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The Incredible Shrinking Heart and Mind

I got a letter not long ago from a wonderful Christian minister involved in a lifetime of good works whose daughter had married a nonobservant Jew. The family had welcomed him with love. But at a certain point, this son-in-law found his way back to his religion. His wife converted, and the two of them moved to Israel. While at first the young couple were in touch with her parents, slowly, they received advice from their new mentors that such an association was undesirable. Children were born, and the couple was advised they shouldn’t be allowed to ride in the same car with grandpa when he came on a visit to the Holy Land.

Why should a return to traditional Judaism make people heartless, unforgiving, judgmental and basically selfish? Why should it turn child against father, father against child? How can it be that the religion of Abraham, whose purpose is to instill the highest level of morality and kindness and fairness and compassion, turn hearts to stone, and minds to mush?

The fact is, that not all baale teshuva institutions are the same. Some are truly wonderful places that enrich the lives of all who enter. And some are just the opposite, turning out supercilious know-it-alls convinced they alone have all the answers, instead of just a few of the questions; people who passionately support a brand of Judaism that was reactionary in the Middle Ages. And as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think such people- or the world around them (the Jewish world in particular) benefit from this kind of religious awakening.

I never thought I’d be forced to say such a thing. When years ago a yeshiva education and the instruction of dozens of wonderful rabbis opened my own heart and mind to traditional Judaism, I sincerely believed that the world would be a better place if only all Jews would live in strict adherence to Torah law. The problem is “Torah law” as interpreted by whom? More and more baale teshuva institutions are being run by people with a shallow, fossilized view of Judaism. Their graduates reflect this.

More than a decade ago, when I was struggling to sell my first book, I answered a help-wanted ad in the Jerusalem Post for a cookbook editor. The person who interviewed me for the job turned out to be a graduate of Yale, a former editor of Architectural Digest. Seeking spiritual renewal, he’d wound up at a b’aal teshuva yeshiva in Jerusalem. Insisting he cut his ties with his past life, his new mentors had roped him into producing a cookbook out of a shoebox of mostly untested, handwritten recipes collected by a Jewish grandmother.

During the course of our work together, he told me about his experiences. According to him, when you went through the baale teshuva machine they taught you not to question anything, however cruel or evil it seemed. They taught you that everything in your former life was on a lower level, unrefined, uninformed (including your non-religious family and friends). They taught you self-hate. And so the next thing to go was your critical intelligence, and your humanity. Because your mentors always knew more than you did. (The Moonies have great success with this method. )

Long after my friend had opted out of the baale teshuva universe and become a successful (and happy) editor at the New York Times, I was witness to many other situations that bore out the truth of his analysis. Indeed, many of those leading the pack to block desperately needed reforms in Orthodox practice are products of the baale teshuvah movement. I see it in “ask the Rabbi” online columns. I see it in writings and lectures and radio programs. In charismatic born-again gurus who insist a return to religion means turning your back on your obligations to the State of Israel as a taxpayer and soldier.

I see it in the vicious attacks by certain spokesmen of the baale teshuva movement on those seeking to right the wrongs against religious women . The same people who never question how it can be that the rabbinical world has found a solution to override Divine precepts like not taking interest (pruzbal), or not having chametz in the house (we sell it to a gentile) but simply can’t figure out a humane way to change their own rabbinic rules to protect women from vindictive husbands.

The rabbinical head of a prestigious Orthodox institution here in Jerusalem once told me how he couldn’t even get his fellow Orthodox Rabbis to agree on a letter promoting traffic safety. So isn’t it odd that when it comes to the continued oppression of women, you can get the oft-quoted “ninety-nine percent rabbinical agreement”?

If one’s mind wasn’t mush, one would be able to see the problem here.

To paraphrase the author of Aruch Hashulchan: You don’t have to be a talmid chacham to say things are forbidden. But to come up with a proper heter, that’s the reason we learn.

What I don’t understand is why goodhearted Jews are indiscriminately writing checks to certain born again institutions. So they can kidnap young people at the Kotel and rob them of the benefits of their good educations and their basic humanity? So they can turn out more cheerleaders for their stagnant grasp of our revolutionary religion? The treatment of women is the litmus test for Orthodoxy in our generation. One should make sure every institution one supports passes muster.

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