Three Types of Baal Teshuva

Three Types of Baal Teshuva

I have extensive experience at both normative and late-starter Yeshivos (religious schools for Jewish men). While I find, socially, that I simply get along better with other Baalei Teshuva (Jews raised as non-religious who become religious later in life) due to shared interests and experiences, and I completely understand the tendency of Baalei Teshuva to stick together and form their own sub-communities, I have felt my share of alienation from this group as well. It is not due to any discrimination in particular or the like, but rather because our Jewish lives focus around different goals.

Based on my experiences, I would posit that the vast majority of Baalei Teshuva fall into one of two types, or, more accurately, are pursuing one of two paths toward a greater closeness with G-d. Very occasionally I meet another Jew who has come religious for the same reason I have, and we loosely form a strange, third group. None of these groups has a deeper or more correct claim to Judaism; they are three paths to the same end, and I personally have probably been part of each one at some brief point. It is only through extended social and mental sorting that I’ve come to realize I am part of group three.

The first group is what I call the religious one. Anyone who has been in Yeshiva knows this type. They are the ones who get up earliest and go to sleep latest, or at least respect the ones who do. They came to Judaism to find order and justice, not just in the personal but in the cosmic sense. They are moved by the idea that there is good and evil, that there is a reckoning in this universe and that good is rewarded and evil is punished, at the end of the day. Often their lives before they became religion involved crime or at least some sort of wild abandon, and when they throw themselves into religious practice they throw themselves into the deep end, keeping a lot of things at once and putting enormous pressure on themselves. They usually either end up being the most insanely successful Baalei Teshuva in technical terms or they burn out. The tools of their life’s craft are built out of brute, solid facts — the clear truths of unreachable G-d and their own mission. Their superpower is investiture, the ability to succeed within any bounds.

The second group is spiritual. These are the Baalei Teshuva that are not seeking curtailed, rules-based lives but rather a fling with the divine in the style of Hafiz or (l’havdil) Rebbe Nachman. They pursue G-d in nature and colorful things rather than the black and white. They smoke up before praying and have amazing protracted experiences with the creator (or so it is sincerely claimed). They often turn to some sort of art as a vessel for their passion for Judaism. They tend to focus more on the interpersonal or mystical teachings, though of course the vast majority keep Jewish law to its utmost etc. These were the ones in Yeshiva who were always reading Rav Kook or listening to Carlebach recordings and who felt drawn to Nachlaot and the Gush. They make their lives rainbow tributes to Hashem or they end up wearing robes and yelling at people in the shuk like madmen. Their tools are all communicative/relational; they make torque of the space between man and man, man and G-d. Their superpower is transcendence, finding space to operate the truth beyond any set limitations.

The third group is what I call existential, and it is by far the smallest. These are people who don’t demonstrate a clear reason for becoming religious. They are not religious and have a lot of trouble following rules both of Yeshiva and of Shulchan Aruch; they sometimes have trouble doing anything consistently at all, and often resent the law. On the other hand, they are not spiritual either; they don’t have great personal experiences during prayer or at the Kotel or anywhere else and come to envy and even resent those who do. Both these types of resentment spring from an inner desire for authenticity, and this is what makes them tick. They are seeking a life of elegance in the technical sense, in which a painful, meaningless existence is granted purpose and direction. They are drawn forward, kicking and screaming, through their studies and service by the need to see behind the veil, to get at the resolutions of the cruel paradox of existence. They seek to not exist. Rather than finding purpose in their limits like a religious Jew or transcending their limits by dint of their soul like the spiritual Jew, they seek to cut their bonds with the sharpened edge of their own righteous angst, the remains of something innocent and pure that seems to have died long ago. Their pursuit of authenticity either takes them far away from not just religion but society, or it attains what they were looking for all along. Their tools are forged from dead things. Their superpower is the perseverance of life; what is dead may never die.

2 Comments

  • Sasha Balofsky

    September 11, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    It was oddly exciting to see my actual category described somewhere. Both group 1 and group 2 pushed me away from religiosity/spirituality for such a long time (despite such people being close friends); it’s rather nice to know there even is a “group 3” however rare :).

  • Daniel Saunders

    September 22, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    I’m not sure I fit any of them! I suppose I’m looking for authenticity, but not of the type described there, at least as I understand it. I just don’t want to feel like a hypocrite, believing one t hing and not following through with action.