Religion & Beliefs

“Baal Teshuvah” Is an Inherently Offensive Term

Big Kiruv (outreach efforts to make non-Orthodox Jews Orthodox) is dominated by ultra-Orthodox and haredi organizations. These groups do not merely make a pitch for traditional Jewish living. Rather, they demand that Jews from a liberal and secular background accept … Read More

By / March 29, 2009

Big Kiruv (outreach efforts to make non-Orthodox Jews Orthodox) is dominated by ultra-Orthodox and haredi organizations. These groups do not merely make a pitch for traditional Jewish living. Rather, they demand that Jews from a liberal and secular background accept their status as second-class citizens, all but synonymous with "children of impure menstrual blood."

The newly ultra-Orthodox Jew does note merely become frum (Orthodox), but becomes a "baal teshuvah," or "master of repentance."

What is it that the baal teshuvah must repent for? He must repent his prior existance (and his present one to boot). The baal teshuvah must look with contempt and regret at his past, his Western culture, his education, and even his very origin. This is often expressed when a "baal teshuvah" references his pre-frum days in rueful terms, like, "Before I was frum…." 

If a non-Jewish organization taught our youth the same level of self-hatred about who they are and where they come from, every Jewish organization would be rightly be in hysterics, each out to prove how much more offended and outraged it is than the next Jewish organization.

But because Orthodoxy promises a higher birthrate and retention rate, there is virtually no public condemnation from the major Jewish organizations about the self-hatred Big Kiruv is promoting.

Big Kiruv claims to be giving its newly ultra-Orthodox adherents the joy of traditional Jewish living; however, the cost of entry is not only loss of self, but contempt of self. Having experienced this movement first hand as a young person, I can tell you that this isn’t always such a joyous experience for everyone, to say the least.

We can’t expect newly ultra-Orthodox Jews to sucessfully frame how they are perceived by the majority ultra-Orthodox community when they are already considered untrustworthy second-class citizens. And we can’t expect the mainstream Jewish organizational world to lift a finger to stop the spread of these fundamentalist movements. But there is something we can do on a personal level.

When an Orthodox person uses the term baal teshuvah to describe a sibling, friend, or anyone at all who became frum, we can become enraged, and shout, "[So and so] doesn’t owe you an apology for not growing up Orthodox, and neither do I!"

The Orthodox person will be taken aback at this outburst, and demand an explanation. Have the conversation, but make sure a tolerable level of agitation and disgust is discernible to those around you. This is best done in the vicinity of other secular and liberal Jews, for they are the ones who we seek to educate, not the ultra-Orthodox.

The ultra-Orthodox have nothing to learn from the likes of us.