Baal teshuva movement
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The Baal Teshuva movement is a description of the return of secular Jews to religious Judaism. The term baal teshuva is from the Talmud, literally meaning "master of repentance". The term is used to refer to a worldwide phenomenon among the Jewish people. It is distinct from the Jewish Renewal movement, which is not Orthodox.
It began during the mid-twentieth century, when large numbers of previously highly assimilated Jews chose to move in the direction of practicing Judaism. The spiritual and religious journey of those involved has brought them to become involved with all the Jewish denominations, the most far-reaching stage being when they choose to follow Orthodox Judaism and its branches such as Haredi Judaism and Hasidic Judaism. This movement has continued unabated until the present time and has been noted by scholars who have written articles and books about its significance to modern Jewish history.
In response to this movement among the Jewish people there has been a corresponding response from the various Jewish denominations and rabbis, particularly from Orthodox Judaism, which calls its response kiruv or kiruv rechokim ("bringing close/er [the] distant [ones]") or keruv. The terms "baal teshuva" (Hebrew: בעל תשובה) and kiruv are often linked together indicating that the subject about either Jews returning to traditional Judaism or the efforts and responses to it. Increased Reform Judaism outreach and Conservative Judaism outreach has propelled the movement, in addition to the growing "movement" of Post-Denominationalist Judaism.
The baal teshuva movement has taken place wherever Jews live and in many different places under all sorts of varying circumstances:
- The baal teshuva movement—returnees to traditional Jewish observance—is one of the most startling phenomena of Jewish life in the past 20 years. New York reports:
- The people making this sweeping change in their life grew up in a secular world. They went to good colleges and got excellent jobs. They didn't become Orthodox because they were afraid, or because they needed a militaristic set of commands for living their lives. They chose Orthodoxy because it satisfied their need for intellectual stimulation and emotional security.
Therefore, the baal teshuva movement, as a modern version of previous Jewish "national" and international movements cuts across all cultures, continents, and communities. The Jews of the former USSR have little in common with American hippies, and Israelis have little in common with South African or Australian Jews but in all those countries and their Jewish centers there are Baal teshuva communities that keep on sprouting up at all levels, in all professions and walks of life.
Now, there's one final aspect of our national renewal that I must mention: the return that millions of Americans are making to faith—faith as a source of strength, comfort, and meaning.
This new spiritual awareness extends to people of all religions and all beliefs. Irving Kristol has written, "the quest for a religious identity is, in the postwar world, a general phenomenon, experienced by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. It does not seem, moreover, to be a passing phenomenon, but rather derives from an authentic crisis—a moral and spiritual crisis as well as a crisis in Western, liberal-secular thought."
In our country, Kristol asserts, "Ever since the Holocaust and the emergence of the state of Israel, American Jews have been reaching toward a more explicit and meaningful Jewish identity. And according to Rabbi Seymour Siegel of the Jewish Theological Seminary, this trend among American Jews is illustrated by a growing interest in Jewish history and the Hebrew language, and by the rise of—and I hope I get this right—Baal Teshuva movement—a powerful movement of Jews, young and old, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed, returning to the ancient ways of the faith.
As Americans of different religions find new meaningfulness in their beliefs, we do so together, returning together to the bedrock values of family, hard work, and faith in the same loving and almighty God. And as we welcome this rebirth of faith, we must even more fervently attack ugly intolerance. We have no place for haters in America.
|Repentance in Judaism Teshuva
|Repentance, atonement and
higher ascent in Judaism
|In the Hebrew Bible|
|Altars · Korban
Temple in Jerusalem
Prophecy within the Temple
|Confession · Atonement
Love of God · Awe of God
Meditation · Services
Tzedakah · Mitzvot
|In the Jewish calendar|
|Month of Elul · Selichot
Shofar · Tashlikh
Ten Days of Repentance
Kapparot · Mikveh
Sukkot · Simchat Torah
Ta'anit · Tisha B'Av
Passover · The Omer
|In contemporary Judaism|
|Baal Teshuva movement
Jewish Renewal · Musar movement
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In the United States
Appearing as an identifiable movement in the 1960s, a growing number of young Jews who had previously been raised in non-religious homes in the United States started to develop a strong interest in becoming a part of observant Judaism; many of these people, in contrast to sociological expectations, became attracted to observant Judaism within Orthodoxy.
- A baal teshuva movement has emerged with a significant number of Jews from non-traditional homes returning to the observance of grandparents and great grandparents. In fact one of the challenges facing modern Orthodoxy is that many of these returnees are attracted to a European Orthodoxy.
