Teshuva – The Challenge of Recreating Oneself

By Rabbi Dovid Gottleib

Teshuva is the greatest creative challenge a person will ever face: the challenge of recreating oneself. A person’s whole past – talents, training, experience, successes and failures – provides the materials from which his new identity will be forged. He does not turn his back on his past, but organizes it to fulfill its potential in a new way. It is a denial of Providence to regard any of his “unplanned” prior life as a loss. Everything which happened to him was planned so that he could fulfill his unique human potential and make his unique contribution (see Luzzatto’s Derech Hashem, Part II, Chapter 3). Later, he will see how his seemingly pointless past gave him the tools for his religious future.

One important benefit of becoming religious later in life, through a conscious mature decision, is a heightened sensitivity to those aspects of Torah life which tend to become rote for others. Often this sensitivity generates insights from which all can benefit. A father once told me that he was nervous about speaking in public to deliver a dvar Torah for the bris of his third son. But then he began to wonder: why didn’t speaking in front of Hashem Himself, cause him the same concern? He deduced that his prayer should be improved.

In my own case, working in kiruv (outreach) makes everything that I had previously learned relevant. It helps me communicate more effectively with people who are educated and talented, but who also want to be sure that Jewish society will understand and appreciate them. Even if one cannot see it at first, teshuvah is not so much a totally new beginning, as a redirected continuation leading to a new, higher goal.

Reprinted with Permission from http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/

Love, Awe & Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The time between Pesach and Shavuos is a mourning period partially for the reason given in Yevamos (62b): “It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”

One of the questions asked on this Gemora is how is it that the students of Rabbi Akiva, who taught “Love your neighbor as yourself is the primary teaching of the Torah” did not respect one another to such a degree that it caused their death.

The Chasam Sofer answers this question by stating that Rabbi Akiva taught “Love your neighbor as yourself is the primary teaching of the Torah” after the death of his 24,000 students when he started over with 5 students. He saw that this teaching was primary for the continuance of Torah itself.

I would like to propose another answer. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (in Innerspace) points out that all emotions stem from the two root emotions of Love and Awe. Love is the emotion whereas we become connected, attached and united. Awe is where we recognize the greatness and uniqueness of another and we create distance out of the recognition and respect of that difference.

Rabbi Akiva’s student’s learned the message of “Love your neighbor as yourself” very well and they saw themselves and their colleagues as one unified entity. Love creates this unification. However, in addition to the needed connection resulting from love, we also need to see our uniqueness and the respect that flows from our unique role in the world. This is where the students failed and it was partly an over-emphasis on love and connection that lead to not properly respecting and recognizing each students unique greatness.

I told this over to Rabbi Welcher over Shabbos and he liked it even though he said over the Chasam Sofer’s explanation in his drasha. He provided some support of this idea from the Gemora on the same page (Yevamos 62b) where it says one should love his wife like himself, but honor her *more* than oneself which again shows the interplay between love and respect.

Another posssible application is the typical BT issues of communal integration coupled with the need of maintaining our sense of uniqueness. From the lesson of the Rabbi Akiva’s students we see the importance of both. If we continue to solidify our connections as well as recognizing and respecting each individual’s unique soul, talents, environment and challenges then perhaps we can fine tune the interplay between love and awe/respect and make our community a better place.

Nullified by the Majority

Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that on my birthday, there is widespread celebration, no tachanun is recited, and a lot of normally level-headed people get seriously intoxicated with joy — because my birthday is on Shushan Purim. But this year’s Shushan Purim will be more significant for me, because it is the birthday at which I feel confident saying I passed the “halfway mark.” At age 45, I will have spent more than half of my life as a self-described orthodox Jew.

I have anticipated this milestone for years, but now that I am upon it I am not quite sure what to do with it. I was wondering, however, if we can consider the principle we have in halacha called bittul b’rov, or nullification by the majority. Where one treif piece of meat is mixed with two kosher pieces of meat, we say that in theory at least you can eat any of them: Because the majority are kosher, it cannot be said any one of them is treif, and if none is treif, all are kosher, even though we “know” one is not kosher. (Married men: Do not try this at home.) The halacha of course is complex as applied to different situations, but that is the concept. We “round up” from 50% plus.

