Becoming a baal teshuvah involves both a significant change in life-style and values. As the name (“master of return”) implies, it means finding the way back home. This simultaneous pursuit of both origins and transitions is a life-long process, but most baalei teshuvah begin consciously reorganizing their lives in late adolescence or early adulthood. Nevertheless, such a decision usually has its roots in much earlier experiences whose cumulative weight is the foundation for later change. Many of those earlier experiences are forgotten or their true relevance is not appreciated. Only seemingly disconnected fragments survive the selective and destructive processes of memory. Even so, an incomplete account is better than none at all….

Age five. It is summer time and impossible to go to bed while the sun still shines. Something might be missed! This will eventually grow into a desire to know the “whole” truth – nothing can be concealed.
Age twelve. I attended a typical Reform Sunday school. We visited local churches to observe our fellow Americans at prayer. There were, however, no visits to Conservative or Orthodox synagogues in the same town to observe how our fellow Jews prayed. We memorized twelve reasons why the Bible is the greatest book written by man (sic), but never once opened the text itself. We heard only Bible stories, summaries, digests, etc. Who knows what young, impressionable minds might see in the original! Our isolation from dangerous truths was thorough. Our texts had a short unit on Chassidism as an ignorant, superstitious sect in pre-war Europe; but they made no mention at all of the large, flourishing religious Chassidic communities in Brooklyn, less than an hour away.
Age thirteen. I had a typical Reform bar mitzvah. I was allowed to read unintelligible passages with flawless Hebrew pronunciation – and with zero comprehension – but was denied permission to sing the haftorah with its traditional melody. Supposed reason: variations in voice quality might put some other bar mitzvah to shame. I was allowed to have a great party, however, with no qualms that that might put some other bar mitzvah to shame. Summary: consumption, yes; cantillation, no.
Age fourteen. I attended a National Federation of Temple Youth summer conclave to swim, socialize, debate religious ideas and write “original” prayers.

Age sixteen. Three years after bar mitzvah and still “protected” from authentic Jewish sources, I attended a confirmation class meeting with our family’s Reform rabbi. The inconsistencies were beginning to get to me. “Why should I pray in a synagogue? We Reform don’t require a minyan or a fixed time or text for prayer. Why shouldn’t I pray only when and how the spirit moves me?” “Oh,” said the rabbi,” that’s because some day your parents will die and you will have to come to pray in the synagogue, and you won’t know what to do.” I remember being very unimpressed with the answer.

That was the year that the Director of Religious Education at our synagogue was sent on a year’s tour of the U.S. to share the “success” of his educational methods with other Reform congregations. We students found that an incredible joke. Our goal, under his guidance, was to get out for good, and as soon as possible. That was success?
By age seventeen, even I had had enough. I left home for university as a confirmed atheist with no connection to anything Jewish. I majored in philosophy.

Age eighteen. Our Reform congregation sponsored student attendance at a “Jewish identity” summer camp in California. It was my first contact with passionate Zionism, and with Conservative and even semi-Orthodox Judaism. Revelation! There was much more to Judaism than I had ever dreamed, or had been allowed to dream. I resolved to make a thorough investigation.

Age eighteen. As a university sophomore, I majored in philosophy. I also took courses in Jewish subjects with anti-religious professors, which resulted in almost complete confusion! My fledgling attempts at minimal Jewish practice were made in almost total ignorance with no support system. There were less than ten observant students on the whole campus, and even these were less than encouraging. One Jewish student’s response to my kippa on Shabbos was: “Who do you think you are, the Pope?”

My observance was initially rather erratic. On Shabbos morning I got up early to shower, cook (!) and eat breakfast. Then I walked to the chapel for services, being sure to tie my handkerchief around my wrist so as not to carry!

My introduction to the Bostoner Rebbe that year was another crucial revelation. Such warmth, intelligence, education, commitment and sensitivity in a supposedly “medieval” Jew! In a Chassid! In his Chassidic congregation full of college-educated mathematicians, physicists, sociologists, lawyers and doctors! Obviously a lot more had been hidden from me.

