Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

As a BT, I’ve often felt the clash between the culture I grew up in and the “frum” culture I’ve been living in for so long. One of the areas the clash always made itself evident to me was music. I just never could get into “Jewish music.”

This clash took on new meaning for me years ago when I worked as a manager in a small business that employed Chassidic girls, who loved to listen to music as they did their tasks. One girl, in particular, was really into it. She sometimes asked my opinion of the latest song or album. I tried to feign interest, but Jewish music – especially the type these girls liked – really never did anything for me.

One day she excitedly brought in the newest album and played it. I had to admit, at first, that there was something I liked about one of the songs. It had… a certain….

I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it had a quality that resonated for me. And as I listened to it over the next few hours — she played the album again and again — all of a sudden it struck me:

It was “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, regurgitated in instrumental form without lyrics.

I don’t have to tell most readers here that Led Zeppelin was a famous hard rock band in the ‘70s. Their concerts were drug and alcohol fests; their music hard-driving heavy metal, their lyrics raunchy. In other words, everything a red-blooded American teenager with a rebellious streak ever wanted.

And everything one would have thought a Chassid, in the real sense of the word, would recoil from. Yet, here were these Chassidic girls really into it.

Of course, they had no idea of the context or the words. Moreover, even if they did, there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the denuded elevator music version of the song. Chassidic philosophy, in particular, emphasizes the idea that there are sparks of kedusha all around embedded in the tumah waiting for a Jew to come and extract it. Some of the most inspiring Shabbos niggunim were originally Czarist army marching songs. We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.

Still… Led Zeppelin?

One of the lessons this drove home for me was that if I had any reason to feel inferior because of my cultural upbringing I was a fool. If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.

But the larger point was the place of culture clash in the evolution of a BT. There is, of course, a difference between real Torah and a culture in which this Torah is expressed. They are not necessarily the same thing. Moshe Rabbeinu did not speak Yiddish or wear a streimel (notwithstanding the Parasha sheets our kids bring home from yeshiva).

Yet, the reality is that when we become observant we not only join a religion but perforce join one of the cultures within it, be it Modern Orthodox, Chassidic or whatever. Judaism is a social religion; it demands we become part of a tzibbur, a kehilla, a community. Therefore, we must make our peace with a community, even if it is lacking or imperfect in our eyes.

And so, we BTs more than others, go about our lives in strange paradox, feeling alienated from the culture we left behind for a religion that makes sense but invariably comes with a culture we may not fit perfectly into.

Somehow we have to find a niche not necessarily made in our image without losing our selves. We have to navigate the choppy seas of a culture sometimes at odds with our memories, origins and expectations while remaining glued to the inner compass that led us to the timeless values underpinning that culture to begin with.

Some of the cultural dissonance is relatively easy to handle but some is not. Often there is no easy solution for the latter – other than recognizing that our task here is not always easy.

That’s a lesson we learned long before we came to Torah. You can’t buy a stairway to heaven.

Originally published March 15, 2006

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz zt”l – Towards a Subler Noncomformity

Today is Rabbi Dovid Schwartz’ zt”l yahrzeit. Please read his classic post on the how to deal with conformity.

Towards a Subtler Nonconformity

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

The majority of the posts and comments on the conformity debate deal with standardization in dress and speech. The basic consensus is that swallowing hard and adopting a bleak conformity is just another of the many sacrifices that we make for integration into the Frum community. Unlike relinquishing, say, seafood this demanding sacrifice seems to reward those who make it with a lifetime of ambivalence. Here are some thoughts I hope will make us more comfortable within our own skins by recasting this never-ending and draining sacrifice as a labor of love.

We need to ask ourselves: “Do I yearn for nonconformity or individuality?” At times, nonconformity implies a grouchy contrariness simply for the sake of being contrary. It often indicates insecurity and low self-esteem that cannot be assuaged without gaining notoriety. The nonconformist may be subconsciously saying “If I can gain prominence by excelling at what I do and where, I am… terrific if not I will do so by deviating from the expected standards in obvious and attention-grabbing ways”. In short it often comes from an unhealthy place.

Individuality, on the other hand, expresses the central Human longing for self-actualization and the resistance to external oppressive forces that would squash it. It is a wholesome drive that unites rather than divides BTs and FFBs. It is born in a whisper at our innermost core that demands that we be who we truly are. Where nonconformity is reactive, individuality is proactive. The drive for individuality concerns itself not with modes of dress but with the personality being clothed, not with the language but with the message, not with affectation but with effects, not with mannerisms but with middos (character traits).

IMO, we often under valuate our lifestyle makeovers. In spite of the popular “Avrohom” and “Yisro” models for repudiation of the dominant culture, what compels a Jew to do T’shuva in the post-Sinai era is not a rejection of secularity or secularities’ excesses. These may serve as triggers to the process but they are not the key moving forces. Rather, it is the drive for individuality. A Jew is a Jew and can never hope for self-actualization without Torah and Mitzvahs i.e. living as a Jew. An eagle that has grown up among marching penguins does not take flight to spite the penguins and mock their black and white conformity. The eagle flies because that’s what eagles do. Even when both are at rest the eagle is qualitatively unlike the penguin. It need not behave differently to be different. Yet, its very being compels it towards unique behaviors.