So do I get the benefit of bittul b’rov now that I have lived more than half of my life keeping Shabbos publicly, and holding myself out as an orthodox Jew? After all, I have been “frum” longer than I was not frum. Assuming we can compare a mixture of unlike objects to a mixture of unlike minutes, am I mostly frum, hence all frum?

Of course not. Even assuming a bona fide frum second half of my life — a big assumption — obviously the first 22 and a half years will never be undone. I will always be me. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter taught us that it is easier to learn the whole Talmud than to correct a single bad personal quality! And the mishna in Avos reminds us of the sad truth, that there is no comparison between writing on a smudged slate, and writing on a clean slate.

Smudged? I’m working toward smudged! Each time I bang out the erasers, though, I’m overcome by the rancid dust and have to get some fresh air.

In fact, the … problematic… aspects of the old me will never be buttel, null. Neither can I pretend that what was, or is, treif is actually kosher, merely because it’s hard to pick out of the mix, too. Indeed, the simple rule of bittul b’rov does not apply to a food mixture (as opposed to separate pieces of food) where the forbidden substance adds its flavor to the permissible.

On the other hand, wait. If there is any value in the term “baal teshuvah” (which as is well known is arguably a misnomer when applied to people who have never been frum, who become frum) — if I have ever done a touch of true teshuva, or if I give it to myself as a Shushan Purim birthday present, or if I do it on my deathbed — then we are taught that our transgressions become reckoned as mitzvos. Forgive a smudgy intellect the very mixed metaphor — but we are after all dealing with reckoning mixtures: Here, it seems, we are allowed,after the fact of course, to reckon as “kosher” something that we objectively know to be made of non-kosher ingredients!

Mixtures are one thing; this is beyond metaphor-mixing and verges on the scrambled; but I will serve up what I’ve put together and expect you to pretend to like it. Of course there’s no such thing as “mostly frum” on a time scale. After all, someone can be frum for his entire life and one day, as the old cliche goes, throw his teffilin in New York Harbor. As of that moment, and unless and until he repents, his 99:1 ratio of frum to non-frum life may not look so good if that boat doesn’t reach the dock.

A person can acquire, we are taught, his World to Come in one moment, for good and for bad. The real measure of a Jew’s life is not found on the scale of how many minutes he spent officially affiliated with this or the other religious affiliation, or even how many minutes were spent with a halo as opposed to those cartoon horns on his head. Rather, what matters is what he does with the whole cocktail right now… and tomorrow.

OK, I doubt I will hang up my briefcase and consider a carer in mixology — even though it is Shushan Purim! There is a certain satisfaction in getting past the “halfway point,” I suppose. Most days I get better because of the world I have built, and allowed to be built, around me in the last 22 and a half years. In the moments when I perhaps slip back, or seem at best to plateau, that bulwark holds me from rolling all the way down the hill to 1985. If there is any accomplishment in reaching this point, perhaps that, really, is the one that I can identify. With God’s help, he’ll keep me in the mix for more iterations of 22 and a half.

Letting It All Hang Out

Nope, although the title might imply it, this post is not about tzitzis. It’s about how we respond when the question of one’s BT-ness is brought up. This issue can arise by way of a direct question but more likely it will come up as a result of an inquiry like: Where did you learn? Where did you go to High School? Where did you go to camp? Where did you go to seminary?

I attended public high school at Forest Hills High School. A few times when I’ve been asked where I went to high school and I respond “Forest Hills High School”, people have said “Oh, Chofetz Chaim” (Forest Hills was the home of the main branch of. Chofetz Chaim for many years). Well, not quite.

How do you respond when the question comes up and why do you respond that way? Are you straight foward, simply answering “I’m a Baal Teshuvah” or “I didn’t grow up frum”. Or do you go for something a little less direct like “I came late to the game” or “I’m a late bloomer”. How do you feel when the issue arises: proud, insecure or something else? What are some of the interesting responses you have gotten when you’ve told someone you are a BT?

Rabbi Yitz Greenman on Integrating into the Frum Community

At the Beyond BT Shabbaton in Passaic, Rabbi Yitz Greenman – Executive Director of Aish NY and Producer of Inspired Films gave a shiur on the topic of “Integrating into the Frum Community”.