Age nineteen. There were more religious students on campus, and I was introduced to the shiurim (lectures) of Rav Yosef Be’er Soloveitchik, zt”l, yet another revelation! The Rav was a brilliant rabbi, a true master of Talmud with a doctorate in secular philosophy from the University of Berlin! My new weekend schedule became: Shabbos at the Bostoner Rebbe’s followed by Rav Soloveichik’s weekly public shiur.

My attempts to reconcile my secular, anti-religious college classes with the deeper insights of the Rebbe and the Rav resulted in more confusion. A typical gem from my professor of Biblical Hebrew concerned Gen. 24:63: “And Isaac went out to converse (pray) in the field…” It was now to be translated, he proudly pontificated, as “And Isaac went out to urinate in the field…” on the basis of newly discovered parallels with Ugaritic. This supposed “discovery” not only ignored Hebrew semantics and the fact that Isaac is explicitly described elsewhere as praying (Gen. 25:21), it also ignored the lack of a parallel for such a description anywhere in the Bible itself (the text supposedly under discussion). This was “serious” scholarship?

Ages twenty and twenty-one. Comparisons between my secular college classes and the teachings of the Rebbe and the Rav gradually began to yield clarity. By bringing the arguments of each side to the other for comment and rebuttal, I achieved a growing sense of the best-supported position.

I am, by nature, quite skeptical. My first three responses to any new idea are “No!” The fourth response is “Maybe”, and then, perhaps, I can take it seriously. Judaism was no different. It had to survive all my best (and my professors’ best) attempts to refute it. All sources of potential counterattacks were fair game: physics, cosmology, evolution, democratic social theories, epistemology and metaphysics, not to mention potential internal contradictions.

One minor example. To the traditional prayer “May He who makes peace in the Heavens, make peace for us and all Israel,” I add “…and the whole world.” After several months I casually ask the Rebbe if this is O.K. After all, Judaism does hope for universal peace, does it not?

“True, but such an addition is not appropriate,” he answers. “Did you ever wonder what His making peace in the Heavens actually means? Are there wars among the angels? Rather, the angels know exactly who they are and what their purpose is; they suffer no identity crises. We hope that all people will eventually achieve that kind of consciousness; but the Jewish people must play the leadership role in bringing that result about. Now a leader must first believe in his cause. He must know for himself what he is to do and why. It is the peace of mind needed for leadership that we refer to in that prayer.”

The Bostoner Rebbe soon became my personal spiritual mentor. More religious students came to campus, and we formed our own Organization of Religious Students. This led to clashes with the “establishment,” in the guise of a Hillel rabbi determined to foist his own brand of Reform/Conservative/semi-Orthodox hypocrisy on all and sundry. One example: We traditional students wanted services with a mechitza, a physical division between men and women congregants. We designed one in parts, on wheels, which could be used for our services and then, to avoid confrontation, be removed for the Hillel congregation’s non-traditional services. The Hillel rabbi vetoed the idea on the grounds that any service held in the chapel must be one he would feel comfortable attending – even though he had no personal intention of ever attending it! The illogic of his position spoke volumes.

Age twenty-one. After receiving my B.A. in Philosophy and Mathematical Logic, I left for Jerusalem to learn full-time at Yeshivas Mercaz HaRav Kook (there were no baalei teshuvah yeshivas in those days). There I acquired fluency in Hebrew, serious exposure to Talmudic text and methodology, Halachah, Tanach, passionate Zionism, passionate anti-Zionism (in Mea Shearim) and a lecture by A.J. Heschel (at Hebrew University). Myriad doubts were resolved; and I became committed to living in Israel, identified with Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodox Judaism.