There is a Midrash about the cruelty of S’dom. In S’dom there was only one bed for wayfarers. When the forlorn traveler was forced to spend a night in S’dom they were made to lie down on a “one-size-fits-all” bed. If they were too short a rack would stretch them and if they were too tall they would be decapitated to fit the bed.

The dominant culture with its tyrannical egalitarianism is the heir to the mantle of S’dom’s bed. While ostensibly celebrating nonconformists by allowing for some superficial dissimilarities it is a culture that demands leveling and conformity between men and women, between old and young and between criminal and victim. Many a soul has been stretched to the breaking point or constrained and crushed by this harsh and unreal steamrolling.

Paradoxically, the outward uniformity of frum societies proffers the blessing of true individuality. It is precisely because so much external uniformity is expected that people must dig deeply to discover what makes them unique and irreplaceable individuals. In analyzing both the sacred avodah of Hagrolah (the sacrifice lottery) on Yom Kippur and Shoshanas Yaakov, the anthem of Purim, Rav Hutner Z”tl explains that once we posit that two things are, in fact, different it follows that the greater the number of layers of external similarity they share then, perforce, the deeper and closer to their cores will be that which actually differentiates them.

Chazal describe Hashem as “the peerless Artist” because every piece of His work (human beings) is a one of a kind creation. Our aching to be unique is a paean to the Divine Artist. It is nothing less than the ultimate, logical conclusion of imitatio dei (Mitzvah of Divine Imitation:clinging to the ways & middos of HaShem). Just as He is Yochid (singularly individual) so shall you be! Individuality ought to be embraced and celebrated in spiritual, sophisticated, deep-seated ways that flow outward from the core of our values and our beings not relegated to some quirks at the outer limits of our most public personas. Such quirkiness represents little more than a clichéd, shallow conformist’s losing touch with their individuality by “going with the (nonconformist) flow”.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow – What a Supportive Community Looked Like in 2006

Ed. note: This posts and the comments show what a supportive community looked like in 2006. It was all hugs and kisses, but it was a good discussion with many people looking to give support.

I recently started growing my payis. They have gotten long enough so that when I tuck them behind my ears you can see a little bit of them peeking out from the bottom of my ear.

When one of my coworkers, an FFB, noticed that I had started growing my payis he said, “Don’t be such a ba’al t’shuvah.” Even though he didn’t say it, what he meant was if I wanted to be more frum, growing my payis was not the way to go about doing it. Instead, I should focus more on torah learning and middos development.

I like having them, but at the same time I am definitely very self-conscious of them and find myself often hiding them behind my ears especially in the presence of teachers and mentors for fear of feeling foolish because I know they would disapprove.

I always wanted to grow my payis but now that I have them I need to ask myself if my decision to grow them is truly serving G-d, or is it serving myself by helping me to feel more like someone I would like to be instead of who I truly am.

Keys to BT Success from a Shabbos in Monsey

I had the pleasure of spending some time this Shabbos with two Beyond BT contributors. Rabbi Label Lam was my host and he davens on Shabbos morning at a Shtiebel where he and Yaakov Astor alternate giving the weekly Shabbos drasha. Yaakov’s drasha this week included recounting some fascinating Torah lessons he taught on his recent trip as a tour guide through Poland.

The area of Monsey that they live in observes a high level of halachic stringency, which can presents challenges for a BT. Yet, both Yaakov and Rabbi Lam have thrived there. I think there are three factors which contribute to their success.

The first factor is that they have accepted the norms of the community. It’s easy to find fault in any community, and our ego makes it easy to fall into that trap. However, publicly following the norms shows respect for the residents, which makes a lot of sense if you want to live and grow there. Most communities allow for some room for deviations from the norm in the privacy of your home.

The second is that they connect with their neighbors. Connecting to others is a major determinant of happiness and success. The demographics in Monsey have become increasingly Chassidish due to a large migration of Yeshivish families to Lakewood. Although neither Yaakov nor Rabbi Lam are Chassidish, they do connect with the commonalities they have with their neighbors. They pray together in the same Shuls, they learn Torah, and they are focused on connecting to Hashem. These are major commonalities and a strong basis for friendship and connection.

Thirdly, they are continually growing in Torah, Avodah and Gemilas Chassadim. This is perhaps the most important factor. In my many years as an observer of BTs, continued growth in these three area is the number one determinant for success – by far.

These keys to BT Success are in fact universal and are highly recommended, wherever you may reside.

Can One be a Frum Jew with a Nose-Ring?

A classic Beyond BT post from December 15, 2005.

Growing up, I was always the nerdy kid. I was the one who did not fit in with the crowd, who did not care about being popular, who wore crazy clothing, who wrote poetry instead of paying attention in school, and who went through a rainbow of hair colors.

I first became enamored with Judaism when I joined my high school youth group. Despite my weirdness, I was accepted for who I was, and I did not have to change myself to have friends.

I first encountered frumkeit when I got to UPenn. The Orthodox students I encountered were warm and welcoming. Their love of Judaism sparked my interest, and I wanted more than anything to be like them.

As I started taking on more and more mitzvot, I thought that it was not enough just to be observant. In order to truly be frum, I had to have the” frum personality.” I ignored all the parts of me that I did not consider Jewish, and plunged into Jewish life, making huge Shabbat meals for everyone, going around the dorm building giving away fresh baked cookies or deli-roll, attending 5 shiurim a week (plus learning with a few chevrutot). Every activity I did was Jewish.

