Is it the Rebbeim’s Fault?

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I strongly disagree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s observations on the middos (character traits) of Baalei Teshuvah (late adopters of Orthodoxy) — not because the flaws do not exist, but because it is unfair to blame the teachers when they become evident. It is not a matter of paying attention to externals over internals, but the simple fact that internals take much longer to change.

On a global level, I do not think there is a substantial difference between the character of individuals at a similar level of immersion in Torah life. But whereas it is entirely typical for a young FFB (frum from birth) man to learn in post-high-school, advanced yeshivos for eight to ten years before entering the work force, this is very atypical of BTs.

Rabbi Adlerstein staked out his position on some Baalei Teshuvah as follows:

Outward behavior is addressed and changed, but not the inner person. Many Teshuva mills grind out people with the external appurtenances of committed observance, but without touching the core. Call it what you want – mussar, reaching the penimiyus, remaking the personality – some yeshivos for baalei teshuva just don’t get around to doing the work.

He elaborates on that position here and here. As I said, I disagree. It is not entirely up to the mentors.

This discussion is also irrelevant to Jack Abramoff, since he was either not a BT or became one at a very young age.I hesitate to say this and mean no slight to Rav Adlerstein, but I feel that in this case he reacted to his misperception that Abramoff was a BT, similarly to the way we Orthodox Jews fear that the general public will react to the fact that Abramoff is an Orthodox Jew. The difference, of course, is that Rav Adlerstein developed a picture of BTs after decades of astute observation — rather than leaping to develop one from a single news photo. But I still think there is something amiss in the image.

As many commenters noted already, there is no shortage of FFB miscreants. If anything, I think that BTs are more likely to be cautious about Dina DeMalchusa, the law of the land. I have no numbers to back this, but have not found BTs involved in improper administration of Regents, Pell grants, glorified money-laundering, etc. [UPDATE: Eliezer Barzilai says likewise in the comments.] I have enough more to say about this that it’s going to end up as a separate post, I think. But let’s go back to the general issue of middos.

Once I was able to attend a “mainstream” yeshiva, I encountered one individual whom, I believe, was able to maintain his level of obnoxiousness by taking advantage of the refined character of his colleagues. Or, in different language, I think if he had acted that way in my university, assorted football players would have beaten that conduct out of him. Since we don’t operate that way in a yeshiva, it took him much longer to correct his behavior.

Everyone involved in shidduchim can tell you that when an older Orthodox couple gets married, it is often more difficult for them to adjust. People barely in their 20s are still pretty flexible, but by the time they approach 30 they are much more set in their ways.

Similarly, BTs come into the system not at birth, but after several years learning to behave a different way. They reflect a cross-section of American secular Jewry. Reb Yisrael Salanter said that it is more difficult to change a middah than to learn Shas [the entire Talmud] — why should we imagine that a person can change his entire character in the time it takes to change his clothes?

On the contrary, the level of character development often goes hand-in-hand with Torah learning, despite Reb Yisrael’s general rule. Perhaps this is because the BT is often more motivated and sincere, and is that much more likely to internalize what he learns. I think it unfair to expect BTs to have the same middos as FFBs; it should be either a great compliment to the BTs or the opposite to the FFBs that the chasm isn’t larger than it is.

As it happens, I will also disagree with Rav Adlerstein by offering a more negative observation about BTs: it is my perception that the divorce rate among us is indeed higher than among FFBs. But it also seems to run inversely proportional to the level of learning and immersion in Torah achieved by the couple.

If anything, it is the school itself that must decide upon its priorities. There are those yeshivos which aim to send people out to work or do Kiruv after only a few years in yeshiva — and that does mean that the alumni will not have grown as much. But there are others who prioritize growing in learning to a “mainstream” level, or at least until the person himself decides it is time to go back out, and it is my opinion that this is a better model.

But no matter what, given a fellow who is already 20 to 30 years of age, he is going to have less time to work on his learning and less time to work on his character — in addition to having learned patterns that we regard as bad middos. Ori put it as follows in the comments:

In other words, years of education, starting with toddlerhood, are more effective in teaching good Midot than the relatively short time that BTs spend in Yeshiva as adults. That seems fairly obvious.

The real question is, what is the most effective way to teach good Midot to adults when you only get them for a relatively short time.

At least in my experience, Kiruv Rabbonim and Yeshivos do a superlative job guiding the self-improvement process with a host of different individuals with many different issues — given backgrounds far more varied than one finds in the typical collection of yeshiva high school graduates.

I can introduce you to an ex-biker, who still has a snake tatoo on his arm and multiple piercings still faintly visible on his left ear, who is an outstanding baal middos tovos (master of good character) and talmid chacham (scholar). And there is no question that the two went, and continue to go, hand in hand.

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4 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    “At least in my experience, Kiruv Rabbonim and Yeshivos do a superlative job guiding the self-improvement process with a host of different individuals with many different issues—given backgrounds far more varied than one finds in the typical collection of yeshiva high school graduates.”

    Yaakov,
    I’m happy that has been your experience. There are many rebbeim that are superb and there are many that are far less then superb. It seems that those that know what they are getting into and are really dedicated to working with BTs do a good job. Those that needed a shtellar after kollel but don’t necessarily make the effort to get inside BT phsycology can cause problems. “Just learn hard and that will solve everything” works for a fairly small percentage of BTs yet there are a lot of rebbeim in some of the yeshivos that don’t know to take a different approach. I think the main, well know yeshivos, Ohr Someach (both branches), Aish, Machon Shlomo, generally do a good job. The same is true for Neve. Some places have a deserved reputation as a being a bit of personallity cults, with a Rosh Yeshiva or Rebbetzin that is a big baal shita. It can be very problematic.

  2. mycroft says:

    I agree with Steve-unfortunately I don’t see it as a matter of BT or FFB. An interesting week
    last May when in a couple of days a leading Satmar was convicted I believe of engaging in arsoand a “musmach”
    who went to Torah Vaddaath and then YU was sentenced for insurance fraud. Neither was a BT. Was the nursing home scandal based on BT? Sadly, Orthodoxy no longer necessarily connotes to the average person-correctly or incorrectly the idea that one is necessarily an ethical person.
    As long as Yahadus education emphasizes Brachot and davening to the apparent exclusion of everything else this type of Chillul Hashem will continue. BTW I certainly have nothing against Brachot-in 1/2 an hour I have a Gemarrah Brachot shiur to go to.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    Is it really relevant whether Abramoff is a FFB or BT? There are Psukim, Sugyos and Halachos that talk in rather explicit form about Kiddush HaShem and Chillul HaShem. Perhaps, the fault lies in viewing the subject’s lack of compliance as one involving “midos” as opposed to halachos, which as far as I know , apply to all Jews-BT, FFB or not yet frum.

  4. 1.5 opinions says:

    I disagree with one aspect of R’ Menken’s analysis. I do not agree that the balance between middot and outward religious behaviors has so much to do with the time spent in Yeshiva, kiruv or otherwise. I would put forth that it has more to do with the very basic value and emphasis placed on each. It could come back to the basic argument, as old as our tradition itself it seems, as to what extent the halachic practice exists to teach us lessons and improve us. From my experience, many BT yeshivot teach behavior and study l’shem shemayim. But certainly, the navi Micah, Hillel, and Rabbi Akiva, all expressed, in some way or another, the primacy of middot. Perhaps, it is not that BT yeshivot stress religious action too much, but that they fail to send the message that such actions without the appropriate middot can be meaningless. When teaching the “right way” to study, the “right way” to daven, and the “right way” to have Shabbat, etc., they should include the middot that go along with those mitzvot.