Rabbi Greenman started off by giving two scenarios both of which he thought were unhealthy:
1) Feeling that you always have to hide being a BT
2) Advertising you are a BT and associating only with other BTs

He felt that a person should find a community where (s)he would associate with people who weren’t BTs and at the same time the person won’t feel that (s)he needs to hide the fact that (s)he is a BT.

After presenting the above position, the floor was opened to questions and a lively discussion ensued.

Many people in attendance felt that the reason that people hide being a BT is because people are judgmental about BTs. Rabbi Greenman was not sure that judgmentalism was the cause and thought that perhaps people sometimes feel that they are being judged, even when they aren’t being judged.

Many thanks to Rabbi Greenman for opening his home to us and taking the time to share his thoughts and to lead a discussion on this issue.

Are We Too Obsessed With Integration?

If you look at a person’s music collection or someone’s seforim collection, you can get an idea of what they enjoy listening to or learning.

A quick glance at the “Topics Discussed” section of BeyondBT will show that aside from “Project Notes” the topic with the largest number of postings is “Integration”.

It’s an issue and a concern, there’s no denying it.

I am much happier discussing this topic in the form of ‘comments’ on this website, than with those I daven with or share carpools with.

We want to fit into a community. We’ve changed our lifestyle, our friends, our food tastes so that we can fit in. Yet, there are times when we can’t help but wonder, “Will I ever fit in?”

As a baal teshuva for about 20 years (and I’m only 36) I can honestly only recall a few times that I’ve felt like I really don’t fit into the ‘frum community’.

-There was the time I went to a shalom zachor and didn’t really know any of the songs.

– There was the time that I brought my lulav and esrog to a friends’ house for Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah (I’ll never make that mistake again).

– There was the time when I was asked where my father learned and I replied that he wasn’t observant.

In truth, I think, these feelings of ‘not fitting in’ are mostly self-created.

Now, I would not include general lack of a ‘learning background’ as not fitting into the ‘frum community’. We all have educational hurdles and I, personally, have used the excuse of being a ‘baal teshuva’ far too often as a crutch.

I feel that I am the one who doesn’t allow myself to always integrate into Torah observant society.

In fact from my experience that it doesn’t really make a big difference what my background is to the following people:

– Those who need me for a minyan
– The owners of seforim stores, kosher restaurants, and grocery stores where I shop
– The PTA of my children’s school who utilize my volunteer services
– The fellow Jew who I say, “Good Shabbos” to
– All of the of friends I’m make over the years

It’s a difficult issue, I know. Maybe we just focus on it too much?

The Trouble With Dogs

I was shocked to discover that almost every frum family I visited not only refused to have dogs, they generally reviled them.

They had a cat here and there, and maybe birds, but never could I find a dog.

This puzzled me, having grown up with cats and dogs.

Oh I know there are those out there that have them, but none that I’ve met. And I know of at least one Rosh Yeshiva who told his prospective bachurim to throw out their TVs and give away their dogs. Or was it give away the TVs and throw away the dogs? I was too shocked by the edict to absorb it.

I venture the bond between the animal kingdom and observant Jewish mankind rests largely with the BT world, where we grew up secular and with furry creatures sleeping beside us on our pillows. I doubt this happened much among Torah households.

Hashem gave us dominion over the animals for our use. Not for our abuse, but certainly we were given mastery. I assume that precludes us from being best pals with Fido and Flipper.

When I became BT, I was told I should get rid of the pets; that dogs are an abomination and the reincarnated souls of sneakthieves, while cats represent the basest level of illicit sensuality.

If you’ve ever watched a dog in action – any dog – “sneakthief” is the most apropos description going. Try leaving a sandwich on a table within muzzle-reach of a dog, and you’ll see what I mean.

We have two cats both over the age of 22, the equivalent of humans in their 90s.

We also have a beautiful aging Papillon dog, a grande dame of 13 years. Small breed dogs live on average to the age of 16, so my pride and joy, Lili, is a golden oldie in her dotage. For an abomination, I sure love her.