I think everyone goes through this stage, where they cut off all ties to their past persona and try to reinvent themselves as their new frum self. Unfortunately for me, this led to an identity crisis. I still did not feel like I truly was one of those Orthodox girls that I looked up to, and yet, I had definitely transformed into someone completely different than my own self.

It took me a trip outside to a park for me to consciously realize what I had done. Up until this point, I had not realized that there was this whole part of me that I had pushed deep down inside.

It takes a lot of thought to go back through your memories, your old essence of self, to pull out the remnants that can be saved, that can be incorporated into your new frum self. But I would argue it is something that we all need to do at some point. No one can completely re-create themselves.

For me this required dedicating more time to reading fantasy novels for fun, to taking walks in nature, and to relaxing in front of the television every so often. But even this was not enough. I felt that in some way I needed to reclaim part of my old unique self in order to be able to better merge that self and my Jewish self instead of having them as two different personalities. Something I had wanted to do since freshman year, but had told myself it was not something that conformed to Orthodox norms.

That something was getting my nose pierced. I had talked to my rabbi, who gave me the psak that there was nothing halachically wrong with this, (though he thought I was a bit crazy). I did not want to make an outward statement of rebellion, of rejecting the religion I had tried so hard to be a part of. But I wanted a reminder to myself that deep down inside I was still Rachel.

It was a very cathartic experience for me. And for all that I worried that people might shun me for not conforming, most people either did not notice it (since I got something small and discreet) or if they did, thought it was cool. Even the yeshivish community in Providence that I visit whenever I am living at my parents’ house did not really notice or think less of me.

So I would say that the moral of the story is that if there is something you want to do that does not conflict with halacha, but is not part of your community’s norms, go for it. People are more accepting than you would expect, and they might even respect you more for not being afraid to be who you are.

First you Think in Secular and Translate for Yourself; Eventually you Begin to Think in Frum

I spent the first 25 years of my life big into non-conformity. I prided myself on digging hipper music than my high school friends, choosing a trendy college too cool for grades, eating vegetarian, camping through the USSR before glastnost, living in the East Village, and on and on.

Becoming a B.T. was the ultimate in non-conformity. One friend (now a prominent psychiatrist) tried to de-program me. Maybe I was a Ms Magazine subscriber but I couldn’t shake off that pull toward Yiddishkeit.

In other words, to so radically turn your back on your comfort zone–family, friends, career, even language–you have to be a risk taker, a non-conformist.

But…living frum. That’s the ultimate in conformity. Boy, was it hard the first years. Doing things just because it’s the frum way was, at time, impossible to digest. Squelching my well-honed instinct to disagree. Giving up T.V. All the forbiddens of Shabbos. Keeping a neutral expression at racist speech. Shaving my legs. Realizing that the right thing to do or say was pretty much the opposite of my instincts.

I think you have to be an actor to be a successfully assimilated B.T. And daven that after a while, you fully embody your character.

Originally Published Dec 13, 2005

The Holiness of “Going like a Sheep”

Vayechi 5774-An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

The Elokim before whom my fathers , Avraham and Yitzchak, walked is the Elokim who has led me like a Shepherd from my inception until this day.

-Bereishis 48:15

After the revelation at Sinai various directives of the Torah, some actually counted among the 613 mitzvos, express HaShem’s will for imitatio dei– by which man finds sanctity and goodness by endeavoring to imitate HaShem.  Be it “walking in His ways”(Devarim 8:6 & 11:22), “sticking to Him”(Devarim11:22&30:20)[ which Chazal interpreted as sticking to His middos-characteristics] or “be holy for I am holy”(Vayikra 19:2) the idea is the same one. To wit; that we humans should make our own behaviors, and the spiritual-psychodynamics that underpin them, as consistent with those of HaShem as the limits of our theology allows.

Rav Moshe Codovero’s classic work, Tomer Devorah is predicated on this principle.  First the author analyzes the thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy and then offers guidance and advice as to how to integrate them into our own lives,  Some have described the principle lyrically as dimui hatzurah l’Yotzrah– making the painting grow similar to the artist. (Cp Koheles Rabbah 2:26)

One of the twentieth century’s preeminent gaonim and chachmei hoavodah taught that while all this is true, that prior to the revelation at Sinai, in our Nations developmental period “walking in His ways” was not just one among many mitzvos or even the best technique for performing all the others. It was the be all and end all of the life’s-work of the patriarchs. HaShem proclaims His mission for Avraham as follows: “For I have paid special attention to him, so that he may command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the way of HaShem, to do charity and justice; HaShem will then bring about for Avraham everything that He promised.”  (Bereishis18:19)

The “way of HaShem” is not the merely way that He commands us to walk but that k’vyachol-as it were, the way / path that He treads Himself.  HaShem is our King, but also our Father, and in Divine Parenting “Do as I say, not as I do” is an anathema.  The “way of HaShem” is why He formed a covenantal relationship with Avraham and the nation that will spring from his loins. As such “walking in His ways” is the very cornerstone of Jewish patriarchy.

Still, the Izhbitzer explains, there are subtle yet defining differences between the various patriarchs approach to “walking in His ways.”