I also gained new tools to deal with the sometimes well-meaning, but usually intellectually bankrupt, functionaries that had confused me in the past. A typical example was my meeting with the Director of Beit Hillel. At that time the Bnei Israel from India were protesting the decision of the Chief Rabbinate to require them to convert to Judaism. The Hillel director commented: “This is clear hypocrisy. We have authoritative responsa from five hundred years ago clearly stating that anyone who enters your community claiming to be Jewish should be accepted as such.” He even showed me one such responsum. Impressed with his scholarship, I took his argument back to my yeshiva. Their reply: “That responsum was written when to be a Jew was only a liability. Being Jewish meant living in a ghetto, being excluded from various sources of livelihood, and constant persecution. Under those circumstances someone claiming to be Jewish was indeed believed. But today, as in the time of Shlomo HaMelech, being Jewish carries considerable benefits: automatic Israeli citizenship and financial aid in settling in Israel, both of which the Bnei Israel want. The responsum you were shown simply does not apply to such conditions.”
Another time I heard A.J. Heschel assert: R. Akiva represents the mystic, the humanist, the political activist and the sympathetic philosopher; R. Ishmael represents the legalist: strict, elitist and removed from society. In contemporary terms, the Conservative movement represents R. Akiva and the Orthodox movement represents R. Ishmael; but traditional sources give R. Akiva superiority over R. Ishmael! The yeshiva’s reply? Judaism does not decide serious matters of halachah on the basis of something as nebulous as someone’s 2,000-year post facto perception of a sage’s purported “philosophy”. Furthermore, on several occasions R. Akiva’s non-legal opinions are firmly rejected by the Sages of the Talmud (as in Hagigah 14a, Sanhedrin 67b, Shmos Raba 10:5 and so on). My feet began to touch solid intellectual ground. Things could be argued on the basis of objective facts.

Age twenty-two. My marriage to my life-partner marked the beginning of the most fulfilling life project one can have: creating a Torah-observant Jewish family. Back in America, I entered graduate school in Philosophy.
Age twenty-six. I began to teach Philosophy at a well-known university. Our family became active members of the large and intense local religious community, although we still firmly saw ourselves as Modern Orthodox. In fact, by age thirty-one, I had already published an article in the Modern Orthodox journal Tradition.

From age thirty-three to thirty-six, I gradually become disillusioned with the Modern Orthodox orientation. I began to feel the virtual impossibility of maintaining dual religious and secular life-foci. I also became concerned by a perceived shallowness of Modern Orthodox scholarship in comparison with more traditional yeshiva sources. In particular, I discovered many mistakes in my own Tradition article. Why hadn’t the editors caught my mistakes? This triggered a gradual evolution to a more Charedi-Chassidic position. Step-by-step, I began to adopt the Bostoner Rebbe’s customs, eventually making a complete transition to the life of a Bostoner Chassid.

It has been an interesting life and an interesting process, one full of growth. Teshuva is the greatest creative challenge a person will ever face: the challenge of recreating oneself. A person’s whole past – talents, training, experience, successes and failures – provides the materials from which his new identity will be forged. He does not turn his back on his past, but organizes it to fulfill its potential in a new way. It is a denial of Providence to regard any of his “unplanned” prior life as a loss. Everything which happened to him was planned so that he could fulfill his unique human potential and make his unique contribution (see Luzzatto’s Derech Hashem, Part II, Chapter 3). Later, he will see how his seemingly pointless past gave him the tools for his religious future.

One important benefit of becoming religious later in life, through a conscious mature decision, is a heightened sensitivity to those aspects of Torah life which tend to become rote for others. Often this sensitivity generates insights from which all can benefit. A father once told me that he was nervous about speaking in public to deliver a dvar Torah for the bris of his third son. But then he began to wonder: why didn’t speaking in front of Hashem Himself, cause him the same concern? He deduced that his prayer should be improved.

In my own case, working in kiruv (outreach) makes everything that I had previously learned relevant. It helps me communicate more effectively with people who are educated and talented, but who also want to be sure that Jewish society will understand and appreciate them. Even if one cannot see it at first, teshuvah is not so much a totally new beginning, as a redirected continuation leading to a new, higher goal.

On Becoming a Baal Teshuvah

The process of becoming a baal teshuvah is a deeply personal one; and I doubt that the external history of my quest would be particularly useful to anyone who is not really me. Instead, I will try to concentrate on the internal aspects of my journey and – setting aside worrisome doubts about the accuracy of memory – to distill broader perspectives that might be helpful for those that follow.

What led me home? I can, with effort, discern three main themes in my own Jewish development: the desire not to miss, the rejection of arbitrary limits to investigation, and the desire for an integrated world-view. A few words about each will have to suffice.

