The Long and Short of the Ba’al Teshuvah Experience

This past Shabbos, while schmoozing with a scholar-in-residence and a local student, the student made a point which he thought was pragmatic, and I thought pointed to a very fundamental reality. This particular student comes from a non-observant but traditional Conservative home. Over the past couple of years, especially in college, he has become steadily more involved with the Orthodox community. Nevertheless, he probably would resist identifying himself as ‘Orthodox’ for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that he hasn’t really bought into all of the ‘dox’. He gave two main reasons for his attraction to Orthodoxy:
  1. Its emphasis on life-long learning

  2. The closeness of Orthodox communities
I told him that those 2 reasons were at the top of my list as well (and in fact I blogged a similar point from R’ Kook’s writing here). In other words, for this student, and for many others that I’ve met over the years, the process by which one joins the Orthodox community is very gradual and devoid of experiences that one might call ‘Conversion Experiences’.

I remember another occasion when I was on a Beis Din for a giyur of a young gentleman who, while becoming more involved in observance, recognized that the giyur that a matrilineal ancestor underwent was entirely insufficient. The Av Beis Din (who, I guarantee, is accepted across the board) asked all of the questions about accepting the mitzvoth, easy ones and hard ones, and summed up by asking if this young man undertakes to be an Orthodox Jew to the best of his ability. He responded that he’s uncomfortable with the label ‘Orthodox’. The Av Beis Din then reformulated the question, asking if the young man undertakes to live a halakhic lifestyle to the best of his ability, to which he answered in the affirmative, and, to make a long story short, the giyur was fine. Again, for this young man, the process was gradual and devoid of conversion experiences.

This isn’t just a ‘one-step-at-a-time’ approach; that approach, which is also pretty common, can mean that one accepts the truth of something, but hasn’t yet overcome old habits enough to implement it. I’m trying to describe a process in which there’s no ‘jump’ or ‘leap’, rather a continuum of natural development.

I find this type of ‘Ba’al Teshuva Story’ to be much more inspiring than instances which involve running away from or rejecting a prior lifestyle. It strikes me as a more complete, organic, and individuated process with a very high rate of ‘mainstreaming’.

I’ll close by citing two high-profile examples which I find to be particularly inspiring:
The first is the noted klezmer artist Andy Statman. After he had already become an accomplished jazz and bluegrass musician, and had decided to explore his own Jewish roots through klezmer, he began a journey which took him to the roots of klezmer in Chassidic niggunim, and as he deepened and developed his own musical style, he became a chassid himself. I’m oversimplifying, but the upshot is that what brought him ‘tachat kanfei ha-shechina’ was a natural progression of what he already had become.

The second example that comes to mind is the late French-Jewish philosopher and activist Benny Levy. A pupil of Levinas and Sartre, his own penetration into the quandaries of existential philosophy led him back to the Judaism that he forsook in his youth. I think that he’s the person who the main character in the central novella of Sabato’s ‘Emet me-Are”tz Titzmach’ (Aleppo Tales) is based.

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