Tuesday, March 07, 2006

if they are baalei teshuvah, what does that make us?

over the weekend, while at the nhc's chesapeake retreat i went to a very interesting workshop facilitated by BZ on framing using george lakoff's framework to think about the way these issues play out in jewish dialogue. anyways, it reminded me about how frustrating the language is that is used to refer to people who have switched from being progressive jews to any of a variety of more "orthodox" approaches.

lots of people use the term baal teshuvah (pl. baalei teshuvah).
practically speaking, a baal teshuvah (BT) is someone who grew up with minimal jewish education, or in some cases significant non-orthodox education, and has since chosen to become orthodox.
the term is made up of two words baal and teshuvah.
baal: a master.
teshuvah: repentence, a very popular hebrew word around the high holidays.

if we as progressive jews label people who have chosen to abandon simialr ideologies and practices as repentant, it is not a stretch to conclude that we are labeling ourselves as in need of repentence. i certainly believe my ideology is legitamite and absolutely feel no need to repent for it.
that's why i try to avoid using the term BT.

i am thinking through alternatives. two seperate terms would be useful one for people who have switched from progressive judaism to orthodox judaism (the significance of "orthodox" is meat for another post).

what should we call people who were orthodox and are now progressive jews? perhaps baalei tzedek (masters of justice)? that may be to glib, many of our brothers and sisters are orthodox and are pretty serious about a variety of economic and environmental justice issues.

i am not even vaguely clear on what would constitute a viable alternative to BT. the most descriptive forms are way too long. for instance: person-who-was-formerly-a-progressive-or -liberal-jew-but-whose-practice-and-ideology-are-currently-better-labeled-as-orthodox -->pretty rediculous. there has to be some reasonable medium between the offensive BT and this PWWFAPOLJBWPAIACBLAO alternative. what is a good alternative?

8 Comments:

At 3/14/2006 , Blogger BZ said...

Mazal tov on the new blog!

I agree that "ba'al teshuvah" is completely offensive, for the reasons you've laid out. Another problem with it is that a single term is used for formerly progressive Jews who are now Orthodox and for formerly secular/uncommitted Jews who are now Orthodox. In the cognitive frame that provides us with the term "ba'al teshuvah", active progressive Jews like you and me are in the same category as completely secular Jews (a diverse category itself, which includes hiloni Israelis who speak Hebrew from birth as well as assimilated Americans) - we're all "not religious".

For some people, becoming Orthodox means becoming actively Jewish for the first time; for other people, it means no longer davening with their old minyan and no longer eating Shabbat dinner at their parents' table.

 
At 3/15/2006 , Blogger BZ said...

Mazal tov on the new blog!

I agree that "ba'al teshuvah" is completely offensive, for all these reasons. Another problem is that "BT" is used to refer both to formerly progressive Jews who became Orthodox and to formerly secular/uncommitted Jews who became Orthodox. In the cognitive frame that produces the term "BT", committed progressive Jews like you and me are in the same category as completely secular Jews (itself a diverse group, which includes hiloni Israelis who speak Hebrew from birth as well as assimilated Americans); we're all "not religious".

For some people, becoming Orthodox means becoming actively Jewish for the first time; for others, it means no longer davening with their old minyan and no longer eating Shabbat dinner at their parents' table.

 
At 3/15/2006 , Anonymous a s e said...

I know it doesn't solve the problem, but why not use "Ba'al Teshuvah" to describe a person who leaves whatever their former version of Judaism is to join yours? Get enough people from all sects and streams to do it, and you've successfully stripped it of its Ortho-only (though if you check websites like "BeyondBT.com" its a Haredi-only) definition.

 
At 6/05/2006 , Anonymous rebecca m said...

I like ASE's answer

I sometimes describe people as becoming more "right-wing religously" or "left-wing religiously", if "more religious" or "less religious" seems inaccurate.

 
At 6/05/2006 , Blogger ZT said...

using the terms right-wing and left-wing underscores the, i think incorrect, idea that jewish denominations and approaches can be put onto a spectrum from left to right.
different jewish movements and individuals approach judaism in such a wide variety of ways that it is nearly impossible to put them on a line in general as there are a wide variety of different variables.

for instance, take a neo-hasidic renewal person. learns tanya and talmud but drives on shabbat and uses goddess language in davening. it doesn't really feel correct to place this person to the right of a egalitarian, shabbat halachah holding, Conservative jew. at the same time, it seems odd to put someone who is learning talmud regularly and studying hassidic texts to the left of the Consevative Jew.

 
At 9/19/2007 , Blogger kohen tzedek said...

Interesting blog - glad I found it. A few comments:

1) The uneasiness about the term "baal teshuvah", stemming from the implied delegitimization of progressive Judaism(s)is understandable - but I think that the rather unpleasant reality legitimates its' use. The fact is that, on the level of religious systems, one is indeed switching loyalties from liberal Judaisms that adhere to progressive political/spiritual ideologies to a system - Orthodoxy - which is, in fact, quite reactionary. That individual "returnees" may maintain some, or (rarely) all of their previous Left committments does not change this.

2)In the Orthodox understanding,
"returning" means not merely becoming mitzvah-observant; it also (and perhaps primarily)means reversing your thinking patterns and political/spiritual modes of thought. This means, in their terms, becoming a right-winger. (If you don't believe me, ask them).

3) One thing I learned during my long tenure in Orthodoxy is that the terms "left" and "right" have very idiosyncratic meanings, which are sometimes totally opposed to the secular ones. Thus, "Zionism" in Orthodoxy means "left-wing" whereas in the rest of the world it means right-wing. I also discovered that I am not very interested in the inner Jewish/Orthodox meanings of these terms(whether you wear a kippah or a hat is really quite uninteresting to me) - except for situations where the two overlap-the role of women being the best example.

3) Is the Israeli term "chozrim b'teshuvah" less offensive than "Baalei Teshuvah"?

4) I wish it were the case that one could divorce Orthodox shemirat hamitzvot from the right-wing political culture in which this is embedded - but you can't. The choices are either live with it and look the other way or do what I did - leave. I'd love to see this contention refuted, but unfortunately I'm afraid it can't be.

Howie Katz

 
At 2/16/2009 , Blogger BZ said...

at the same time, it seems odd to put someone who is learning talmud regularly and studying hassidic texts to the left of the Consevative Jew.

Why not? There's nothing "right-wing" about Talmud; it's a shared heritage that belongs to all of us.

(Of course I agree with your primary point about the difficulty of lining people up from left to right.)

 
At 2/16/2009 , Blogger BZ said...

3) Is the Israeli term "chozrim b'teshuvah" less offensive than "Baalei Teshuvah"?

No, it's basically the same thing.

 

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