If you ask your fellow Jew to define the term “ba’al teshuva”, the response is almost certain to be “someone who didn’t grow up religious”. If you press for a more specific answer, you’ll get “didn’t always observe the laws of Shabbos and Kashrus.” The ba’al teshuva is to be contrasted with the Frum From Birth (“FFB”), the latter being a far more desirable species of Jew.
While ba’alei teshuva are lauded for their return to an observant lifestyle, and even admired for the challenges they must overcome, they never manage to shake the stigma of not being Frum From Birth. This stigma is even transferred to children and the extended family, as if it is a genetic defect of spiritual proportions. Not surprisingly, ba’alei teshuva have a significantly lower value on the shidduch market, and in general have a much lower ceiling in the observant Jewish community. The definition of ba’al teshuva as one who was previously less observant and the resulting lower status of those saddled with the term is one of only a few things the myriad splinters of observant Jewry (particularly FFB’s) agree upon.
If one studies the Torah’s definition of the term “ba’al teshuva”, an entirely different picture emerges. The Midrash Rabba in Bamidbar 2:10 states that during the 40 years in the desert the tribe of Reuven received honorable placement in the camping arrangement because Reuven was a ba’al teshuva; he had acted brazenly toward his father following the death of Rachel and repented for it. The Midrash further comments that teshuva is a fine trait, and the act of teshuva brings about Hashem’s mercy. It must be noted that the term “ba’al teshuva” is applied to Reuven in a completely positive context.
The same term is applied to Mar Ukva. As Rashi unabashedly relates about this great Talmudic figure, Mar Ukva once became infatuated with a certain married woman, to the extent that he became ill. After some time she met dire financial straits, and to procure a loan from the wealthy Mar Ukva was prepared to submit to him. That which he yearned for was his! However, he conquered his temptation and sent her away in peace. He was cured from his illness, and from that point on a heavenly fire blazed above his head when he went to the market (see Sanhedrin 31B, Rashi). Again, the term “ba’al teshuva” is applied in a most complimentary fashion to one who emerged victorious from an encounter with sin, and who earned heavenly approbation only through becoming a ba’al teshuva.
So what exactly is a “ba’al teshuva”? Says Rabbi Yehuda, one who had repeated opportunity to sin and was spared (Midrash Aggada Vayikra 16). Rabbi Eliezer further teaches that one should repent one day before his death. His students asked whether one knows when he will die so that he could schedule this repentance. Rabbi Eliezer replied that, all the more so, one must repent every day in case he will die tomorrow, and thus he will be a “ba’al teshuva” all his days (Shabbos 65B). In fact, this teaching is cited as Halacha in the Rif; it is an obligation for one to be a ba’al teshuva!
We must further note based on this teaching that one can lose the glorious title of ba’al teshuva if he discontinues his repentance.
While certainly it is preferable for one not to sin than to sin and perform teshuva, the vast majority of people are ba’alei teshuva. The greatness of the ba’al teshuva is that he has tasted the alluring flavor of sin, yet pained himself to separate from it. The reward for this is great (commentary of Magen Avos to Pirkei Avos 3:20).
The Shulchan Aruch states that a wicked person should not be buried next to a righteous person, and an exceedingly wicked person should not be buried next to a moderately wicked person. Similarly, a righteous person or an ordinary person should not be buried next to an exceedingly pious individual. However, the author notes in his other Halachic work, the Bais Yosef, that a ba’al teshuva may be buried next to a fully righteous person, by which he presumably means one who was observant all his days (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 362:5).
The previous source clearly indicates that one who has rehabilitated himself from sin reclaims his status in the community. Not only that, however, it is absolutely forbidden to remind a ba’al teshuva of his past deeds or a convert of the deeds of his forefathers, as the Torah states (Shemos 22) “Do not torment or oppress a convert” (Mishna Bava Metzia 4:10). We are adjured in numerous places throughout the Torah to treat converts with equity and sensitivity. It goes without saying that ba’alei teshuva, who are born as “one of us”, should receive this same treatment. In contrast, the laws of shechita, such a vital aspect of kashrus, are barely hinted in the Torah.
Yet while so many Jews turn their lives upside down over the most remote concerns with kashrus, that which the Torah treated with utmost priority is trampled upon. Nowadays it has become completely mainstream in the shidduch world for contestants to be made to divulge if they are a ba’al teshuva and for how long they have been one. Those who must check this unfortunate box on the questionnaire are essentially branded as undesirables. There can be no greater violation of the previous source, no greater “reminder” of one’s past lifestyle, than this – yet there is no public outcry over this travesty, no Rabbinic condemnation of this defilement of those who are pure.
I would not be at all surprised if this widespread injustice is partially responsible for the degradation the Jewish people suffer at the hands of the nations of the world. After all, Hashem always repays in kind.
One Shabbos last year I was a guest speaker at a shul in a large Jewish community, and I touched upon the mistreatment of so-called ba’alei teshuva. Afterwards a man approached me and related his heartbreaking story. He had become observant in his early 20’s, and since that time had contributed greatly to the community as a teacher and through his involvement with communal affairs. However, the community never forgot, or let him forget, that he wasn’t “one of them”. Most notably, shadchanim were unwilling to propose suitable shidduchim. Now in his 40’s, more than 20 years since becoming observant, he remained unmarried, denied true entrance into the community like a leper or a Moabite. I asked him if, were it possible to do it all over again, he would make the same decision to become observant, knowing the rough treatment he would suffer by his fellow Jews. He said that he would not.