Avraham Avinu was defined by his middah of Chesed– loving-kindness, giving to, and pouring out upon, others. Avraham utilized love and kindness in every given opportunity to assimilate himself to His Creator. Yitzchak Avinu was defined by his middah of Gevurah-forceful self-restraint.  Yitzchak utilized awe and forceful self-restraint in every circumstance to emulate the way of His Creator. Yet Avraham was unfamiliar with the notion of mimicking Divine Contraction and Yitzchak was unaccustomed to imitating Divine Expansion.

But Yaakov was not defined by, and thus not restricted to, any particular middah. Yaakov’s very being was imitatio dei. Yaakov was a living self-portrait of HaShem that continually developed ever-higher fidelity to the Likeness of the portrait Painter.  Yaakov possessed the spiritual dexterity to copy HaShem in all of HaShems Divine middos. Whether the given situation called for chesed, gevurah or any other attribute across the theological spectrum, Yaakov, chameleon-like, conformed to the ways of His Creator.  In this respect his father and grandfather were, relatively speaking, more rigid and limited.

When Yaakov says that his fathers walked before HaShem he was humbly voicing a feeling of comparative inferiority.  He is expressing his observation of the proactive way in which they served HaShem. Capable of standing on their own two feet they, k’vyachol, walked ahead of HaShem. As Rashi (Bereishis 6:9) says “Avraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself.”  Defined by their own particular middos, Avraham and Yitzchak were able to improvise and adapt these middos in Divinely imitative ways to new situations. This was especially so in those situations that seemed to be repeating the past, situations that precedents had been set for.

In contradistinction, Yaakov himself needed constant shepherding by HaShem. “Elokim…has led me like a Shepherd from my inception until this day.”  A sheep follows every move of the shepherd.  When the shepherd goes to the right or to the left, up or down, slow or fast, the sheep follow. Yesterday, watering his flock, the shepherd may have brought them right up to the riverbank. Today, floods have caused the waters to overflow and to repeat yesterday’s livestock management would not result in hydrating the sheep, but in drowning them.   Similarly Yaakov felt the need to follow HaShem like a sheep with no internal GPS to guide himself. Even if he confronted the “same” situation for the hundredth time, he awaited Divine guidance and then precisely shadowed HaShem’s Movements k’vyachol.

In fact, this was no inadequacy on Yaakov’s part but the very characteristic that made him the “choicest of the Patriarchs” and why it is his visage, and not those of Avraham and Yitzchak , that is chiseled on the Divine throne of Glory.

Yaakov lived the life that king Dovid prayed for “(When) HaShem is my Shepherd I will lack for nothing!” HaShem always leads a person, yet most people, bristling at the sheep-Shepherd relationship, turn their faces aside and willfully refuse to follow the leader.

The second Izhbitzer explains the relative advantage of Yaakov’s sheepishness in light of the following gemara:

And many nations will go and say: ‘ let us go and ascend up HaShem’s mountain, to the house of the L-rd of Yaakov; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion will Torah go forth, and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem.

Yeshaya 2:3

Rabi Elazar observed; “to the house of the L-rd of Yaakov” (why is this place referred to as the house of the L-rd of Yaakov) and not the L-rd of Avraham or the L-rd of Yitzchak? Avraham referred to the site of the Beis Hamikdash as a mountain (Bereishis 22:14), Yitzchak referred to it as a field (Bereishis 24:63), but Yaakov called it a house “and he called the name of the place Bethel (Bereishis 28:19).

-Pesachim 88A

There is an inherent danger in being fixed in a particular middah. One who is intransigently stuck even in the noblest of middos may be found wanting in particular situations.  No middah is more splendid than rachmanus-mercy, rooted in the chesed that is the very foundation of the world. Yet our sages teach us that one who can never let go of mercy will first abuse it by bestowing it upon unworthy recipients and then overcompensate for that abuse with its antisocial antithesis. “All who are merciful to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the merciful” (Koheles Rabbah 7).

No one middah is complete and perfect unto itself. This is why Yaakov eschewed reliance on any particular middah.  Instead, he would assess the changing circumstances and look to HaShem for enlightenment and guidance minute by minute. He would move from middah to middah as the Divine will renewed Itself every moment. This is the meaning of the pasuk “No black magic can (harm) Yaakov nor any occult powers against Yisrael. ‘How is G-d acting at this moment’ is the only question pertinent to Yaakov and Yisrael.”(BeMidbar 23:23).

Through his incessant imitatio dei, his constant cleaving to HaShem Yaakov became subsumed within the Divine Light.  The Divine Light surrounded Yaakov like a house. As a house provides shelter from the elements the surrounding Divine Light lent Yaakov invulnerability. No malevolent powers, nor the excesses or deficiencies of the monomaniacal fixation on a particular middah, could harm him. Nimbly darting from middah to middah Yaakov sheepishly followed HaShem at every turn. Unlike his father and grandfather Hashem, k’vayachol, served as a protective “house” for Yaakov.

Adapted from:

Mei Hashiloach Vayechi D”H Vayomer Elokim
Bais Yaakov Vayechi inyan 7 page 426 (213B)
Also see Pri Tzadik Rosh HaShanah inyan 8 page 170

A Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Do not erect a sacred Monolith for this is something that HaShem your L-rd hates                                                                                                                                -Devarim 16:22

Although HaShem commanded us to make Altars of soil and multiple stones He hates the (single stone) monolith… even though the monolith was beloved by Him during the era of the patriarchs He hates it presently…                                                                                                                        -Rashi Ibid

Good habits become second nature. As we grow and mature we develop attitudes and approaches that are translated into specific behavioral patterns. Once well established these attitudes and behavioral patterns become very difficult to break. On the rare occasions of inconsistency we are often described as “acting out of character” and most people consider consistency an unquestionable virtue.  We associate immutable consistency with being principled, sincere, dependable and serious.