The Baal teshuva movement has not just been about Orthodox Jewish outreach alone as it is a far wider phenomenon that has been noted, researched and written about by sociologists, historians and Jewish thinkers since the 1960s when it came into the fore. The Baal teshuva movement, in its origins, was as much inspired by the sixties and seventies counterculture, especially the counterculture of the 1960s and the Hippie movement (Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach tried to channel the counterculture and its music into a Jewish direction through his music and teachings), the Woodstock Festival, the drug subculture, the new interest in Eastern religions (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan tried to channel that interest into a Jewish direction through his writings) and the spirit of youth rebellion that pervades US high schools and college campuses. It was in recognition of this phenomenon and in response to it that the earliest emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson went out to connect with these people and "recruit" them to Judaism.
Whereas the earliest Baal teshuva trends were partly related to the prevailing anti-establishment atmosphere of the 1960s it was an outcome of the great rise in Jewish pride in the wake of Israel's victory in 1967's Six-Day War: "It can even be said the inspiration rising from the Six Day War fueled the beginnings of the baal teshuva movement." The research of Janet Aviad also suggests that the oft-claimed “miraculous” Israeli victory in 1967 gave momentum to the Ba’al Teshuva movement.
Although the effects of the Holocaust and the sway of the counterculture movement led many to abandon their religious upbringing, others were willing to experiment with alternate liberated life-styles, and as part of this experimentation it was intriguing to them to explore Jewish Sabbath observance, intensive prayer, and deeper Torah and Talmud study. Many of these people adopted a fully Orthodox Jewish way of life, and although some eventually dropped out entirely or found their path within Conservative Judaism or other streams of Judaism, or even joined other faiths, others chose to remain with Orthodoxy:
- ...in the 1970s. Orthodoxy began a remarkable revival, spurred on by the missionizing done by the Baal Teshuva movement among other Jews. Lubavitch (also called Chabad) sent emissaries to hundreds of Jewish communities around the country and the world. Among the non-Orthodox, the Reform movement grew, which was due in large measure to the joining of many intermarried couples.
In the former Soviet Union
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The baal teshuva movement also appeared in the former Soviet Union, which at that time had almost completely secularized its Jewish population. The rise of Jewish pride came in response to the growth of the State of Israel, in reaction to the USSR's pro-Arab and anti-Zionist policies, and in reaction to USSR's antisemitism.
The Israeli victory of the Six Day War in 1967 ignited the pride of Jews in the Soviet Union, particularly in Russia. Suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of Jews wanting to go to Israel, although they dared not express their desire too openly. Several thousand applied for exit visas to Israel and were instantly ostracized by government organizations including the KGB. Many hundreds became refuseniks (otkazniks in Russian), willing to suffer jail time to demonstrate their new-found longing for Zion. In the middle of this there arose a new interest in learning about and practicing Judaism, an urge that the Communist government had long attempted to stamp out.
Many Russian Jews began to study any Jewish texts they could lay their hands on. Foreign rabbis, often young students in Chabad Yeshivos, came on visits in order to teach how to learn Torah and how to observe Jewish law. Jewish ritual objects, such as tefillin, mezuzot, siddurim, and even matzah, were also smuggled into Russia. With the fall of the Communist regime, there is now a rich resource of Russian religious texts that flourishes and caters to Russian Jews living in Russia, America, and Israel.
The return-to-Judaism movement was a spontaneous grassroots movement from the ground up and was part of the refusenik movement; it came as a great surprise to the Soviet authorities, and even to the Jewish community outside the USSR and it eventually contributed to Aliyah from the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states and the collapse of the Soviet Union and emigration to Israel. Young leaders included Yosef Mendelevich, Eliyahu Essas (who eventually became a rabbi), Herman Branover, and Yitzchok Kogan, who all later moved to Israel and are now actively teaching other Russian emigres in Israel, aside from Kogan, who leads a community in Moscow.
During the 1960s there was a movement among secular Israeli Jews that was essentially a search for spirituality. At the time, most Israeli parents were secular Zionists. While some Jews were hostile to traditional Judaism, a spiritual quest in the 1960s and 1970s caused some Israelis to seek answers in Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Aharon Feldman observes that:
- Decades of indoctrination by the secular school systems and the media in Israel have failed to have any effect on the sense of identity which most Jews feel with Judaism—as recent surveys have shown. The masses have become aware of the emptiness—and the terror—of a purposeless, consumerist culture. As a result, among the grassroots levels there is a deep yearning for spiritual values. This yearning has taken on massive proportions as expressed in the baal teshuva movement. The secret is out that Jews believe in God and that they have a Torah.’’
