Wednesday, June 08, 2005

CHANGE COMPLETELY OR STAY ESSENTIALLY THE SAME? The Ba'al Tshuvah's Dilemma in the Post-Modern World (Part 1)

This article orginally appeared in The Nishma Journal (Vol. 10), 1996. I submit it here because it discusses the nazir state, which is focused on in this week's Torah Parsha.


CHANGE COMPLETELY OR STAY ESSENTIALLY THE SAME? The Ba'al Tshuvah's Dilemma in the Post-Modern World

-- Rabbi Yaakov Feldman



If it's true that change is the essence of life, then it is the quintessence of the ba'al tshuvah experience [1]. What, though, is the nature of the transformation that the ba'al tshuvah must, will, should, experience? Are ba'alei tshuvah -- Jews who once did not observe Shabbat, Kashrut, etc., and who now do -- only being asked to change life-cycles, some ways of doing things and some tools for doing them? Or must the ba'al tshuvah go further than that, shed a proverbial skin and design a complete and utter change of self? Is it but one's daily rhythms that are to change or one's very music?

What we envision to be the proper relationship for the ba'al tshuvah to have with his or her previous secular life is essential to the issue [2]. The idea of secularity actually touches the lives of each and every observant Jew, not just ba'alei tshuvah. We are as sensitive to the question of how "religious" we should be (woven as we are into contemporary society), whether we realize it or not. Many observant Jews tend to abandon a secular world they see as perverse and unG-dly. They elect to cower-in, to draw the wagons together against an onslaught of heathens, so to speak, like so many pioneers in the New West. And while they risk going too far by doing that, they feel it is better to err on the side of caution.

Other observant Jews, though, take the alternate side. They argue that while there is certainly much to be shunned in the secular world, there is much that is good and of no particular danger there. Some would even say there are secular adventures which act as vehicles towards theological and metaphysical investigations -- that, in fact, feed, in consequence, observance. There is, as well, an Orthodox voice which states that only from within the secular world can an observant Jew affect the essence of that world; that it is the obligation of the Torah-committed Jew to involve him- or herself in the secular world as a social reformer. (True or not true, the last point is beyond the concerns of this article.)

Still, the dilemma over secularity surfaces most often in relation to the ba'al tshuvah -- because we tend to project our own religious dilemmas onto them; because we expect to "raise them the right way", religiously speaking; because we hope they'll make the statement we ourselves are often incapable of making -- but, most of all, because, as with all aspects of the process, the ba'al tshuvah him- or herself must confront this issue and make a conscious decision.

Furthermore, for the ba'al tshuvah the question of the relationship to the secular does not reside outside of the person but touches the very being within; for the ba'al tshuvah was inherently part of the secular world. The issue is, in fact, a very difficult and fundamental one in the ba'al tshuvah transformation. And it is either soured or sweetened by the nature of secular life in the world today, depending on which side of the general issue you take. In many ways, it is the same issue that we all must face in our evaluation of our relationship to the secular. Yet, as part of the ba'al tshuvah process, it is also a unique issue tied to it. And it may call for unique answers.

How much is a ba'al tshuvah to immerse in and lose him- or herself to religiosity? How austere in relation to secular delights is he or she, and are we, to be?

If you were an opera-lover all along, a baseball fan, a reader of mystery novels, a gourmet cook, a philosopher, a mathematician, a comedy-writer, a student of anthropology, etc., etc. and suddenly became aware of your Jewish heart and soul, and went off to yeshiva or seminary, or you sat in on a number of classes in your local synagogue, kollel, day school, outreach center, etc. -- are you expected to give all prior interests and activities up from now on? And what about your prior self? Are you expected to deny your very real past for some idealized version of yourself that you now pass on to others and yourself as the new "real you"?

I believe the Torah's advice along these lines are demonstrated in its presentation of the example par excellence of well-balanced religiousness: the nazir, the person who decides to take a more stringent service of G-d on himself by avoiding all wine and grape products, by letting his hair grow antisocially long, and by avoiding all contact with the dead (see Numbers 6:1-21) [3]. But I also believe we misunderstand what the nazir is all about, and that the choice of it as our best example is not the dead giveaway we might think it is.


[1] Although this article refers to the ba'al teshuvo, every Jew affected by Torah imposed changes, can, and should, relate in some specifically personal way to the ideas presented here.
[2] By "secular" I mean anything that is not associated with your religious practice per se.
[3] In other words, by avoiding secular life. For by growing your hair to such lengths, by refraining from wine and all other grape products and by avoiding all contact with the dead you are necessarily forced to avoid all the social and communal events we, in our age, would see as being "secular" -- parties, certain social events and personal milestones.

(c) 2005 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and

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