However the Izhbitzer cautions against being too obstinate to ever alter ones attitudes or behaviors. In contemporary post-sacrificial terms this is what the prohibition of “erecting a monolith” means.  A monolith is a single pillar or slab of hard inflexible stone. While soil is soft and malleable and the variegated stones of a multiple stone altar are of different shapes, sizes and colors, a monolith is a model of, well, monolithic, monochromatic, monotonous consistency.    Even sacred monoliths are hated by HaShem.  Even regarding ones manner of relating to and worshiping HaShem the Torah prohibits monolithic, heels-dug-in inflexibility.

In the bygone era of the patriarchs, when HaShems sovereignty was not yet acknowledged by the vast majority of the mankind this kind of obstinacy was beloved by Hashem. At that time the call of the hour was for the Avos and Imahos to dig in their heels, draw lines in the sand and to be moser nefesh-to lay down their lives, for every minute detail of worship of the One True G-d. Whereas for us there are only three cardinal sins for which the Halacha demands death before transgression in all circumstances. It goes without saying that if in given situations we must steer clear of obstinacy and be flexible enough to actually sin then, depending on a variety of variables, we must certainly be responsive and flexible enough to adjust our ways and means of fulfilling Mitzvos and worshiping HaShem.

Understanding that the capacity for inconsistency is required of us in our relationship with Hashem has a tremendously positive impact on our interpersonal relationships as well. If we had the luxury of monolithic inflexibility we’d find it much easier to be dismissive of other people, their Hashkofos and approaches to Avodas HaShem –serving G-d. But since we ourselves must eschew a monolithic style in Avodas Hashem, if we ourselves serve HaShem in a less-than-absolutely-consistent range of ways then we are much better able to tolerate the diverse approaches of our fellow Jews.

While uniform standards govern the actual implementation of the 613 Mitzvahs that are equally binding on each and every Jewish Soul, the Ta’amei HaMitzvos– the rationale and motivation underpinning the Mitzvahs are “tasted” (Ta’am) and experienced by each soul in a unique and inimitable way.  This is why the  Pasuk (Devarim 6:17) says: “You (plural) should be very careful (Shamor Tish’merun) to keep the commandments of Hashem your L-rd as well as the Edos.. that He commanded you (singular- Tzivcha) . The Edos refer to the Ta’amei HaMitzvos which differ from individual to individual.  Hence the second person singular conjugation of the verb “command”.   It is imperative for each of us to understand that, in fact, it is impossible for our fellow Jews to observe the Mitzvahs using our unique and inimitable approach and attitude and that to expect their approach to be consistent with ours is not merely being judgmental and dismissive, but completely irrational and foolish.


Adapted from Mei HaShiloach to Devarim 16:22 (D”H Lo Sakum )

and 6:17 (D”H Shamor)


Inspired and the Art of Denial

Blast from the past. Originally posted 12/29/2005.

Rabbi Yitz Greenman
Aish HaTorah / Discovery

Being involved in the filming of Inspired was truly a zechus for which I’m grateful to Hashem and a most enjoyable process from beginning to end. That being said, there were some sad moments and I would like to share them in the hopes that someone may benefit.

Several people, when asked to share their story, told me that they did not want others to know that they are BT’s. Okay, I may not choose that path myself, but I respect their choice. One old friend, who has led a particularly interesting life that many could have learned from in the film told me that his kids might find out. “Kids might find out?” I asked. “You’re kids don’t know that you’re a BT?” No, he told me. “Well, do you hide your parents and siblings?” No, he said, they’ve all become BT’s themselves. “Fantastic, but why hide who you are from your kids?” He shared that he doesn’t want them to feel “different” or “disadvantaged” in school. Okay, this is his choice and I respect him.

Here’s the rub however. I have met several people at various screenings who bemoaned [in private] the fact that they hid their identity as BT’s, because they felt that they had to in order to integrate into the frum velt. One woman came to me almost in tears after the film. What upset her I asked. She commented that the people in Inspired became frum and entered the Torah community in such a normal way, but she felt that she had to hide everything about who she was and the fact that she was raised secular. A couple came up to me at another screening and shared that they lived in their community for 25 years but no one knew that they were BT’s. It was as if they needed to share with someone: “Hey, we’re different, we’re special, please acknowledge us” but were afraid to let it out of the bag. This situation played itself out quite a few times.

Whereas I am a firm believer in healthy integration into the frum velt and whereas I understand and respect the decision of some BT’s for not wanting to share the fact that they are BT’s, I believe that people should be aware that this often times comes at a cost. The cost may be their own self image and damaged identity.

These people that I met appeared broken in some real way. Being born into a non frum family is not a sin and nothing to be ashamed of. Secular Jews are tinokes she’nishbau [kidnapped children] in a foreign culture. Our goal must be to reach them, educate them and integrate them into the Torah world, but not by telling them that their prior accomplishments were valueless and that their life had no meaning.

(For information on the film Inspired, visit http://www.kiruv.com)

The Ascent to Haute Boro Park

This post was written in response to a Tablet magazine piece posting a slide show of a women’s change from jeans skirts to jeans.