I mean, Lili is cute. No bigger than a football with ears the size of catalpa leaves (hence the breed’s name Papillon – French for butterfly), I couldn’t imagine one person not loving this friendly, fluffy, cuddly dog.

But I’ve watch horrified as frum kids ran from her screaming in terror. Same reaction I get when we’re within 10 feet of Muslims, who definitely revile dogs.

There is a posuk in Mishlei (26:11) that says, “ki kelev shav ell keio (as a dog returns to his vomit), k’sil shoneh beivalto (a fool repeats his error).”

Dog owners know their beloved dogs will eat anything, much of it quite unsavoury. I suppose if you are what you eat then dogs are … (you get the point).

And as for a fool, well, yes, if we don’t learn from our mistakes aren’t we destined to repeat them?

I heard the word “kelev,” dog, comes from “ki-lev,” like the heart, or “kulo lev,” meaning all heart, and this is what I have come to understand about dogs. They are loyal, obedient and trusting of their masters, and isn’t that quite analogous to our service to Hashem?

Dogs have a time-honoured place in Perek Shirah with their own song: “Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before our G-d our Maker.” (Psalms 95:6)

When you look into a dog’s eyes, loving you and trusting you back, or watch how they communicate with sound and physical action, it’s hard to think of them as some programmed living thing of blood and sinew, reacting purely on instinct. To me, they are a miracle of Hashem’s creation – complete with a heart and soul.

They comprehend your connection to them and love you unconditionally for it. So how can they be something to be reviled?

Well, then I met my friend’s grandson Yaakov, aged 7, a young up and coming talmid from New York.

It turns out he is a big fan of dogs and helps out sometimes in the neighborhood pet store, taking the dogs for a walk.

The absolute joy and delight in his eyes when I handed him my dog Lili’s leash for a walk one sunny chol hamoed day was vindicating and heartwarming.

I wish those who revile dogs could just see them from mine and Yaakov’s perspective.

And if we are careful with the halachos regarding pets, what could be so wrong with loving and caring for Hashem’s very own invention?

May we all merit the blessings and adoration of Hashem as his loyal and obedient servants.

Attention: New BTs

On the road to learning more about Judaism, you are likely to encounter some obstacles. Having traveled on this road for 5 years and experiencing some highs and lows, I feel that I am in an excellent position to assist those of you who are currently struggling with issues and maybe even prevent some problems from coming up.

1. You will most definitely have to field questions from family and/or friends who are not observant. The best way to approach the situation is to always be respectful and honest. If they ask you a question to which you don’t know the answer, admit you don’t know the answer, tell them you will find an answer, and then call your rabbi as soon as you can to get that answer. If you hear things that frustrate or upset you, bite your toungue. As tempting as it is to want to talk back, now is not the time to do it. Remember that your family is most likely worried that you will reject them. Keep that in mind when they ask you questions that you are uncomfortable with. To your family, you are representing observant Judaism.

2. One day your family asks you a question that you are just stumped on and you don’t have someone to talk to about that. That’s where your rabbi comes in. If you don’t have a rabbi that you can talk to, find one ASAP. If it means you have to shul-shop all over town, do it. Your rabbi should be knowledgable in obeying Jewish law yet maintaining relationships with non-observant family.

3. You might wonder where all your interests fit in this new lifestyle of yours, you could ask yourself “Can I still listen to 80’s hair band music?”, “Can I still go see concerts?” If you liked taking ballet classes or jazz classes before you became observant, you can still do so within reason. If you made a living as a singer or an actor before becoming observant, you can still sing and/or act. There are all women for women shows, especially if you are lucky enough to live in New York. If there are no opportunities for such shows, make one of your own. Bottom line, you should not change so much who you are that you wake up one day in the future and you don’t recognize yourself.

The Slow, Long Climb

On Shabbos Parshas Yisro, I came across three small mussar insights brought down in Artscroll’s Limud Yomi all of which I thought have extra meaning for Baalei Teshuva.

