A Baal Teshuva’s Responsibility

Since I came out against some of the kiruv world’s methods, many of my readers have shared with me their own feelings and experiences with different kiruv organizations and individuals.

All this discussion got me thinking. What’s the responsibility of the baal teshuva in all this? Let’s flip the script for a moment.

I can’t help but feel that there’s something distinctly self-victimizing about the language people use when they talk about kiruv groups. They speak as if they were manipulated and controlled and fooled. In fact, I myself even made the argument that this is the goal of some people trying to bring others close to Judaism.

But there’s an issue with this sort of talk. It assumes that the person has little to no control over their own journey as a baal teshuva. It assumes that some people have manipulated or used them, without their consent.

Becoming a baal teshuva is a somewhat unique experience because one does have to let go, to accept that they don’t know so much and they need to learn from others.

The problem is that oftentimes baal teshuvas assume this to mean they need to completely let go of control of their lives, to completely give in to those around them, and follow them all blindly.

The truth is that the people that do this seem to be the ones that end up the most bitter when they realize the people they trusted weren’t the intellectual or spiritual giants they assumed them to be, or when they realize they went through a manipulative process, or worse.

While it is true that some kiruv people are simply drug pushers, what we have to realize as baal teshvuas, and what no one will tell us unless they truly love us, is that only we know what is best for us. Only we know what is healthy for us. Not a rabbi, not a kiruv dude, not a shadchan. None of these people know us like us.

And when we assume that they do, we are giving them the keys to our life, we are giving them a control they simply shouldn’t have.

I, for better or worse, have the opposite problem. I don’t trust most people enough, and often end up spending a lot of time doubting the people around me and their motives.

But this weakness has helped me see a few sad things go down. I’ve seen students who excel at yeshiva, who suck everything up and grow above and beyond others, in certain respects, then leave yeshiva and suddenly feel lost and confused, as if the world of yeshiva, and all the unspoken and spoken rules that go with it, are all that exist. Unfortunately, these sorts of people are usually encouraged by the role models, teachers and rabbis around them simply because they are learning so much and growing so much in their learning, while their emotional health is ignored.

And while it’s true that, to a certain extent, we need to allow others to guide us, and to follow, to an extent, blindly, we need to remember to always take ownership over our own minds. To be aware that even the following is a choice, even the blindness is something we have control over.

And, second, we need to remember that whoever we give the keys to, whoever we allow to guide us, must be someone we truly trust, not because they are experts at halacha or chassidus or gemora, but because they care about us. Because they are invested in us. And they understand us. Someone being smart, admirable or even a very good person does not make him or her a good mentor.

These people should be able to see beyond just simple halacha. They should see that perhaps, for you, reading tawdry romance novels is important, and part of who you are, for now, and they should accept that. That taking on a million things at once isn’t healthy. That your strengths, like writing, music, business, are things to encourage and not put down.

The point is that while there are problems, and there are kiruv folks who are doing bad things (good intentions or not), it isn’t our job just to complain or fight against it. Our primary job is to take ownership of the things we have control over. To admit that, at the end of the day, we are the ones with the keys. If we don’t do this, we are simply perpetuating both within ourselves, and others, a lack of power. It takes away the inner strength each of us has to control our destiny.

When we become aware that we are responsible for the choices we make, and who we trust, while it may seem like we are “blaming” ourselves, what we are really doing is putting keys back in our hands. The power to guide our lives will be ours again.





10 responses to “A Baal Teshuva’s Responsibility”

  1. Shoshana Zohari Avatar

    As with your other posts on this topic, you are right on the mark. It bears repeating that there are different types of “kiruv” with different goals. Some folks are out there to make you “frum.” Others are out there just to light sparks and give mitzvah opportunities. It can be very difficult for a novice to know the difference.

    And herein lies the rub. The entire “teshuvah” process involves a certain (often large) degree of vulnerability on the part of the novice. They have to be able to trust and rely on their teacher/guide because, by default, the message is that this person has something to share that you cannot access on your own. The teacher/guide has to be extremely sensitive, responsible, and careful not to abuse the inherent authority that comes with their role.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Agreed. That’s the biggest difficulty. Managing the letting go with the staying in control. That’s why I think emotional health is so important…

      And thanks for your comment, Shoshana! Glad to see you around these parts 🙂

  2. […] Chassid, a Chabad Baal Teshuva provides some insights on choosing a mentor and assuming responsibility for your […]

  3. Yehoishophot Oliver Avatar

    I don’t know where to start with this post, other than to say that the valid points are all mixed up with quite incorrect points (like your previous post here). With all due respect, to suggest that a Jew need not follow the guidance of Torah in some areas–the ones that he or she feels that he or she doesn’t need to–is nothing short of blasphemous. With all due respect, although you’ve stated that you identify as a Chabad chossid, you don’t seem to be writing like a Jew in general, for whom kabolas ol comes first–naaseh kodem l’nishmah, and certainly not like a self-proclaimed chossid (see here and <a href="http://a-farbrengen.blogspot.com/2009/02/being-chossid-obedience-and-inner.html). And see also this crucially relevant post).