Dear Ms.Umansky,

If you can run an entire piece plus a slide show on Dvora Meyer’s evolution (devolution?) from jeanskirt wearing into jeans, than I’d like to propose the opposite side.

Unlike Meyers, I grew up in a traditional household and attended Ramaz back in the sixties and seventies when the word “tznius” was hardly spoken.

Back then the girls dress code was simple–skirts only and I think some minimal kind of sleeve (the wifebeater t shirt was still decades away). I remember the more rebellious members of my class sneaking jeans under their skirts, hurriedly changing in the locker room before the first period bell rang or ripping out the inner seams of their jeans to construct somewhat bizarre looking skirts.

Then came college–at Columbia University. Seminary had not yet been invented and no one in my class even considered applying to Yeshiva University .On campus anything went, even streaking–remember that?

Bye bye kipa, bye bye tefillin and of course, bye bye skirt.

In my mid-twenties, I gave skirt wearing a second chance.

Maybe this part of the story will be of interest to Meyers. Fed up with the prospects of a permanently single life–that’s how it seemed to be heading, Prince Charming was off my radar, I headed off to Israel in hopes of finding my bashert. And of course, I ditched my pants, You can’t show up at a shadchan’s office in khaki’s.

And so it’s been. Over the decades, I’ve transitioned from Bis Denim to maternity denim–to when my daughter entered Bais Yaacov (in hopes that being “in the system” would save her from singledom ) to no denim.

At nearly age 52, my wardrobe is haute Boro Park.

Do I have regrets? No, I don’t eat pig either even though it probably tastes good, nor do I flick light switches on Shabbos. This is how Hashem wants it, how my ancestors have done it and how I hope and pray my descendents will too.

If you are a Jewish magazine, then please respect and honor those of us who show fealty to authentic Jewish culture ie our holy Torah.

Anxious Ima

Orthodox Individualism: Is There a Model?

By Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim

There’s much confusion about the role of the individual within Orthodox Judaism. This is especially true among spiritually sensitive newcomers. Well after accepting the theological and emotional rewards involved in performing the “big Mitzvahs” like holidays, kashrus and daily prayers, these often very intelligent, critically thinking neophytes find themselves questioning (if not panicking over) why so much legal minutae is taking over their lives. There is also a growing number of natives who are joining the fray. As the Jewish Observer periodical pointed out in their recent expose` on “Adults-at- Risk,” there are troubling numbers of fall-outs from established Orthodox families who feel their individualism is suffocating within a religion about which they otherwise deeply believe.

Another interesting article on this topic appeared earlier this week on the this blog. The writer sums up the perspective of Reform Rabbis from first hand experience: Doesn’t abdicating so many private choices to religious authorities foster a “moral crutch” attitude, stymieing us from personally taking responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong?

Unfortunately, the answer given in that article misses the point. He describes the absurdity of a medical patient insisting on having the last word on every move his doctor makes; so too must we realize that our Torah authorities are highly qualified, spiritual doctors, simply letting us know what the holy Torah wants from us. Very nice, but our suffering questioners are asking about the HEALTHY Jewish ideal!!

In fact we have an explicit verse on the matter (Deut.6): “And you should do what’s honest and good in the eyes of G-d,” which the Nesivos Sholom (vol. I, pp 137-141) explains, in the name of the Ramb”n, to mean that the PURPOSE of Torah is to bring each and every Jew to the point of making his own, non-prescribed choices.

I respectively offer some insights from recent Torah portions about a model process for achieving that ideal.

And Avram said:

“My L-rd, G-d,
what can You give me
being that I go childless;
the steward of my home
is Damascus Eliezer?”
~ Gen. 15: 2,3 ~

Now everyone asks: why complain about being childless when already promised that your seed will populate the earth (ibid 13:15, 16)? And if the first patriarch is simply being candid, confessing his lack of patience, why bring the servant into the fray? Isn’t the point simply to underscore the torment in being childless? Finally, why specify the servant’s name and title? G-d isn’t exactly some kind of beaurocratic clerk in need of a reminder!

According to the Me’or V’Shemesh (par. Lech-Lecha), a third generation Chassidic Rebbe after the Baal Shem Tov, the Midrash which Rash”y brings explaining the meaning of the title “Damascus Eliezer” is very problematic. It claims that the Hebrew Dameshek is a contracted phrase describing his servant’s strongest qualities: doleh u’mashkeh, “drawing up (like water from a well) and watering.” That is, Eliezer impeccably retained and espoused his master’s teachings. He was renowned for his ability to give over to the masses what Avram taught without losing a proverbial drop from the bucket. If so, the MvSh asks, why in the world would that be a basis for complaint?!

His answer is powerfully incisive. Whereas the context of this prayer is the Alm-ghty’s offer to reward Avram, the latter is confounded about how that could happen. For the only conceivable reward for him is a successor to his life’s mission of spreading the light of Torah, yet Eliezer is the only viable candidate and he dispenses his master’s Torah SO exactingly that he disqualifies himself, since the essence of Torah is for each individual to UNIQUELY live it!

To which G-d responds:

“Gaze, please, upon the heavens
and count the stars
if you can count them!”
And He said to him:
“So shall be your offspring!”

I.e., you’re more right than you know. While your descendants will not only possess the capacity to uniquely teach Torah, they will do so with a distinctive shine as bright as the stars are innumerable!