Each of these insights are derived from the same pasuk. In the last verse of Parshas Yisro, the Torah tells us: “Don’t go up to My altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered thereon.” Rashi explains that this means to tell us that the approach to the altar should not be built with steps. Rather, the approach should be built with a ramp since it is easier to walk modestly up a ramp and it would be “disrespectful” to the stones to do otherwise. Many of us are familiar with the explanation that this teaches us that if we have to be concerned for the respect of inanimate objects, how much more so must we be concerned for the respect of our fellow man.

The first insight arises from asking the question: Why did Hashem place this instruction at this particular place in the Torah? At this point in time, Bnai Yisrael had just received the Torah, why did Hashem see fit to place this law here even before the actual commandment to build the altar is given? It seems an incongruous place for this particular rule. R’ Yisrael Salanter once said that “A person running to do a mitzvah can tear down an entire world on his way.” Good intentions and fervor are great but not when they trample upon care and respect for a fellow Jew. In other words: doing the right thing is important but it must also done right. After matan Torah, Bnai Yisrael were understandably enthusiastic and ecstatic about living up to its new status and tackling the tremendous responsibilities that had been placed upon them. Often, enthusiastic, excited people rush headstrong into their obligations without giving proper thought to how their actions may impact upon or affect others. Additionally, zealous individuals will often view those that don’t share their level of enthusiasm with skepticism which is not always warranted. That is why the Torah issues this warning right after matan Torah, as if to say: In your newfound zeal and responsibility, do not step upon those whom you should respect.

The second insight is brought out by R. Reuven Feinstein who says that the idea of avoiding “stairs” is applicable as well to one’s attempt to ascend in spiritual growth. If one tries to climb too quickly, his weakness will become exposed, it is far better to climb slowly, being sure of ones spiritual footing, and even resting when necessary, than to attempt to jump to a level that one is not ready to attain.

The last point is found in the interpretation of Orach LeChaim who explains that this pasuk is advocating the necessity of humility within spiritual growth. When one wishes to ascend in his service of Hashem, he should take care not to place himself on any kind of pedestal (this is the meaning of “Maalos”-steps according to his explanation). If a person approaches the service of Hashem with true humility, he will succeed in ascending to great heights.

Integrating Environmentalism and Torah

Recently, Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz, director of Project Ya’aleh V’Yavo, (PYVY) was invited by Robert Gough, Esq., secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP) and a director of NativeWind.org, a city/tribal partnership towards climate protection and energy independence to participate in the Tribal Lands Climate Conference jointly hosted by the Cocopah Nation and the National Wildlife Federation. The conference was held on the Cocopah reservation on the outskirts of Yuma, AZ. Rabbi Simenowitzs’ participation was made possible through a generous grant provided by the Simon Grinspoon Memorial Fund of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

“I heard him speak at the Vermont Law School as part of an interfaith panel on faith-based solutions to environmental issues.” said Gough “He just knocked me out with his energy and creativity. But what really amazed me was his ability to seamlessly weave disparate elements of his life – music, law, his tradition, farming, working with kids – into this brilliant tapestry. Also, as a fellow attorney, I respect his ability to transcend the “zero sum gain – I win-you lose” headspace and his relentless pursuit of “win-win” solutions to the thorniest problems.

In his opening remarks, Simenowitz pointed out that in his culture there were no coincidences. He noted that it was no coincidence that the conference was being held near Yuma which he explained meant “Judgment day” in his sacred tongue. Similarly, he noted that it was likewise no coincidence that a conference discussing global warming was held on December 5, the one day a year when the lunar calendar is overlooked in favor of the solar calendar and Jews in the diaspora begin saying the prayer for seasonal rains. He explained that his culture told the story of the man drilling a hole under his seat in a crowded boat. The other passengers asked him what he was doing. He replied “don’t worry – it’s just under my seat”. The crowd was quick to appreciate the implications.

Simenowitz said he was amazed at the similarity between the teachings of the Native American tribal elders and much of the Torah wisdom. “They appreciate the sacredness that permeates the natural world and the importance of our stewardship at this critical juncture.” He noted the two cultures shared a veneration of the wisdom of their respective elders and that both had been persecuted and had suffered immensely.

Most of the speakers began their presentations with greetings in their native languages. Rabbi Simenowitz greeted the crowd with a hearty “shalom” which was met with a rousing “shalom” from the 135 attendees.

