When a person, like a baal teshuva, decides to leave his culture and join another, the beginning of the process is one of rebellion against the culture he grew up in. A big, healthy part of the process is realizing all the lies of the world he lived in before. Realizing how empty it is and why he’s choosing to follow a different path. Often, he’s rebelling against his own parents. Rebelling against everything he learned.
The problem is that most baal teshuvas think that the rebellion ends there. I felt like that for a while. I know many others who still feel that way. They think, “Okay, that world I left was bad, so now I need to fit into this new world as much as possible.”
But there is a problem: the orthodox world, unfortunately, is just as messed up as the “outside”.
Most of us don’t realize this at first because we connected through some outside force, like a Chabad house or a yeshiva in Jerusalem or something else. And in that world, we lived in our own culture, sheltered from the universe we were about to enter.
But eventually we run into that truth. We enter the culture and we find out that there are many rabbis that can’t be trusted. We realize that not everyone is as idealistic as the people who brought us into the fold. And that perhaps some of the people that brought us into the fold weren’t as great as we thought they were.
In sum: we realize that a culture does not equal truth.
And then we have a choice.
One option is to just do our best to fit in, trying forever to make sure we never stand out. There are many, perhaps the majority, who choose this path. They force themselves into a square hole, even though they are round pegs. They push in all their features that make them stand out, push in until it’s no longer outwardly apparent even to them. They feel like they’ve made the right choice for themselves.
I don’t care what anyone says, the majority of the people that choose that option are killing themselves. They’re hiding who they are in a false attempt at modesty.
I’m sure there are one in a thousand baal teshuvas who are somehow naturally programmed to fit into the orthodox world and love it from the get go. But the rest are hiding a pain from the world and from themselves. A pain that comes from not living the life you were meant to live. A pain that comes from hiding from a truth that is right in front of your face.
That truth is this: the orthodox world is a culture. It does not (necessarily) reflect truth or reality or what G-d wants. Sure, they do it better than the rest of the world, but that’s not a very good measuring stick. This doesn’t make the culture bad, it just makes it normal. We live in Galut, in a messed up world, and it is only natural that even the parts of the world that claim to be doing G-d’s will are making a ton of mistakes.
And a baal teshuva is uniquely positioned to notice those mistakes. He comes to Judaism with a fresh perspective. While, yes, he needs to spend much of his process letting go of a lot of the falseness he picked up throughout his life, he also brought along plenty of his own truth. That’s why he chose to be a baal teshuva in the first place: he already had a voice within him, guiding him, that caused him to finally choose to be an orthodox Jew.
And so it is inevitable that he will notice inconsistencies in the culture of the orthodox world. It is inevitable that he will be bothered by them. It is inevitable that he will want to change things.
And so, after he rebels against the world that brought him up, he now must rebel against the world that brought him in. And the people that brought him into the world of orthodoxy may not like it at first. They may be bemused, confused, unnerved. But if they are smart they will understand why their charge has chosen a path of rebellion.
Because the rebellion isn’t a real rebellion. Not like the one against the secular world. It’s not a rejection. Rather, it’s a recognition that the baal teshuva has access to a unique truth and perspective.
We see this happening already. I talked to a Chabad rabbi recently who started embracing green technology because, as he put it, “The Torah is pretty clear about its position on waste.”
He never would have made that decision without baal teshuvas guiding him. Showing him how the culture he grew up in didn’t have all the answers.
We see it in the world of arts, something the orthodox world is seriously lacking, something that has falsely been accused of being a haven of falseness. Creativity is slowly flourishing within our world, and it will continue to do so the more baal teshuvas choose to rebel, choose to access their true selves.
And there are even more obvious things. From small, like not being so down with talking during prayers to big things like breaking down the barriers between sects.
Whether we like it or not, our job as baal teshuvas is to always rebel. It is to turn every part of the world inside out, and that includes the orthodox one. Because Geula won’t come by us all being frum. Rather it’ll come by us all becoming committed to having a real relationship with G-d and then doing our utmost to bring out G-d’s truth into the world, whether it’s popular, whether it’s accepted, whether it’s “religious”, or not.