Not to Miss. The world is a many-splendored place! What an endless variety of opportunities to experience and understand. I have always wanted to know and experience something about every thing (and even to master a few). I attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, have performed many times as a classical flutist, learned to sail in camp, wrestled and ran track in high school. I hiked as a boy scout and I had my own campus radio program as a college freshman.

To me, a denial that something is real is suspicious. It reduces the world’s potency, and therefore must be backed up by a solid proof. My Reform Jewish “education” had left me without any significant Jewish connection; but when it became apparent that much had been carefully concealed from me, I was not content to merely take the newfound information and apply it. I wanted to make sure that even more information wasn’t still missing!
Hiding the truth was a conscious, widespread policy of the Reform. In Pittsburgh a woman, introduced as Orthodox spoke to a class of Reform students. One asked about the “tassels” attached to the corners of Jewish garments. The supposedly Orthodox woman responded: “They are called tzitzit. The Torah says to put them on the corners of garments; but no one does that any more!”

Many attended the same Jewish “consciousness-raising” camp that I did; but their consciousness rarely raised them beyond visiting Israel, marrying Jewish and occasionally attending a (non-Orthodox) synagogue. This, of course, is a great deal considering their start from total non-identification. In my case, however, Hashem led me on to mind-stretching university courses, invaluable connections with the Bostoner Rebbe and Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, and a year at the Mercaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva in Israel. Later, the same curiosity led me to explore Chassidic life, organization and yeshiva scholarship, which carried me beyond Modern Orthodoxy into the Charedi world.

Limitations on Investigation. In every area of study I found assumptions which were regarded as unquestionable within that area. I found such limitations artificial. Why are these chosen as the axioms of mathematics? Why is this the scientific method of investigation? Why are these the tools of linguistic analysis? Such unanalyzed assumptions were intolerable. I was therefore attracted to philosophy, which at least tries to examine every element of investigation without prior arbitrary assumptions. On the same grounds, I found the blithe dismissal of religion – which was fashionable in chic, liberal university circles at the time – highly suspicious. This suspicion was reinforced when I found that their superficial reasons for rejection were easily rebutted by Torah giants such as the Bostoner Rebbe and Rav Yosef Baer Soloveitchik. Even the laymen in the Rebbe’s congregation, who often had advanced degrees in mathematics, physics, medicine and law, could easily answer these supposedly conclusive “refutations.” The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists made it even clearer that cosmology, evolution, etc. do not pose insuperable problems for religion. One need not rely upon arbitrary limits and unjustified assumptions. Those who think that religion necessarily requires an irrational leap of faith are simply applying non-Jewish ideas to Judaism.

Integrated World-View. The philosopher seeks to understand everything, to create a comprehensive structure within which everything fits, in which each thing’s uniqueness is registered and its relationship to everything else is portrayed. The Torah is such a structure. It is truly comprehensive. Theory and practice, fact and value, the physical and the spiritual, the individual and society, intellectual and emotional approaches, past, present and future – nothing is excluded. Essence and relationships are both governed by the same fundamental insight: how each thing serves the Creator’s purpose for His creation. Once there are adequate reasons for accepting such a world-view as true, it is hard to ignore on philosophical grounds.
These same considerations eventually led me to Chassidic philosophy and practice. Chassidic thinkers, especially R. Tzadok Hacohen, take up the entirety of the tradition at once and show the integrated organization of the whole. Typically they start with several puzzling passages in the Talmud, Tanach, Midrash, legal codes and commentators. They then cite a Kabalistic idea to provide a deep theoretical explanation which renders those passages understandable. In the process they reveal a deeper unity in the tradition as a whole. What could be more exciting to a philosopher? Chassidic practice has the same effect upon action. A human being encompasses intellect, emotions, attitudes, motivations and actions. All have to be woven into an integrated whole. The appropriate expression of love and caring, thinking and feeling, giving and receiving must be delineated. Rav Soloveitchick once wisely said that homo sapiens must become homo deliberans. Under the guidance of the Bostoner Rebbe I found all this within Chassidism.
Once the inner mechanisms of teshuvah were in place, the rest followed – despite occasional detours – fairly automatically. I will spare you the personal details, which may not apply to others, and concentrate on six strategies which would seem widely applicable to others starting out on this road. I found them indispensable to navigating the hills, sharp curves, speed traps and occasional falling rocks, when I set out on my way.
Gradualism. Small steps taken consistently build solid spiritual growth. Rapid changes can cause a loss of psychological integration which can threaten the whole process. Different parts of the personality change more or less easily in different people. The enthusiasm of a new form of life often leads to identifying with those parts which change easiest, while leaving the other parts behind. Eventually the gap becomes too large to tolerate and the person feels “out of synch” with himself. Even good, honest people can exceed their spiritual speed limit. I remember one fellow who came into a summer program completely non-religious and by September was already wearing a black hat and suit. In January, already disoriented, he told me, “I daven every morning, but half the time I don’t know if I am not just talking to myself.” Another fellow learned in a yeshiva in Jerusalem with a ponytail. When he cut if off after six months, the staff was concerned – this was too soon for him.