At one of the breakaway sessions which Simenowitz led with Dr. Steven Smiley, a noted weather scientist and Vernon Masayesva, a Hopi tribal elder, it was suggested that the Native Americans employ a “new paradigm” in addressing climate change issues confronting them. Simenowitz shared the story about a rabbi in Krakow who had a recurring dream that there was a treasure buried underneath a bridge in Prague. Unable to rest, he traveled to Prague only to find the bridge guarded closely by a watchman. After spotting him several times, the watchman finally confronted him and demanded to know what he was up to. The rabbi told him of his dreams. The watchman laughed and told him that he too had had a recurring dream that there was a treasure buried beneath the stove in the house of a rabbi in Krakow. The rabbi returned home only to find the treasure in his own kitchen. Simenowitz went on to explain that we often seek “new paradigms” when in fact the answers are frequently right under our nose buried in our own rich cultures and traditions.

“Unfortunately, native Americans are getting hammered from both sides” said Simenowitz. “They are inextricably linked to the land. Once the salmon die off, so do the salmon people. Once the bear are gone, so are the bear people”. Moreover, they are fighting to survive internal challenges – from crippling poverty, from disease, from rampant alcoholism and a loss of tribal traditions which are not being transmitted to the next generation.” He found the parallels to Judaism’s fight for survival sobering, to say the least.

One of the more moving moments of the trip came when one of the tribal elders presented Simenowitz with a vial of what he called “living waters” from the pristine Navajo aquifer which his tribe safeguards. The aquifer is reputed to be one of the purest water sources in the world. The gift was especially meaningful to Simenowitz who has long been a vocal advocate of what he calls “halachic water conservation”. In 2005 he received a grant from the Simon Grinspoon Memorial Fund of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts to present a paper entitled “Water Conservation and Halacha – An Unorthodox Approach” at the COEJL Conference in Washington, D.C. Simenowitz explained that the sacred waters – which he noted were similarly designated in his culture as “mayim chayim – the living waters” safeguarded by the Native Americans, course through the veins of the earth and ascend through the maple trees as sap. Simenowitz duly presented him with a bottle of maple syrup that he had made.

Similarly, at the end of a slide presentation showing the work done by native American youngsters with groups such as Alaskan Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA), several who attended and spoke at the conference, one of the speakers said he’d like to leave the slide up for a while because he got such a kick seeing his young people engaged in preserving the environment and preserving native American culture. Simenowitz noted with a smile that no one had a monopoly on “nachas”.

There were some light moments at the conference as well. When asked on the registration form for his tribal affiliation, Simenowitz penciled in “10 lost tribes – not sure which one”. Similarly, following his presentation, Simenowitz was asked to pose for a photo with Colin Soto, Cocopah tribal elder. Goodnaturedly, Soto recalled when he used to ask for fifty cents to have his photo taken. Simenowitz replied that in these parts a rabbi should get at least a dollar!

Simenowitz noted that the trip broadened his horizons as to the pervasive nature of the climate change threat and how the maples he stewards in Vermont can serve as an antidote, each drinking up nearly 450 pounds per year of carbon dioxide! He is broadening the scope of his educational materials to reflect the maple’s critical role in carbon sequestration.

Gough and Simenowitz are already planning a series of straw bale building workshops involving native American youth and Jewish teens. “The Talmud teaches us an important lesson about tzedaka” said Simenowitz recently. “Aniyei ircha kodmim” – the people of your own village get priority. This is about helping those in our vast, yet intimately interconnected, global village.

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.

Embarrassed by My Mother’s Photo Album

A few weeks ago a visitor in town stepped up to the omud to lead the mincha davening. He looked like a typical product of the yeshiva world — dark suit, beard, black hat. Nothing about him suggested anything out of the ordinary. Then he started to daven.

It’s hard to explain “nusach” — the flowing chant in which we intone our public prayers — to someone who doesn’t have an ear for it. Just as some people have perfect pitch while others can’t tell Brahms from a buzz saw, some people simply can’t recognize, or reproduce, any semblance of the intonation that characterizes davening. And so, as this fellow began to daven aloud, it took less than five seconds for his astonishing lack of nusach to scream out the only possible explanation: BA’AL TSHUVA!
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On Being Yourself

A year ago, I was at the wedding of two of my friends. At the Shabbas Kallah the bride went around and said something nice about everyone in the room. Since it was a year ago, I can’t remember her exact words, but she said something like this: “Rachel, your passion for learning is an inspiration to me.”

