Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Twilight Zone

In this season of reflection and introspection I often think about how Teshuvah affects people. We all talk about Teshuvah, but rarely do I feel its impact and for a good reason: it’s very personal. There is one form of Teshuva, however, that is apparent and visible to the public, the ultimate Teshuvah, the Baal Teshuvah.

My first recollection of Baalei Teshuva was when I was ten years old. At the time my parents had a group of friends that they would “hang with” on Shabbos. They referred to it as a “chug”. Apparently a new couple had joined the chug and my parents, and by extension me, were invited to their home for “seudah shlishis”. At the conclusion of the seuda and after davening maariv at their home the baal habayis recited Havdalah. At the time I was deeply confused because nothing he chanted seemed familiar to my trained ear. Had it not been for the candle and b’samim I never would have guessed it was havdalah. His Hebrew was so broken that it wasn’t recognizable as such. I couldn’t help but keep from laughing under my breath. I wasn’t laughing because of his lack of Hebrew skills, but laughing at the incongruity of it all: a man so meticulously following ritual to the point that he managed a mechanical shuckle but not really understanding what he was doing and what he was saying. I’ve been invited to homes on Shabbat where hearing the recitation of the Kiddush was like hearing Amharit or Urdu. It was like being in a Jewish Twilight Zone.

Our tradition puts a premium on Baalei Teshuvah. In fact the Talmud teaches us that: bamakom shebaalei teshuvah omdim ein tzaddikim gemurim yecholim laamod. Roughly translated, it means that even the righteous shouldn’t judge the baalei teshuvah. To be sure, there were and are great Baalei Teshuvah,such as the sage Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz and Rabbi Uri Zohar, the former Israeli entertainer. Not withstanding, and even keeping in mind the wisdom of the Talmud cited above I can’t help but point out certain phenomena that really irk me to no end. If there is one thing that is intolerable it is am aratzes.

The only thing worse than am aratzes is am aratzes coupled with meticulously mimicked ritual with absolutely no true understanding.

I raise this today, because we are in the season when a lot of valuable time is spent in shul. Most of the people whom I associate with are professional and business people and time manage their day. So, I’m sure that if ploni ben ploni was scheduled to go to a meeting of significance, he would prepare himself in advance, If the meeting happened to be scheduled in a foreign country where English wasn’t the lingua franca, nor was business conducted in English, I’m sure that our American businessman would have a translator with him. Otherwise he’d fall asleep out of pure boredom and lose a ton of money.

If that isn’t a good enough example, what if you went to a foreign film which wasn’t dubbed, nor were there subtitles? If it was porn or national geographic you would probably do ok. But if it was drama I think you would have a hard time understanding the plot let alone the dialogue and nuances critical to assessing the quality of the movie or the skill of the actors. I think you get my point.

Going to shul is pretty much the same. Time management definitely comes into play. How can any one sit in shul for five or so hours on R”H or all day on Yom Kippur and then again multiple times on Succot without understanding what you are saying or doing. In essence you are wasting valuable time. In a sense I give the Baalei Teshuva a lot of credit for their sheer stamina. They don’t have the contextual familiarity and comfort of a shul that a FFB has and thus are reluctant to come late or talk to their neighbor when sufficiently bored. I once asked a Baal Teshuva, who clearly had no clue about the service why he didn’t sit in the back and shmooz a little. He answered that he would like to, but was concerned that the Rabbi would become angry with him!

Aish Hatorah is one of the biggest offenders of catering to Am Aratzes. The discovery weekends of Aish are kind of scary and remind me of the EST training where you are assumed to be a total idiot and they are going to program you. Aish is very good at what they do and have succeeded in programming a lot of otherwise very intelligent people. It’s hard to believe how otherwise intelligent and sophisticated people come out of a weekend converted. Recently I was sent a video of an Aish “one minute” piece on Rosh Hashanah. I was somewhat surprised that the presenter was none other than a distant acquaintance who apparently had become a baal teshuva in the Aish ranks. Not all that long ago this man hadn’t a clue about yidishkeit and now he’s an Aish spokesman. It wouldn’t be so bad but for the fact that contextual understanding of yiddishkeit is no less important than the mitzvah itself. An example of this can be understood if one tunes in to the Aish message.

In this particular sound bite the reader reviews much of the terrible news of this past year. The war, Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks, Muslim reaction to the notorious cartoon, and other benchmark events that ought to cause us concern and pause. In this tape he says why bother yourself with all these issues. They are attempts to derail us from the true work at hand – to ready ourselves for Hashem. This is the time for introspection and we ought not concern ourselves with the troubles of the world. We have to take care of ourselves and hashem will take care of everything else.

This isn’t the Judaism I learned from the masters. We are taught that the world was created imperfectly so that man would become a shutaf with the Creator in building a better world. It means we have to be active, informed participants, totally involved and concerned with our universe. How enlightened, especially when compared to the message pedaled on that one minute clip which, in essence is total abnegation. All is in the hands of the Creator, suggesting a dissonance with yiddishkeit revealing their lack of contextual social familiarity and comfort with their Jewish roots.