Fast forward two parshas. Avraham’s life is winding down and this selfsame rejected servant is being given the most sensitive mission of finding a wife for the “competition” – the up and coming star of the next generation, the patriarch’s beloved son from Sara, Yitzchak. Sure enough, we soon learn that Eliezer is trying to set up his own daughter as a marriage candidate (Rash”y on Gen.24:39, reflecting on 24:5). Yet the master refuses to bite, telling him that not only must he travel a great distance to find the right one, but if after finding her she refuses to come to the Promised Land, he’ll be “cleaned” from his oath, i.e. no longer restricted from choosing someone from among the Canaanites while STILL not being permitted to offer from his own (Rash”y on Gen. 24: 8, as clarified by Mizrachi).

This is really quite amazing. For Eliezer is from the same, cursed stock as the Canaanites!

Apparently the patriarch is insisting on driving into this extremely robotic frummie that while his external actions are highly valued, his spiritual motivation is the lowest of the low; that even under the most exceptional considerations, he just ain’t got what it takes to contribute to the soul of klal Yisroel.

On the other hand, such a put down flies in the face of a number of sources which underscore the grand heroics of Eliezer. Like when we learn that upon fulfilling this mission, he’s liberated from the Canaanite curse and becomes a free man (Br. Rabba. 59, 60; Zohar Chadash 3 ). Or how about the famously Talmudic remark about the outstanding amount of verses the holy Torah uses to describe that mission (Br. Rabba; Rash”y Gen. 24:42): “The conversations of the servants of the patriarchs are more beautiful than the Torah of their children!”

So what’s the story? Is Eliezer a model or a puppet?

The answer is both. His modeling was precisely in his ability to get beyond first being puppet like; a process so precious to G-d that He indeed invests an inordinate amount of holy ink to help us learn from it. That adage of the Sages should be accordingly understood. The word it uses for beauty – yafeh – is the most superficial of a number of Hebrew words for beauty (a subject I touched on within my last posting). It’s referring to a very transitory kind of religiosity, as in hevel ha’yofee (Prov. 30), the “mist” that initially impresses and then dissipates. Such was Eliezer’s style of devotion until learning the ideal of “the Torah of the children” – the Torah of uniquely shining individuals.

Aye, this exquisitely explains why the first patriarch allows for some Canaanites to become second choice in-laws but not others. For while those same people (which acc. to Rash”y were Aner, Eshkol and Mamreh, his loyal confederates) had already proven their deepest respect for Avram’s spiritual path, they had made no pretensions of worshipping the particular way he did. It was therefore conceivable that a daughter of theirs could enter the educational process leading up to “the Torah of the children.” But not for a child raised to be infatuated with only one style of Torah worship.


So we now have a principle for guiding each and every Jew to successfully liberate his G-d given individuality: choose a decidedly trans-yofee Torah path. In particular, aim to conclude your life like Eliezer’s, when after convincing everyone of the earthshaking synchronism behind how he found his master’s daughter-in-law, awoke in the morning to witness the family’s complete turn-around. To which his final response is, uncharacteristically curt:

Send me and I will go
to my master

Not up to AVRAHAM, but my master. THE Master.

A few verses later, after Rivka declares her willingness to go, no matter what, and they do the most unbelievable thing of blessing her (with a blessing we use to this day!), we hear the following:

And the slave took Rivka
and went…
and the slave told Yitzchak
all the things he had done

No more prostrating and praising. No more being called someone else’s slave. Just serving the one, true Master.

Now THAT’s a true individual.

Aye, it will quickly become the model for Jewish history, as we learn in the beginning of this parsha about Yitzchak’s successor, Yaacov, being “a wholesome man; a dwellor of tents” (Gen. 25:27). Why the plural? Rash”y: These were the study halls of Shem and Eiver, wherein he immersed him self in religious study for well over a decade, just like his father did. But why go to them? Weren’t there better teachers in the tents of Yitzchak and Avraham (who was alive until Yaacov’s Bar-Mitzvah)?!

It must have been that the patriarchs had learned their lesson. Never again should a Jewish leader allow a disciple to even entertain the thought of cloning his style of worship. As long as there’s another genuine scholar to be had, a true devotee of Torah should seek him out, or at least be exposed to him. That’s the model around which all Talmudic study revolves. And that’s the model within which all our “Adults at risk” should be lovingly guided to find their authentic self expression.

What’s in a Name – Matisyahu?

One gratifying moment in my Baal Teshuvah life was when I legally changed my “American” first name to my Jewish first name. I have tremendous pleasure every time I have to spell out my name to someone official: “M A T I S Y A H U.”

Many BT’s would gladly change their legal first name, however, they do not do it, due to the hassle involved with possible court proceedings, changing the social security, passport, car registration and driver license, credit cards, etc.
Read more What’s in a Name – Matisyahu?

An Orthodox Jew with a Tattoo

When I was 18 years old, before I knew anything about Orthodox Judaism, I got two tattoos. It was the thing to do – I was in college and a bunch of my friends were doing it. As well as the fact that it was an excellent opportunity to upset my parents. I didn’t know that halacha said you are not allowed to get tattoos, I wouldn’t have known what halacha was anyway.