In Israel, special schools developed for the newly-religious, who came to be called "Baalei teshuva" (m. plural), "Baal teshuva" (m. singular), a "Baalat teshuva" refers to a female, and "chozeret biteshuva" in Hebrew. Schools were established dedicated to the intensive study of Torah especially designed for the newly religious students who wanted to devote time to intensive study of classical texts with the ancient rabbinic commentaries. These schools opened in the early 1970s, mainly based in Jerusalem. Two significant institutions have been the Aish HaTorah ("fire of Torah") yeshiva headed by Rabbi Noach Weinberg, and the Ohr Somayach yeshiva headed by Rabbi Nota Schiller. Both of these rabbis had degrees from American universities and were able to speak to the modern mind-set.
Chabad Hasidism, with many Chabad houses throughout Israel, and yeshiva programs for Israelis, Russians, French, and Americans, reach out to thousands. Followers of Chabad can be seen attending tefillin booths at the Western Wall and Ben Gurion International Airport as well as other public places, and distribute Shabbat candles on Fridays. There are also Chabad houses in almost every location that Jews might be located, whether as permanent residents, on business, or tourists.
Rav Amnon Yitzhak has claimed to bring 1 million plus Jews back to Torah; as this would be about one fifteenth of the entire Jewish population of the world, it seems unlikely.
Challenges, critiques and difficulties
As with all social movements there is controversy and criticism. Researchers have debated the "drop-out" rate from this movement and the reasons for it and new challenges that are now presented:
- Now, many of the younger Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are finding their way back to the synagogue. Some are spiritually hungry; others are just looking for a place to park the children. Either way, they join congregations in large numbers on the suburban frontier. However, it is not so easy to become religiously involved. Meaningful religious life requires knowledge and learning takes time, something that many young families lack. Most of the parents also lack basic religious skills. The vast majority of American Jews do not know how to read a Hebrew prayer book, and this makes it difficult for them to participate in an active manner in synagogue ritual. This frustrates them and their egalitarian religious expectations. Rabbis reach out to as many different types of people as possible and encourage them to find ways of connecting to the congregation, and, through the synagogue, with God. Given the barriers of language, though, it is a difficult challenge.’’
In spite of the barriers and challenges, the Baal teshuva movement has lost neither strength nor momentum, as the movement continues to grow spontaneously among all sectors and classes of Jews worldwide because as a grassroots movement with its own natural life. Therefore, while the Baal teshuva movement has made an impact it has its limits:
- The Baal teshuva movement is a movement of Jews who have "returned" to religion or become more observant. While interest in religion may be on the rise, it has not been sufficient to offset the general demographic loss resulting from intermarriage and acculturation.
- Chabad outreach
- Orthodox Jewish outreach
- Reform Judaism outreach
- Conservative Judaism outreach
- List of Baalei teshuva
- Lisa Aiken The baal teshuva survival guide 2009 p1 "Since the baal teshuva movement began in the 1960s, tens of thousands of Jews have become observant. The movement's effects were so noticeable by the 1980s that the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Baltimore Jewish Times, ..."
- Dana Evan Kaplan Contemporary American Judaism: transformation and renewal 2009 "Some found it in a havurah and later in Jewish Renewal; others found it in the baal teshuva movement; ... Despite the fact that Jewish Renewal and the baal teshuva movement have different approaches, beliefs, and cultures,..."
- Shaul Magid article Jewish Renewal in ed. Mark Avrum Ehrlich Encyclopedia of the Jewish diaspora: origins, experiences, and culture: Volume 1 2009 Page 627 "It is important to note that although Renewal was fed by the Baal Teshuva movement (new returnees to Judaism) in the late 1960s ... The Baal Teshuva movement was a movement of disenchanted Diaspora and Israeli youth who turned back to ...
- Timothy Miller America's alternative religions 1995 Page 113 "The Baal Teshuva movement addressed these same issues. Men and women attracted to Orthodox Judaism articulated a vision of renewed selfhood. M. Herbert Danzger, studying this phenomenon, commented on the affinity between the ideals of ..."
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- New Age Judaism: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World by Melinda Ribner, cites her research that dropping out will occur if the newly-religious do not marry within five years. Simcha Press.
- "The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism (Dana Evan Kaplan, Ed. University of Miami)". www.cambridge.org.
- World Wide Religions: Treating All With Respect: The Basis of Judaism. worldwidereligions.net
- What is "Kiruv"?
- The Impact of the Baal Teshuva Movement on the American Jewish Population
- Baal teshuva movement noted as part of growth of Orthodoxy (World of the Yeshiva by William Helmreich, p.xix)
- America's Alternative Religions By Timothy Miller, (academic research about the Baal teshuva movement) p. 113