    Elad, did you know that it is an undisputed violation of the biblical prohibition of lo sosuru acharei eineichem for men or women to read “tawdry romance novels” (this is counted as one of the six constant Mitzvos? Maybe that’s not the first thing you want to tell a person, but for someone to decide that he “feels” that he should still do it and therefore he should ignore halacha in this regard is simply outrageous. There is no “seeing beyond” halacha because you “feel” otherwise. Not only is that not consistent with Chassidus, it befits the warped religion of Reform much better.

    A true guide for a baal teshuva is simply a conduit for the guidance of Torah. If you think that he or she is pushing you too fast, that’s one thing. If you think that he or she is injecting his own non-Torah opinion into it, that’s also valid. But if he’s simply giving over what Torah teaches–which he or she has a chezkas kashrus to do, because after all, that’s his or her mission, just like any teacher of any student–then to decide that because it doesn’t “feel right to me” I won’t listen to what Hashem says in His Torah is simply anathema to everything that Judaism stands for. If you have reason to think that Torah isn’t being accurately conveyed to you, then find another teacher. But don’t pick and choose guidance from the teacher you choose (this is along the lines of this article).

    Of course, I agree with your point that a guide for a Baal Teshuvah must be sensitive to where they’re coming from. At the same time, his mission is to guide his charges to a lifestyle of uncompromised Torah observance, leaving their irreligious lifestyle behind.

    On not taking on too many changes too fast, that is a very valid point–see here. It should be noted that this is not necessarily the fault of the guide–often those who guide the BT encourage him or her to slow down, but the BT ignores his or her guide and races forward.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Sigh. Why you gotta start off all mean? You expect someone to listen to you after you say they’re blaspheming and not a chassid and ladi dadi da?

      Lucky for you, I was pretty sure I didn’t deserve to call myself a chassid for a while, so I read the rest of your post.

      I hear what you’re saying, actually, and you make some good points. I just want to make clear, #1, that I wasn’t saying a Jew shouldn’t follow Torah. Chas v’shalom. My point is simply that a baal teshuva will be better equipped, in the long run, to follow the Torah when he first takes care of his emotional health. It is an essential Torah precept that we remain healthy, and if we are sacrificing our health in order to move forward in Torah, we will be hurting our observance in the long run.

      What I find interesting is that you yourself, in the last paragraph, seem to agree that some people shouldn’t be going so fast. So, in theory, that person shouldn’t give up those tawdry romance novels yet.

      Here’s where I think you have a problem (and tell me if I’m incorrect): you seem to be assuming that I meant a person should ALWAYS read tawdry romance novels or NEVER move forward if they don’t find it fitting. That’s, of course, not what I meant. I simply meant that a person needs to take control of his or her life when moving forward in observance, and needs to be extremely careful in the choices he or she makes. I 100% agree that halacha is the undisputed guide of our lives. The question is how we healthily approach it if we’re coming from a background that never had to deal with such a lifestyle.

      1. Yehoishophot Oliver Avatar

        Hi again; sorry for coming on a bit too strong. It seems that I misunderstood you, and if so, I’m very glad. Yes, I agree that one holding in the process of changing around his or her lifestyle must do so in gradual stages, and that often he or she can sense in him- or herself how to go about this in the way that is best for him or her.

        However, this itself must be done with the recognition that the goal is to abandon the secular lifestyle and to adopt Torah observance without compromise. In other words, the person is surrendering in stages simply because that’s the only way it will work, not because he or she fundamentally refuses to surrender a certain part of his or her life to Hashem.
        But you will surely acknowledge that there are many people who, although adopting many significant Torah practices, never truly surrender to Hashem and His Torah, and give up their secular mentality.

        1. Jason Y. Naparstek Avatar
          Jason Y. Naparstek

          Wow, I didn’t realize that judging others and their spiritual path and measuring how much of their secular mentality they retain was part of surrendering to Hashem and Torah. Hope I get there one day!

          1. MochinRechavim Avatar

            While R’ Oliver sounds a bit harsh, ask yourself what you are trying to gain here. If you want to have a true connection to Hashem you need to follow the Torah and live a life a purity. This is the same as wanting to breath oxygen but first having to take your head out of the plastic bag. If you just want to chill out and keep Torah then Chassidus isnt going to help you very much and neither are B.T. Lubavitchers who are supper stoked on things like “bitul/nullification” and “Kabalos Ol/ Submision to Heaven”.

  4. MochinRechavim Avatar

    When you become a Baal Teshuva and begin to live a Torah life you have to abandon the secular lifestyle that runs contrary to Torah. Its the same way that a Vegan must stop wearing leather shoes or sleep on feather pillows. If Vegan is to much then become a Vegetarian. If Torah is to much? C”V the other option after being exposed to the Emes of Hashem and the Torah which is his will. Both are the same.

  5. Daniel Spivak Avatar

    I was lucky- I had a friend who told me about a trip to Israel and a short program run by a kiruv organization. I went, did not have fun, came back, but one of the Rabbis that was also on the trip and was from my town kept in touch with me, inviting me to go to Lakewood and to come down for Shabbos. I went, because I had nothing to lose and not much going on in my life (and the truth is,I wanted to become more religious, but didn’t know how to go about doing it, and for some reason could never get myself to call my local Chabad center) and I loved it, and now 5 years later, I am married BH, I’ve spent 3 of the last five years in Yeshiva- 2 in America 1 in Israel, and all the Rabbis I have met, I have felt have had nothing but my best interests at heart, even if I didn’t follow their advice. But, maybe I am just one of the lucky ones.

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