We are seated at a Shabbos table. This wide, blue-eyed, innocent-looking ba’al teshuvah is arguing fervently with a colorfully hip renegade frumie.
The ba’al teshuvah is adamant. Rabbinically-ordained laws are as divine as the Torah given to us at Sinai. There should be no difference in how we treat them. “Even a minhag is Torah,” he declares emphatically.
His presentation is magnificent – both in logic and ardor – and I am enamored, cheering him on. But I also can’t help notice that his attire – he is wearing a hoodie (his jacket resting on his chair) – does not befit the yom tov table he is gracing or the argument he is passionately making. I am conflicted, and I confess to my hostess my urge to point out his infraction.
As a ba’al teshuvah myself, I sense this young firebrand not only can handle suggestions for improvement but would gladly welcome them. My gracious frum-from-birth hostess, on the other hand, completely disagrees. One has to take into account his circumstances, she insists – where he comes from, his family situation, how long he is “with the program” etc. She tries to dissuade me from my corrective intentions.
Of course, in principle, she is right. But it is my contention that FFBs don’t have their hands as perfectly placed on our ba’al teshuvah pulse as they think they do. They seem to believe we ba’alei teshuvah cannot handle the unadulterated truth and thus try to shield us from it. Yet, most of us truth-seekers actually can handle it! We are not as fragile as they assume. Moreover, we even sometimes feel cheated when we later find out we were deprived of it.
I remember years ago when a speech I was scheduled to give in Canada was canceled. I later found out that the organizers disapproved of how I covered my hair. The audience was expected to include many ba’alei teshuvah, and they thought I wouldn’t be a good role model for them.
At the time I was furious, hurt, almost inconsolable, but the cancelation was the impetus that finally pushed me to cover my hair properly. For 10 years I had been vacillating between wigs, hats, tichels, and the like. It was that cold Canadian rejection that forced me off the fence and made me morph into the woman I truly wanted to be. Later I even went back to my frum-from-birth mentors and chided them for their lack of trust in me.
I don’t necessarily recommend such harsh encounters with reality as the one I experienced, but I think we ba’alei teshuvah are far more resilient than our FFB kin realize. After all, we did not give up all the supposed glitz and glitter of the world because we were looking for fun and comfort. We were, and are, searching for the truth – Divine truth – and once we find it, we really want to live our lived according to it.
So don’t try to protect us too much. We’re stronger than you think. And we graciously and humbly appreciate all the frum-from-birth help we can get in living pure Torah lives.