Two types of gradualism are necessary: setting priorities among the different areas in which progress needs to be made and subdividing each area into small, manageable steps. There is no hypocrisy in not making a full transition in one “great leap forward,” despite Chairman Mao’s catchy phrase. This is true for at least two reasons: First, it is not possible! There are simply too many areas which need attention to address them all simultaneously, so priorities must be set. This is true even for those with a prior religious background. Certain matters must be left for a later occasion. Second, a hypocrite says he believes in something, but does not make a sincere effort to achieve it. Setting strategic priorities is not insincere, particularly if an immediate full transition is impossible!

Allies and Environment. A person is always affected by his social environment. Even if one could withstand a negative environment without deterioration, he would be needlessly using spiritual energy to prevent that deterioration. In a more positive environment, he would have achieved even greater spiritual growth! Therefore it makes sense to seek out as positive an environment as possible, consistent with one’s other commitments (family, education, profession, etc.). Continuous Jewish study – including good study partners, classes and access to a Torah authority able to answer both practical and theoretical questions – is especially important. Regular contact with religious families (Shabbos, holidays, etc.) is crucial for gaining religious life-experience.

The need for a supportive environment is not a confession of weakness. Remember everyone else is being supported in their non-religious lifestyle by their non-religious environment! It also does not mean a retreat into a self-imposed ghetto (although that’s not always bad - consider Joseph’s plan to settle the Jews in Goshen to weaken the influence of the majority Egyptian culture). Work and community affairs will dictate more than enough interaction with the non-Jewish world. But, for that very reason, a spiritually positive home environment is necessary to freely express and reinforce one’s own identity.

Avoiding Conflict. It is not the neophyte’s job to change the world, nor even his own family and friends. His job is to manage his own adjustment in as integrated fashion as possible. That should be hard enough! His relationships with others should be respectful, and he can always hope for equal respect in return. He is not responsible to correct everyone’s misinformation and prejudices. He should not be afraid to confess ignorance: his few months or years of study, starting from virtually nothing, need not qualify him as an expert. On the contrary, since he has seen considerably more than the vast majority of his contemporaries, he need not feel that his commitment or cause is undermined by his personal inability to answer specific questions. He need not know everything; but he should know where to turn to for authentic answers.
Indeed, the best strategy for handling antagonistic challenges is to provide the challenger with the name and telephone number of an expert who can best respond to his criticism. The next time the same person challenges, the beginner can politely inquire, “Did you speak to so-and-so about the last question you asked?”

Another, admittedly difficult strategy is silence, especially in public. If someone says, “Everyone knows that religion is medieval, superstitious nonsense!” How should one respond? Well, how would one respond if someone said, “Everyone knows that the Democrats (or Republicans) are incompetent liars!” The best response is dignified silence. Bystanders will then note that the speaker is obviously behaving offensively and immaturely, whereas any response will lead to a two-sided controversy, in which both sides will be presumed to be equal.
One should also be aware of how one’s word choices and approach can inadvertently generate needless conflict. For example, a beginner should not speak of choosing a way of life. That sounds too final; and, besides, one cannot be truly sure that one’s new enthusiasm will last. Instead, one should speak of exploring a lifestyle. That is both more accurate and a good way to defuse potential conflict. It is very difficult to attack a young person for merely exploring. Similarly, a beginner should not present what he has found as “The Truth.” That description can mask a desire for control or manipulation, for it implies that everyone else must conform. It thus invites a charge of fanaticism. Rather one should put his enthusiasm in personal terms: it is meaningful, challenging and inspiring to me.
Finally, vis-à-vis parents, one should stress how the values they taught helped bring him to his present position. Often differences over Shabbos or kashrus wrongly overshadow the essential ultimate commitments that they share. His parents taught him the value of honesty, justice, love, sensitivity, scholarship, courage, independence and sincerity. These are a basis for attraction to a way of life that has represented and realized these values for millennia.

