality” based on the shmattes [shmattes] on his back. Yes, the choices one makes do speak to what he wants to “say” with his clothes, but why should we trust those “words”? Another factor is that it is, as we suggested before, even without changing back and forth, it is simply superficial to say that rather than develop a personality one can simply take one off a hanger and put a personality on.

Now we have, arguably, proved too much. How can all this be true, and yet we insist on dignity and decorum in dress? And how do we reconcile these thoughts with the idea that there can be merit, even in a spiritual sense, in dressing in a way that conforms to a fairly narrow band of variety which in itself amounts to a standard “message” being sent to the world at large?

To attempt resolution of these questions, I suggest the following propositions:

1. Clothes do not make the man, but they do represent a choice in how one goes about presenting himself to the world;

2. That choice is indeed interpreted by the world. A person really is saying something about his values in how he makes those choices.

3. Dignity in appearance has an absolute value in Judaism. For women, tzenius in its traditionally understood sense is not only an halachic requirement, it should be a manifestation of a woman’s sensibility as a Jewish woman. For men, where “modesty” is less of an issue because of the differences between the sexes, dignity in its broader sense is also a value the Torah insists upon.

4. We can even agree on some broad outlines of what is dignified for public, much less synagogue, wear. Let us focus on the dress of men. I propose that if the word is to have much meaning, we must say that jeans are not dignified. Short pants are not dignified. T-shirts are not dignified, especially if they bear logos or messages and all the more so if these are not consonant with Jewish values. Shirttails worn outside are not dignified regardless of the cut or color of the shirt. Yarmulkas bearing the images of cartoon characters, sports teams, one-liners, heretical religious statements or fruits are not dignified. I recognize that these are subjective judgments, but I submit them for your consideration.

5. One can take the guidance in item (4) above and apply it more rigorously towards a more dignified appearance that more or less conforms with what is called more formal or businesslike dress, and this is a kiyum [achievement] in realizing more dignity, engendering more respect for the way Jews conduct themselves in communal and worship settings and even out and about.

6. I propose here the psychological truism that for most people, the effect of a more orderly, dignified and attractive appearance enhances their self-image as well as the way people relate to them.

Perhaps you think at this juncture I am going to suggest as item (7) the proposition that since all these factors lead ineluctably to the “Lakewood look” (abstracting from the troubling problem of the nearly universal eschewing of the necktie) I have defined the problem of individuality and “uniforms” away. I am not going to insult the house with such a suggestion, however. Rather, I am going to suggest an entirely different item (7), to wit:

7. A person who commits himself to a life based on Torah and mitzvos should strongly consider the possibility, in a world where external appearances are a source of judgment about a person and, by virtue of that, what paths are opened to a person in the world, by accepting the foregoing points (1)-(6), he may better realize the Jewish values of dignity and tzenius. Concomitantly, that identification with a distinctively Jewish way of dressing, associated with a community premised on that same sort of commitment he is now undertaking, will likely be healthy for his continued growth as a Jew; and that the more dignified the dress, the more he achieves this effect for himself.

And if this last paragraph, which we have worked so long to get to, is where we end up debating, then perhaps it was worth it; because I believe if we are seriously debating the sum and substance of items (1)-(6), we have very little common ground.

And I propose in conclusion that if we could agree to (7) as well, we could get the answer to our question about personality, and about the imperative to look within: By realizing the importance of external devices such as dress to insure that our influences are predominantly Jewish, and acknowledging that it informs the way the way the world reacts to us, and the responsibility we bear as we move through the world, we enhance our Jewishness and acknowledge that some degree of separateness is an aspect of Jewishness. At the same time, by narrowing our use of clothes as proxies for genuine individuality, we become better able to develop our personalities in the Jewish contexts that we have chosen for ourselves, and which are nearly infinite in possibility. And in doing so, we acknowledge that we are, indeed, taking a cultural and even a moral stand about who we are and where we want to be in a world awash with infinite choice for good and for what is not good.