This is a damning verdict against the Jewish people. We sing the praises of repentance, yet brutally punish those who undertake the holy challenge. Do those involved with outreach inform their naïve and trusting clientele of the stigma that awaits them? Do they tell those seeking a religious lifestyle that no one will want to marry them? When embracing them with open arms, do they whisper in their ears that they would have a heart attack if one of their children ever wanted to marry them? I suspect that those involved with outreach say none of these things, preferring to draw them close under false pretenses and betray them later on. God’s holy work, indeed.
And what of the privileged class of the Frum From Birth? I submit that in reality there is no such thing. The Torah states that the nature of Man is wicked, and the Talmud elaborates that the inclination to be good develops after childhood. Consequently, no one is frum from birth. We are all just the opposite – until, that is, we learn to become frum.
A great deal is also made of a person’s lineage, further stratifying even those who might claim to be FFB. Being the descendant of a noted Rabbinic figure is to shadchanim what pedigree is to animal collectors.
Yet while yichus is indeed on the list of attributes our Sages teach us to consider, it is the very last item on the list. The Mishna states that in matters of religious precedence (such as being called up to the Torah), a Kohen precedes a Levi, who precedes a Yisrael, who precedes a Mamzer, who precedes a Nasin, who precedes a convert, who precedes a former gentile servant. However, this is only true when their Torah knowledge and merits are equal. Should a Mamzer be a scholar and a Kohen Gadol an ignoramus – the latter enjoying the most impeccable yichus – the Mamzer comes first (Horayos 3:8). We see from here that lineage is merely a tiebreaker, a nice bonus to complement one’s inherent value as an individual.
While our Sages teach us that the children of a woman may bear resemblance to her brothers, and thus one should pay attention to the family of a girl he is considering for marriage, we must note that Rivka’s brother was none other than Lavan. We are all glad that Yitzchak nevertheless married her. If we are to conclude anything, it must be that yichus is an indicator of the nature of a person, but it is only an indicator, and one of many at that.
Following the near-sacrifice of his son, Avraham desired to marry him off without delay to insure the continuation of the Jewish people. Avraham first thought of the righteous daughters of Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre, not caring a whit about yichus (in the very words of the Midrash). He chose a different course only after being informed by Hashem that Yitzchak’s intended wife was born to another family (Bereishis Rabba 57).
Rabbi Levi said that Nadav and Avihu were pompous; many Jewish girls desired to marry them, but they said, “Our father’s brother [Moshe] is a king, our mother’s brother [Nachshon] is a prince, our father [Aharon] is the Kohen Gadol, and we are both assistants to the Kohen Gadol – what woman is fit for us?” (Vayikra Rabba 20:10) Placing too much of an emphasis on their impeccable yichus helped lead to their tragic deaths.
Finally, the Sefer Chinuch, in his elaboration on Mitzva 563, writes that the descendants of a convert from the nation of Edom are permitted to marry into the general Jewish population after three generations. If a Jew makes up his mind that under no circumstances will he marry such a person due to the fact that Edom caused great trouble for the Jews, or simply because he is biased against foreigners, he transgresses a Biblical prohibition. After all, the Torah commands us to distance these people only for three generations, and thus after that point it is forbidden to discriminate against them in any way.
If it is a Biblical prohibition to discriminate against a descendant of Edom, how much more so is one forbidden to discriminate against a ba’al teshuva, who was born with kedushas yisrael! The many Jews who rush to fulfill whatever pseudo-religious behavior is fashionable should take this genuine Mitzva upon themselves with similar zeal.
Those who are blessed with impressive yichus bear a great responsibility to live up to the example of their ancestors. If they fail to do so, their yichus becomes nothing more than a mark of shame.
Based upon the many sources cited, covering the gamut of Tanach, Mishna, Gemara, Midrash, and Halacha, it is clear that the entire community must change its definition of ba’al teshuva to “one who repents for any sin”. The connotation of the term must also change from negative to positive.
I further suggest that when singles are confronted with this question they should respond that they are indeed ba’alei teshuva and have been such for as many years as they are alive. After all, how could any self-respecting Jew, who goes to shul every Yom Kippur, not consider himself a ba’al teshuva, and who would want to marry such a person? If enough people have the courage and reliance on Hashem as the true orchestrator of marriages to respond in this fashion, the question will quickly become irrelevant, if not eliminated entirely.
It’s certainly understandable for singles to seek assurance that potential shidduchim who did not grow up fully observant are now stable in their religious ways. However, this assurance can be gleaned only by getting to know the individual, and has little to do with the number of years since becoming observant. (Oftentimes those who “drop out” do so not because of a lack of seriousness, but because they are turned off and turned away by the community after sacrificing so much to enter it.) We see all too often that even those who grow up in observant households carry no guarantees of continuing that tradition. If anything, newly observant people are generally more passionate and sincere in their observance, to the extent that they put the rest of us to shame.
Judaism does indeed have a lower class: those who fail to earn the privilege of being referred to as ba’alei teshuva.