Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A new kind of ba'al teshuva

Personally, I believe Mashiach has not arrived yet because Hashem is waiting for a new kind of ba'al teshuva.

I have had these thoughts for some time now, mostly inspired by the Hebrew writings of Rabbi Yiztchak Ginsburg, specifically those written by his student Yisrael Ariel, such as Rucho Shel Mashiach, Muda'ut Tiv'it (Natural Consciousness), Tom Va'Daat (Innocence and Knowledge), and more.

When I learned about Franz Rosenzweig in class last week, my thinking crystallized one step further. Franz Rosenzweig was born to an assimilated German family. He was on the verge of abandoning Judaism entirely, and had a conversation one evening with his Christian theologian friend in which he resolved to once and for all make the jump and convert to Christianity. Several members of his family and many German Jews had already chosen this route. He informed his mother of his decision, and although she in no way supported a traditional Jewish lifestyle, she was infuriated. On Yom Kippur Rosenzweig sought once more to attend synagogue in order to bid farewell to his born faith. However, his mother refused to let him set foot in their temple as a result of his recent decision. And so, Rosenzweig resolved to spend what he conceived of his last Yom Kippur as Jew in Berlin, alone.

On Erev Yom Kippur, Rosenzweig found his way to a shteibl of Eastern European Jews (possibly Hasidim), and there experienced a profound transformation. The experience of prayer amidst a traditional community produced an experience for him which penetrated his soul deeper than any logical, rational theological discussion. After this Yom Kippur, Rosenzweig resolved to remain a Jew, and dedicated the rest of his life to contemplating Jewish texts and attempting to salvage Judaism from the misconceptions which plagued it as a result of its conflation with Christianity as a result of assimilation.

Rosenzweig is the first modern ba'al teshuva. Prior to this, ba'al teshuva was a term for a person who grew up in a traditional lifestyle, who sinned or abandoned the path, and then returned. The experience however of growing up in a secular, scientific world foreign to authentic Judaism, and then discovering a kernel of truth on the background of a godless lifestyle, was a uniquely modern phenomenon. On the deepest level of reality (even though it is also because of our avonoteinu harabim), I believe Hashem orchestrated world history out of a desire for this discovery anew, and the uniting of opposites that it can produce. Judaism had become so tainted by millenia of exile, that in order to grasp its essence, one needed to come from something completely foreign and embrace it anew, from a place of choice.

When asked if he donned tefillin, Rosenzweig would answer "not yet". He was not a Reform Jew, in the sense that he was not about to create an alternative lifestyle based on his inability to don tefillin, on the fact that at this particular point and time in his lifetime, as a result of his particular circumstances, he could not bring himself to fulfill this daily obligation. Halakhah was real; he was what needed to evolve, adapt and change. Rosenzweig gave the following metaphor: Halakhah is like a house in which he wants to dwell; for the time being, he is in a tent, which he is continuously re-pitching closer and closer to the house. However, he is not willing to leave the tent, and enter the house immediately.

In the way I understand it, bringing the tent ever closer to the house, rather than abandoning one's tent and jumping into the house all at once, represents the path of a ba'al teshuva to authentically enter the world of Torah and mitzvot in a genuine way that does not deny the depth of one's own personality. As precious as a victory on this path can be, it also means living in an ever-precarious state of imperfection; if a person is truly honest with oneself along this path, he or she is one is almost but not quite living with the ultimate truth as he or she knows it deep inside. This can be an incredibly difficult stance to maintain psychologically. For this reason, many slide one way or the other: On the one hand, many decide to do away with the house, and reason that if it's so difficult to draw one's tent close to the house, it must mean that the house is not real, and that whatever I can do in my own tent must be ultimate. On the other hand, many flee their tent so rapidly that they enter the house with everything but their own inner voice.

Every thought of teshuva is infinitely holy in Hashem's eyes, and no yearning for holiness should be disregarded, as it comes from the highest worlds, the world that preceded this world. At the same time, there is something if not equally compelling about a person like Rosenzweig's commitment to his own inner integrity, and the belief behind this commitment that his own inner integrity and halakhah are intimately connected, even if it might take a lifetime (or more) to discover.

If every ba'al teshuva that is confronted with the undeniable, world-shattering experience of Hashem's reality and the call of Torah and mitzvot, if every such individual stayed exactly in the place that he or she is, and attempted to explain to others around them in the most human and genuine of terms what one is experiencing, what ripples could be made? Of course, Hashem is in charge, and anyone who feels called to dive into the furthest reaches of teshuva, Hashem will surely do His part in repaying this individual and inspiring others around him. We need not make plans for Hashem. However, looking at the state of the world today, and the eerie silence that stands between seas of baaley teshuva and seas of secular bubbles, I have to ask, are there not people who have the courage to have one foot in each world?

Do others have experiences or insights relating to the question of how to do teshuva at such a pace that it remains authentic? Is remaining authentic to one's inner voice simply a modern concept, or is this a reasonable guideline from within Torah? I seek those who question, not only those who answer.

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