“Who killed the Baal Teshuvah?” asks R. Michal
RABBI GAVIN MICHAL
In the lives of many of these Baalei Teshuva there remains an inner conflict that often gets suppressed. While they were still searching, they were made to feel welcome and important. They were the focus and spotlight of the slick machine of Kiruv (outreach) movements. The talks they attended highlighted and contrasted the evils and baselessness of the secular world, as opposed to the flawless functioning and depth of religious communities. The smiling facilitators always had a sense of humour, and as a matter of course, also showed great openness and tolerance for other views.
However, when the spotlight moved on to the next candidate and the Baal Teshuva graduated to a real community with real people who didn’t always smile, weren’t so tolerant, and didn’t abound with a sense of humour; there may have been a possible moment of frustration. When they questioned what they saw, they were told (possibly for the first time) that ‘all people’ and ‘all societies’ have their share of good and bad. This made sense to them, so they continued trying to fit in till they lost any semblance of their previous lives. Now their parents, old friends, old schools and universities suddenly vanished, and they spent an inordinate amount of effort pretending they were always like they are now.
This is sometimes the last time they ever exercise those same inquiring minds that had characterised them till now. Gone is the ceaseless searching and challenging that so defined them when they started on this journey.
Why is it at this point that the Baal Teshuvah dies?
Why can’t he or she continue to challenge and rebel against the aspects of the new society that are less than appealing, and resemble those of ‘all other people’? They showed that they had the strength and courage to do so in the past, but seem to have lost the will to affect any further change. Why? Are the peer pressures of religious life more powerful than those from whence they came? Is there some unspoken fear or apprehension they no longer have the strength to withstand?
The Kotzker Rebbe became a chassid because he saw it as a movement that challenged the sluggish mainstream. Yet he later rebelled against it when he realised that it had simply replaced one mainstream with another even more perfected mainstream.
We need our Baal Teshuvas of today to stop trying to stop being Baal Teshuvas. We need them to remain searchers and challengers so that they can take the religious community and not just live in it but advance it. They bring with them a set of skills they need not be ashamed of. Our Tradition teaches that a Baal Teshuva is greater than a perfect Tzadik. Let them champion and promote the beauty that sets our religious communities above other communities. But let them also speak out against the flaws they were told are found among ‘all people’. They have already shown that they do not want to be like ‘all people’, and there are now enough of them to have a voice and to be heard. Let them attempt to root out those flaws as only they know how….so that the religious community no longer suffer the same maladies as the people in the societies the Baalei Teshuva thought they were leaving behind.
Rabbi Gavin Michal has his own shul in Orange Grove and is a student of the works of the Kotzker Rebbe