Now back then I wasn’t trying to pretend to the world that I had tons of emunah and really was dedicated to Judaism. During my freshman and sophomore years I believed myself that I had all this spirituality, that I was doing what G-d wanted, etc. But at that moment, I realized that I was somewhat of a phony. Everyone thought that I was spiritual, but my faith had already been tested by then, and I started having more and more trouble with serving G-d.

So we’re encouraged to dress frum (whatever that means) even if we don’t feel that way yet, because our actions should lead our intentions in the right direction. And actions are more important anyways.

But what if that frum feeling never comes? And what if others start believing in you, and they think that you’re some wonderful talmid hacham, or eishes chayil, and they’re inspired by you? Should you let them know that really you have all these doubts and that you’re working on your own emunah? Or do you let them use you as a role model, so they have something to strive for?

I think there is something to be said for being yourself. The more that you try to pretend that you’re something you’re not, the more it eats away at you. Slowly but surely it becomes harder to play that role.

Sure, everyone will compliment you, but you start to realize that they’re not really complimenting /you/, they’re complimenting a mistaken idea of you that they have in their heads.

So I’ve started being myself again. It was hard at first, and it took a lot of courage, but people are a lot more accepting than you might think, if they’re truly your friends and want what’s best for you. And I’m so much happier being myself.

So wear the jeans, the wedding band, the kippah srugah, the colors, the flowy skirt, the nose piercing, if that’s who you think you are. If you think you’re a black hatter, wear the back hat and the velvet kippah. Wear the strimel and the bekishe. Wear the sheitl, or the hat, or the tichel. Wear the long socks. But I would strongly argue against doing something just because it’s the norms of your community and you want to fit in. It only harms you in the long run. And I bet that you can find a community who accepts you for who you are. It’s definitely worth searching for.

Maintaining One’s Moral Compass in the Workplace

Dear Mentor:

I don’t know who you are or where you live, but I really need your guidance and inspiration at this stage in my life. Please get back to me ASAP.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Shmuel (I’m called Steve at work), and I am a junior partner in a prominent law firm in New York City. I’m happily married, and we have 3 lovely children, Baruch Hashem.

So why am I writing to you? Because as I have grown professionally and personally, I find myself faced with a set of nisyonos far different than those I had a few short years ago when I was a bachur in yeshiva. My nekudas habechirah has shifted dramatically, and I need someone who can regularly touch my neshama in a way that will enable me to maintain my spiritual compass. My soul needs to be uplifted, as there are so many temptations that beckon.

A few short years ago, my wife and I were living hand-to-mouth. Now, I am invited to dinner meetings in $150-a-plate restaurants and all I do is rearrange the salad and sip soda while my business associates dine on $70- steaks and drink from $100 bottles of wine.
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Keeping Your Ethics on Par in the Workplace

An Open Invitation From Rabbi Yakov Horowitz:

How would you like to spend an inspiring and enjoyable morning in the company of your friends – with an opportunity to meet new ones?

How would you like to opportunity to network with other frum professionals?

How would you like to attend lectures and shiurim by business professionals addressing the opportunities – and challenges – of today’s business climate? (Please read the article below on this subject.)

How would you like to spend a relaxed, enjoyable afternoon in a beautiful setting with a full array of sports facilities at your disposal?

If the answer to one or all of these questions is yes, please accept our invitation to join us for a one-day retreat in the beautiful Hudson Valley Resort www.hudsonvalleyresort.com on Monday, August 14th. The resort is conveniently located 15 minutes from Ellenville NY, and 90 miles from New York City.
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Who am I?

Hillel asks: If I am not for myself, who is for me? I first want to know: who am I?