As the years went by, and I became frum, it was a problem. One of the tattoos is in a place where no one sees it, but the other is on my ankle. I had three options – get it removed, either cover it up all the time, or deal with Orthodox Jews seeing (and possibly commenting on) my tattoo.
Read more An Orthodox Jew with a Tattoo

One Billion Chinese Can’t be Wrong

My visit to mainland China in 1981 left me saturated with images. Luminescent green meadows transected by bales of razor wire along the border. Meals comprising endless courses that, in my pre-kosher days, could have been anything from dog to silkworm. And bicycles. Thousands and thousands of bicycles. All of them the same make, the same model, and the same color — black.

“How do you tell them apart?” we asked our host. He laughed at the question. “One may have a ribbon around the handle, a scratch on the fender, or a bell on the handlebar”. In other words, although they were all the same, they were all different.
Read more One Billion Chinese Can’t be Wrong

Heaven to the Right, Hell to the Left, One Size Hat Fits All

What often happens in the frum world is everybody is forced to pick sides, or so it appears. Can you imagine you just gave up eating shellfish, pork, and watching cartoons on shabbos and you now feel like you are on a holy journey to serve the creator of the universe and boom, you are pressured to define yourself: black hat, knitted kipa, jean skirts, stockings or bandanas. Sounds frustrating but we all felt the pressure somewhere along the way.

Does it really mean who you are because of your hat or lack of it? Because your skirt goes to your ankle but it is a jean shirt? I think Hashem laughs at anyone who believes that is Yiddishkeit. Now, with that said, what should we be thinking? How do we define what a good Jew is?
Read more Heaven to the Right, Hell to the Left, One Size Hat Fits All

Those Five Magic Words

“I never would have known!”

What a thrill I feel every time I hear it. But as Rabbi Greenman so movingly describes, how healthy is it to want to “pass”?

Like all of you, I’ve explored so many stages of BT-hood; found the truth beyond those early idealized visions of the frum world. The amazement and longing that lured us to this world have matured into a grounding of understanding, regret, flashes of cynicism, and…moments of amazement and longing. Rather than suffer a damaged self-image (as warned by Rabbi Greenman) by not wearing my journey on my sleeve, I’m proud I’ve found a comfort zone: I’m proud that my instincts and impulses are frum ones.
Read more Those Five Magic Words

The Insights Born Out of a BT’s Past

By Michael Salzbank

There is an evolutionary process to the BT. As we learn more we become more aware of what is appropriate in different situations. This is true for everyone in society (you don’t wear jeans to a black tie affair). Frum women will dress even more modestly when going to the Kotel or when going for a bracha from a Rebbe.

So in part, it is not an issue of conforming but becoming more sensitive to the standards and norms of the situation, the community.

I am intrigued by the global aspects to the BT. Read more The Insights Born Out of a BT’s Past

Intellectual and Spiritual Dimensions of Non-Conformity

I would like to comment on the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of conformity and non-conformity.

I have always thought that Avraham Avinu was one of the greatest non-conformists. Avraham not only walked out on his parents way of life, he destroyed and renounced idol worship. There are numerous approaches in the Talmud and Midrash as to when he changed his life. I think that there are two major approaches which posit his age at either age 3 or in his 30s or 40s. I once heard R’ Aharon Lichtenstein summarize these differences as reflecting either an emotional or intellectual change, depending on the age. (The Ritva in his comments on the Haggadah discusses these views in detail). Other Midrashim and Rishonim ( possiby Rambam in Hilcos Yesodei HaTorah) indicate that Avraham Avinu basically tested and rejected all of the prevalent Avodah Zarah (AZ) and culture of his times. It may be fair to say that whatever impetus was that caused a BT to become frum, non-conformity was one of the greater causes. All of the Avos seemed to follow in this path in their own way. Read more Intellectual and Spiritual Dimensions of Non-Conformity

You’re a Conformist!

There is a certain freedom in conforming. Non-conformity takes a lot of effort, creativity, and energy. To go the way everyone else is going is easy, to think for yourself sometimes you must fight the tide. Conforming relieves you of that pressure to stand out.

I grew up believing that I would become an actor. I studied acting seriously in college and in NYC after graduation. While all of my friends were becoming boring investment bankers (oh, how I wish now that I had become an investment banker then) and accountants, doctors and lawyers, I was busy with art and performance. I was not going to just become another “nobody,” another working stiff like everyone else. Nobody else I knew was going to become an actor and I felt a sense of elitism and pride at my courageous and dubious choice of profession. When I became friends with a certain famous actor and started working in the industry my sense of self-importance grew even greater. While my friends from high school were busy getting their graduate degrees and starting their (boring) families, I was hobnobbing with Hollywood and partying with the power players.
Read more You’re a Conformist!

Of Eagles and Turkey

You grew up in Philadelphia and you are a passionate Eagles (the local football team) fan. Somehow, you were able to land two tickets to the New Jersey Meadowlands Arena to watch the NY Giants play your beloved Eagles in a crucial playoff game in January (Sorry, Eagles fans, not this year).Here’s the question: What color jersey do you wear to the game? Do you proudly wear Philadelphia green, do you ‘wimp out’ and wear the despised New York blue, or do you ‘punt’ and wear some nondescript color?

Well; are you a conformist or not? Do you go with the flow, are you indifferent, or does part of you enjoy walking against traffic? The question is not about if you could wear Eagles’ green (you certainly could, if you look like a linebacker and if you don’t particularly mind getting a beer bath from the upper deck), but also if you should – or if it is prudent to do so.
Read more Of Eagles and Turkey