Monday, May 6, 2013

Ba'al Teshuva La-La Land

It starts off innocently enough... Just really wanting to do what Hashem wants from you, trying to get a good seat in the World to Come, ending your devar Torah with "And may we see the coming of Moshiach bimhera beyameinu". But at a certain point the "fantasyland" fun and games start to have real-life consequences.

I'm speaking in this case about many of my contemporaries who came through the ba'al teshuva yeshiva track here in Israel and are now living "charedi-lite" lifestyles. They're open, educated, working, good people, generally happy, but also "serious", affiliate with black-hat institutions and rabbis, and want to send their kids along the yeshivish path, which they perceive (and with some justification) as being the path to becoming/getting married to a talmid chacham, which of course they want for their children.

But even in ba'al teshuva yeshivas there's a sense that the "ba'al habatim" (working folks) are a sort of nebach (pathetic) class of people - they're not "zocheh" (smart enough, committed enough, spiritual enough) to be part of the elite, cream-of-the-crop class of talmidei chachamim, those who learn/teach Torah all day, but instead have to go out there and work the grindstone. But still it's a "kosher" way to go - you can be accepted in the community, and even respected/kowtowed to for the money you bring to shuls and Torah institutions.

Now where it comes to the children of these people, it's an altogether different story. Yes, Israeli charedi schools accept the fact that the parents may be working (again, how else are they supposed to get tuition money otherwise?), but the indoctrination/expectation (even in "liberal" yeshiva ketanas where they offer bagrut/matriculation testing in secular subjects) is that you don't go into the army, don't go for higher education, get no career training - but simply go on to "yeshiva gevoha" (post-high school) for an indefinite period. In other words, the default is a life of kolel. Which means these children are being supported by their parents (fully or partially) indefinitely. And what about the children of these children, who have no parental support since their parents were themselves supported? Well, it's pretty much a bare-bones existence, barely scraping by with kolel stipends, government subsidies, and whatever income the woman of the house can earn in her free time - when she's not taking care of all the kids.

What I'm trying to say here is that the "la la land" of ba'al teshuva-hood (and charedi olim-hood in general) is extremely short-sighted and naive. Yes, it "works" at the Shabbos table. It works for you. It might be able to work for your kids. But what about theirs?

And it drives me absolutely nuts to see my friends, like lemmings, just walking over that cliff one after the other, trying to send their kids to "top" yeshivas, and unwittingly condemning their future generations to poverty, not to mention "unenlightenment" - all that openness and worldliness and secular knowledge and wealth of experiences that they brought to their new-found observance just "X-ed out", erased, certainly for their grandkids - and to a lesser extent their own kids - who will be getting the charedi-brand indoctrination of Torah 24/7 their entire lives.

I'm not even going to get into the issue of community-wide army exemptions here, which to me is inexcusable and immoral. I won't even get into the "shidduch" expectations of the charedi world that wide-eyed ba'alei teshuva have no idea what insanity they're getting themselves into. I'm not getting into the fact that their kids are going to learn to ignore (or at worst hold real antipathy toward) the State of Israel, which supports them and allows them to live in "eretz Yisroel", and look down their noses at (or at worst view as the enemy) the vast majority of secular/non-charedi Jews living in Israel - their brothers and sisters in "Klal Yisroel".

Now of course there's hope. The hope is that you impart such a strong imprint on your kids as to the importance of working, supporting yourself, seeing the value of contributing to the wider society, learning something about the world, appreciating the State, and loving all Jews charedi to secular, that somehow they are able to buck the system, deflect the indoctrination, and be part of the 5% (to make up a figure) who forge their own path. (Either that or the hope is that the parents and/or kids leave Israel before it's too late.) But that's not exactly giving your kids a fighting chance - it's "relying on miracles".

And it all started with a simple belief in Hashem and longing for Moshiach. But the thing is, if you train yourself to be naive, and believe in (and I'm sorry to have to use such a dismissive word) "nonsense" on a theoretical Torah level, then you open yourself up to dangerously naive faith in the whole "system", against what should be your better common sense. And that has very real, and sometimes very unfortunate, practical consequences.

So "wake up" folks - shake off the fairy dust and high-tail it out of la-la land! Don't go the way of the lemming.


  1. Really appreciate that you put some onus on the BT for drinking the Kool Aid. I have a hard time wrapping my head around how secular educated ppl can get sucked in.

    1. Thanks CL. But just to know I'm not at all "anti" people becoming enamored with Torah learning and observance, identifying with Am Yisrael and our national commitment to conduct ourselves in a higher manner. In fact I see it as a fantastic thing, and well worth getting "sucked into".

      Of course... What often comes along with the territory is a sort of surrender of common sense in favor of belief in things that are let's say - less than reasonable, highly improbable, and sometimes squarely in the realm of fairy stories and magical thinking. (Yes, people will try to convince themselves and others otherwise, but it's ultimately just a lot of self-justification talk.) To me, belief in crazy stuff is simply a blight on the name of Torah.

      But hey, I was there once. In fact one of the things which I gravitated to in the beginning was this whole concept of "Mashiach" - the idea that things ARE going to get a whole lot better, and that we need to pave the way for those times. Nowadays, I certainly HOPE things will get better, and I think our task is to work like heck on it, but I've just dropped the fairytale aspect. And wouldn't you know it - Torah stands up just fine (and actually much BETTER) without all that!

  2. CL - it is SO easy to get sucked in. It's like being in a cult, but a cult your grandparents would have been familiar with and perhaps approved of. In my case, I'm living a fairly modern, normal lifestyle (aside from the 6 kids and tuition payments). But I feel so bad for my young cousin who is supporting her husband learning. She seems convinced that this is the "right" thing to do, yet she's clearly miserable working full time and spending so little time with her 2 babies. Sorry, I think a smart, able-bodied man with a wife and kids should have a job. I don't use the word "cult" as a joke.

    1. She should demand that her husband bring her at least one dollar every day, along with bread that he acquired of his own.