Some years ago, in Tel Aviv, an Israeli friend of mine told me –in a mixture of wonder and puzzlement–: “I don’t understand how can you call yourself dati (religious), when it’s obvious you are not.” What he meant was clear to me: I don’t wear kippah all the time, only when I feel like doing it, and when I don my yammy, it is definitely colorful, not plain black velvet. My tsitsit do not hang ostensibly outside of my clothes. I observe Shabbat, but I don’t mind turning on lights, taking showers or using my electric kettle on that day. To me, Shabbat is about rest, enjoyment, connection with the divine and other human beings, about spirituality, not about making myself a pretzel considering if pouring soy milk over my cereal is tantamount of forbidden cooking. All these details brought my proudly secular friend to repeat the common motto: “it’s all or nothing!” Either you observe or you do not. Translated in plain words: stop appropriating the beautiful, meaningful, ethically sound aspects of Judaism and discarding the retrograde, anachronistic aspects they define as equally essential. According to this theory, it is hypocritical to light Shabbat candles, bless the wine, smell the sweet havdalah spices, celebrate the new moon, or cry like a baby at neilah, if you are not ready to accept the laws of mamzerut, pray for the restoration of animal sacrifice, and discriminate against random folks (women, agunot, LGBTQ, converts, liberal Jews and anybody who doesn’t look like us). This is just a fallacy, a mistake that is hurting more than helping.
More recently, while writing an article, I was trying to find a good definition of “repentance” in Judaism and I did what most of us do these days: I begun by googling the corresponding Wikipedia articles. The articles on ba’ale teshuvah stirred me and brought to my memory the story I just told you. For those of you that may not know, a ba’al teshuvah (literally “penitent” or “somebody who has repentance,” for short a “BT”) is a person who was born “legally Jewish” but never practiced, and later in life has a religious awakening and comes back to Judaism. Therefore, most of us, average committed Jews of all denominations are ba’ale teshuvah in some form or other. A number of us –born Jewish or not– has experienced the transformative miracle of discovering the richness of Judaism at a point of our lives.
The problem comes when you use the concept of ba’al teshuvah in an exclusive, discriminating way. The fact is that most people have bought into the idea that a BT is somebody who didn’t grow up Orthodox and has later adopted this denomination. If you were secular, a moderate Reform, a committed Conservative Jew, or even a Conservadox all your life and suddenly you “don the black velvet kippah” so to speak, congratulations, now you are a BT, and you are a “real Jew.” However if you were secular and then come back to any progressive way of Jewish observance, you are out of luck: you have not upgraded to BT.
On a deeper meaning, from its inception, the current use of the term BT was intended to discriminate against newbies. The auto-denominated religious will say that somebody is a BT in order to differentiate this person from an FFB, a frum from birth, somebody who is born “into families that are already religiously observant, and who have been conceived, born and raised Jewishly” (quoting the Wikipedia article). And if you are a FFB you can always go wrong and become an OTD (“off the derech”), somebody who has left Orthodox practice, no matter if he is still a very observant liberal Jew.
You see, sad as it might be, it is perfectly Ok if Orthodox people use these terms and look at the rest of us as unauthentic and fundamentally wrong. There is very little I can say or do to change their opinion. My many Orthodox friends know that we will never agree in this subject, so we just don’t bother. But why in the world should the rest of us buy into it and use these words in the same terms? I have already ranted about the need to stop using the term frum or “religious” among us to mean only “Orthodox”, which invalidates the religious experience of must of us. Maybe it is time that we become aware of this other language co-optation and stop using BT with the same implications. Then we’ll realize that the so-called BT movement is immensely bigger than what they tell us. Everywhere I turn I see people who (re-)discover in Judaism a beautiful, ages-old, moving, profound, and living wisdom. And, believe me, not all of them wear black velvet kippot.