Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What's Up With The Hard Core Jewish People? (Guest Post)

A new book making the rounds, claims to be "the first book about Observant Jews that is written from the perspective of a non-Observant person" (I know: Doubtful.) Still, the premise has merit. It's written by Margery Issis Schwartz, a Jewish mother attempting to make sense of her son's decision to embrace Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

At my invitation, she sent the following guest post:

I’m the mother of a Hard Core Jewish Kid and also a professional market researcher. Four years ago, our son did a 180-degree lifestyle change and became an Orthodox Jew. My mother was raised as an Orthodox Jew, but she totally discarded that when she got married and I was raised in a Reform Jewish household. It wasn’t until Carter went Hard Core that I realized I was functionally illiterate with regard to what it means to be Jewish. No wonder there’s so much inter-marriage out there. If people don’t have a clue why it matters for them to marry someone Jewish, why should they bother. Moreover, I realized that due to my ignorance, I was sometimes intolerant toward Orthodox Jewish rituals. I didn’t at all care for feeling like a bigot, and I saw that many of my friends were in the same boat as me. It seemed apparent that this was an opportunity to help bring assimilated Jews a little closer to Judaism. I also saw that there was prejudice by some Orthodox Jews toward Jews who are less observant. If Jews can’t get along, how can we expect anyone else to accept us? I’m hoping this book helps Jews at all levels of religiosity realize that what God really wants from all of us, more than piousness, is human kindness and acceptance.

I don’t care if this book incites riots, as long as people read it and figure out why it matters to be Jewish. One of my favorite discussions that was stimulated by this book is regarding synagogues. Are synagogues a spiritual experience and besides belonging to a synagogue, how can Jews define a Jewish identity and Jewish meaning? By finally learning about Judaism, I feel like I’ve become a better person. Even though I’m still not observant, I perform mitzvot regularly and that’s my way of of keeping Jewish spirituality in my life.

Who Are These Ba'al Teshuva (BT) People?

By their nature, BTs (newly Observant Jews) are idealists. They didn't become Orthodox because they were afraid or because they needed a militaristic set of commands for living their lives. They chose Orthodoxy because it satisfied their need for intellectual stimulation and emotional security. Everything one needs to know about how to live properly is in the Torah. The very definition of the word "Torah" is God's Instructions for Living. By doing what God wants them to do, BTs feel a sense of freedom from anxiety and worry because they rely and trust in God to look out for their best interests. Waking up in the morning and knowing exactly what God expects of them gives BTs peace of mind. They find the regimentation and predictability of Orthodox Judaism to be a very appealing way of life. As the BT increases his/her knowledge and the feeling of closeness to God, the pleasure received from this accomplishment is very reinforcing and he/she gets into it more and more. For someone who is frum from birth (pronounced froom and also referred to as FFB or born and raised as an Orthodox Jew), they are very comfortable with the life they live and do not question the strict and rigid rules because this is the status quo. They didn't choose this life – they inherited it. But for someone who has been on the dark side, becoming observant is a huge deal because they do know what they’re missing and yet still choose to fight temptation and live a Jewish life. For them, the pleasure they get by following Torah law is worth the sacrifices they have to make.

The ba’al teshuva movement – the return to traditional Judaism by a number of young Jews who had heretofore been estranged from it – has brought a renewed passion and energy to traditional Jewish life and community, even to those Jews who were born and raised as Orthodox Jews. From Abraham onward, there has been an unbroken chain of Jewish tradition passed along from father to son, teacher to student. This chain has enabled the Jewish Nation to defy famine, conquest, dispersion, expulsion, and oppression that would have resigned them to the dusty historical tomes of other nations. Carter’s pursuit of his heritage gave him the courage to defy the mores and culture of our society and even the family that reared him in order to not let our family’s Jewish chain break with his generation.

Yeshiva-Slug Mentality

Truth be told, not all newly Observant Jews who park themselves in a yeshiva all day to study Torah have the potential to be rabbis or great religious leaders and authorities. Learning Torah requires a high level of scholarship and intellect, and not everyone has those qualities. Yet large segments of Orthodox society place a premium on learning Torah full-time, to the extent that working to earn a living, familiarizing and involving oneself with worldly concerns, and even taking time to maintain a physically healthy lifestyle are not encouraged. There are some BTs who are yeshiva slugs that are learning Torah for the sake of learning or for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Further, some of the BTs have no or minimal secular college education and aren’t qualified to do anything else in the labor market. Warehousing themselves in a yeshiva keeps them from having to think about what they want to do in life, and eliminates fear of failure feelings. They don’t mind being poverty-stricken or living off of charity. They’re performing a mitzvah that God commanded them to do so they feel self-righteous. This is not considered acceptable in Judaism. Torah study is not supposed to be an end unto itself. Learning for the sake of learning implies that learning Torah is an aimless, self-contained pursuit. In fact, Judaism emphasizes that learning Torah is of supreme importance precisely because it leads to or should lead to positive action. This is the highest expression of Torah itself, whether that action takes the form of a professional occupation or of extending oneself to benefit the community.


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