All of my life, I have felt that I am a member of three communities, each vying for attention. As a US-born citizen, I am naturally an American, but growing up as the daughter of immigrants in an Orthodox day school where my friends were all children of immigrants, I was illiterate in the culture of baseball and homemade apple pie. My mom didn’t bake apple pie at home because instead I was enjoying Russian desserts due to my parents’ Russian backgrounds. Both of my parents are from the former Soviet Union and we spoke Russian at home. I learned to read and write in Russian and sing Russian children’s songs. Many of my parents’ friends were of the Russian Jewish community. Finally, there were the Israelis. Since my parents lived in Israel in the 1970s, we were involved in the Israeli community, going to events, visiting Israel almost every year, and speaking Hebrew. My favorite records were of Israeli children’s music; I knew every song by heart and was fluent in Hebrew at a young age.
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More Lessons from Psychology

I am currently taking a class in which the professor has been introducing several different cultural identity models. While each model was developed specific to a particular culture, they can be used more globally as well. Interestingly, while studying William E. Cross’ African-American Identity Model, I found a lot of similarities with the journey that a baal teshuvah goes through when becoming religious.

The first stage in Cross’ Model is one of accepting the prevailing attitudes of those around oneself. Not too much thought is given to the exact heritage of one’s birth, or what makes one different from everyone else.

The second stage is one of specific events or circumstances where one is pushed to reconsider their identity. This event causes an individual to look at who he or she is within the greater world and focus on how they identify and fit in culturally. I know that, for me, my first trip to Israel certainly caused me to look at my Jewish identity, which to that point had been something that I knew made me different from others, but not that different. It was something that I had accepted, but not something that made me connect to others who were similar to me in that respect. But after being exposed to the bond that ties Jews together, I had to really think about that aspect of my life and how prevalent it was in defining who I am.
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What Am I Missing?

By Chaya

I recently received a mass email from an old (non-Jewish) friend announcing that she is leaving town to start graduate school at a prestigious university. The message, an invitation to a good-bye party was filled with inside jokes and language specific to the young hipster enclave where she has lived for the past couple of years. I felt a pang of loss and resentment.

I am 25 years old. I became religious at 18, met my husband a year later, and married him four years ago. My entire adult life has been defined by mitzvah observance.

I am grateful. I have single BT friends in their forties. I know how much easier it is to make it in the frum world, and indeed the world in general when you have someone to love and support and to support you.
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A Part of Me Does, A Part of Me Doesn’t – Living with Conflict and Tension

By: Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz

Intro – I had intended to write and submit this piece back in February when we read parashas Yisro but you know how it goes. Projects, the kids, community needs, parnassah. The list goes on. I even got a second wind during Pesach when we bentsched Tal – the prayer for dew. Precipitation, yes, but still no piece.

How fitting is it that I finally sit down to write then on the eve of Pesach Sheni – the time when those who were otherwise unable to bring the korbon pesach in Nisan were allowed to do so. In chassidic thought Pesach Sheni is the ultimate ba’al t’shuva celebration – a day which stands for the proposition that there’s always a second chance. – SHS

When my daughter Tova was little, when we would ask her how she felt about going somewhere or doing something about which she felt conflicted, she would respond “a part of me does, a part of me doesn’t”. As she got older we would seek greater clarification (not to mention grabbing a quick teaching opportunity) as in “Well if the parts voted, which set of parts would win?” and then again “what percentage of part A does and what percentage of part B doesn’t?” It challenged her to ascribe values to each conflicting emotion, to prioritize but most importantly, to move forward.
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Lessons From Psychology

I’ve been reading Irvin Yalom’s book “Love’s Executioner.” It’s a collection of true stories from his experiences being a therapist. For someone who is in training to be a counselor, it’s an inspiring set of stories and points out many key points in the development of an outlook to dealing with patients and one’s own issues as a therapist.

In one of Yalom’s stories, he describes a woman who has come from a very difficult background. She discloses a lot of information about her background to him, including parts of her younger years when she did many things that she wasn’t particularly proud of. After divulging this information, Dr. Yalom asks his patient how it feels to tell him all these things. His patient says that she feels a mixture of being relieved and being afraid he will judge her and lose respect for her because of the information she has revealed. Dr. Yalom responds that she has no need to worry. He says, “The more I hear from you, the more I like you. I’m full of admiration for what you’ve overcome and what you’ve done in life.” (p. 146)
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