Substance and Style. Many baalei teshuvah become convinced that the Torah is true and try to observe as much of Jewish law as they can, but become bewildered by the wide variety of styles of traditional observance. In addition to broad differences of philosophy and priorities (Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Chassidic, etc.) there are endless geographic variations. Having no personal tradition to fall back on, they must decide for themselves, without waiting for a comprehensive investigation of all options. In fact, at the beginning of his exploration, the baal teshuvah is usually introduced only to a very small sample of the alternatives – often only one. Still, one cannot postpone having a single, consistent organizing style to his observance (I’ve seen the mixed up results of trying to form one’s own supposed “synthesis.”) The solution is to adopt a style temporarily, and to explore alternatives as time and circumstances allow. In the meantime, one remains committed and open to change. This requires clear communication with others who depend upon him, such as his spouse, children, etc., since any subsequent changes will affect them as well.

That’s what I can remember about the practicalities of the journey; but perhaps I can say a bit more about the emotional aspects of becoming religious. For me, the dominant feeling was one of incredible excitement and exhilaration. The challenge was truly great, taxing all my talents and resources, but there was never any serious doubt about my (or anyone’s) ability to succeed. My teachers made it clear that dedicated effort would surely be rewarded. I was never worried that my life would come apart and that I would be left with useless fragments. Of course, there were uncertainties; but they added to the excitement of the challenge. There were also mistakes and local failures; but I took them as a normal part of any long, complex effort to achieve something as precious as it is difficult. The continuous opening of new vistas of understanding and experience – both of the world and myself – was, and remains, endlessly fascinating. Although not everything was done as well as it could have been, nothing was pointless; every mistake eventually contributed improvement. In brief, I experienced no serious regrets. The most painful part of the transition was reaching mutual respect and understanding with my parents, a”h – which may have happened quicker if I had met my wife sooner. But even there, the end was a solid success.

Along the way, I made many precious friendships some of which continue to the present day. Breaking into serious Jewish scholarship was, for an extended period, a source of some frustration. My prior secular training, while superb, was not ideal preparation for Talmud. Still, had I not crossed that threshold, there would have been a painful lack of self-respect in my Jewish identity. Today, all aspects of Jewish study provide endless challenge, insight and the satisfaction of being a competent member of the international brotherhood of lomdei Torah. Most of all, I feel endless gratitude to Hashem and to those who served as His agents to make all this possible.

Teshuvah is the greatest creative challenge a person will ever face: the challenge of recreating himself. His whole past – his talents, training, experience, successes and failures – provides the materials from which his new identity will be forged. He does not turn his back on his past, but looks to reorganize it and fulfill its potential in a new way. It is a denial of Divine Providence to think that any of one’s life, which he did not knowingly choose, is a loss or that it should not have been. Everything that happened to one was planned so that he could fulfill his unique human potential and make his unique contribution to human perfection. The Ramchal (Luzzato) discusses this at greater length in Derech Hashem (Part II, Chapter 3). Often, at later periods of life, one can see how a seemingly pointless past provided essential tools for a religious future

One important benefit of becoming religious through a conscious, mature decision is a heightened sensitivity to aspects of Torah life which tend to become rote for others. Often this sensitivity generates insights from which all can benefit. In my case, my work in kiruv (outreach) makes everything that I know relevant to communicating with people who are educated and talented, and who want reassurance that they will be understood and appreciated in frum society. I cannot be sure that others will so clearly see the continuity in their lives; but it is there nonetheless. Teshuvah is not so much a new beginning as a new continuation, one leading to a new, eternal goal.



How Rabbi Gottlieb became Religious!
A Wholly Life: Spiritual Integration of Mind, Body, and Soul (with an article by Rabbi Gottlieb)