Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Sivan 5763 - June 18, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
In Search of a Uniform

by Rabbi Moshe Young

Some people never change their way of life. They fall into a routine, repeated day-in and day-out. Like an old leather shoe: No matter how you try to straighten it out, it always falls back again into its creases.

You scan the faces of people in a crowd rushing every morning to catch public transport on the way to work. So many of them repeating today what they did yesterday and the day before. Yet each one tells a different tale. Which one of the crowd does indeed have a constant daily routine, and which one hurries for the first time? Who is happy and who is not?

Just as each face is different, so does each one have his or her own opinion. Multiply this scene by millions all over the world, and you will find that there are no two people alike anywhere.

There are also no two people who have a common purpose. Oh yes! It might appear that as birds of a feather flock together, so do people organize themselves into behaving as a group. Yet people are, after all, not birds, so everyone retains his individuality. Did not a wit once say many years ago about public opinion in Israel that the population of Israel is made up of that many millions of presidents of the State of Israel?

Perhaps the rest of the world does not aspire to be president, but they have personal opinions nonetheless. It is only because there is common ground on many issues that people form themselves into groups. But essentially each one is on his own as he makes his way through life. So even within the anonymous crowd, each individual stands as an isolated unit, reflecting his own inimitable purpose in life, and even without always realizing it, is either upwards or downwards -- spiritually mobile.

We cannot talk here about the whole world, but we may talk about ourselves. While we look at other Jews, we often make comparisons. We judge the lifestyles of others and we classify ourselves. We put everyone into a specific category. We look at the clothes people wear and we mentally allocate them to groups which are socially defined. It's not designer labels we look for, but uniforms which label a culture, an attitude or a tradition.

Within the orthodox camp there is an assortment of men's uniforms and women's uniforms. Men's hats: brim up or brim down, black, blue, grey, no hat at all but just a yarmulke. Then what size yarmulke? What color? Coats, jackets, shoes and shirts! Long sheitals, short sheitals: custom-made sheitals, short sheitals with hats, long sheitals with hats. Skirts sweeping the floor: denim or cotton?

Every uniform tells a tale. We take note and we make decisions about whom to ignore, whom to avoid and with whom we wish to associate. We cannot say that we should automatically associate and socialize with everyone and ignore uniforms by saying that, after all, they are all Jewish people and orthodox, because the decision by the individual to adopt a uniform sends out a clear signal that he or she subscribes to a specific ideology. Each one might like to say, "Join me!" but diverse uniforms are there to protect their chosen identities and reject the identities of others by saying, "Don't join me!"

There is no real battle. It is more like a natural instinct to protect and preserve one's own territory. So each group has its own "rules and regulations." You might want to change to a different group, but the uniform goes with it, and if you don't change your uniform you will be viewed with suspicion by the group you are trying to identify and mix with.

Baalei teshuvoh have a particularly hard time with this. Someone who comes from a non-orthodox background usually has conflicting ideas about what defines orthodoxy, which often creates confusion. He sees so many contradictions among the orthodox. There is something mysterious which moves him towards keeping Torah and mitzvos and, despite the apparent contradictions which confuse him, he does not hold back. He is drawn towards the ideals of Torah, the honesty, the orderliness, the purity, the holiness and the commitment to the higher authority of halochoh.

Yet he sees contradictory standards in all these virtues, where some things are adhered to and others ignored. He sees both honesty and dishonesty, orderliness and slovenly conduct, purity and uncouth and unrefined behavior, holiness and materialism, and punctilious observance of halochoh and carelessness towards it. Yet he is prepared to change his lifestyle to become a servant of Hashem and His Torah.

Some people who want to better themselves spiritually often have a reluctance to identify with those possessing higher religious standards, even if they admire those standards. It may be because they see religious inconsistencies. For example, they might see a lack of honesty or too much materialism or bad middos in those people. So they resort to wearing different `uniforms.'

With some groups of baalei teshuvoh who are for the first time experiencing Torah life, their previous social background is often reflected in their `uniform.' Their determination to become frum and to leave their social group reflects a mindset of "do your own thing" in the face of opposition.

In many cases this "do your own thing" lingers on in Torah observance. There is the belief that slovenly dress or a messy home, casual and disorganized behavior in children generally and around the Shabbos table, are all part of "happy Yiddishkeit." But there is nothing further from the truth. Rav Yisroel Salanter zt"l, in his thirteen basic essential directives in middos of a Torah Jew, a happy Jew, includes orderliness and cleanliness.

Many who have kept Torah and mitzvos from birth tend to view all baalei teshuvoh as a homogeneous group, as if they have all suddenly turned to face one way and proceed to the path of Torah and truth. As their faces, however, are not the same as each other, so neither are their opinions and motives. They really are not a single genre, because in reality, every Jew needs to be a baal teshuvoh every day, and it is only a matter of degree which seems to separate the labeled baal teshuvoh from the religious baal teshuvoh. Nevertheless, the perception is that there is a wide difference between one who takes a leap into orthodoxy and one who wants to redress lapses in orthodoxy.

HaRav Dessler zt"l does in fact show that there is a difference between the two. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. One who has never known about Torah has the advantage of not possessing in his subconscious self the characteristic of rebelliousness against Torah, meridah. He does not have the status of a mored, yet he lacks knowledge of what to do and what not to do when he decides to tread the path of Torah.

An orthodox baal teshuvoh who has had lapses in his mitzvos and religious conduct is at a disadvantage because rebelliousness has become rooted in his personality, and the danger of falling back into his sinful weaknesses, his old aveiros, is greater. Yet he has the advantage that when he decides to repent, he knows exactly how to conduct himself because he has been there before.

HaRav Dessler divides the teshuvoh of all baalei teshuvoh into two categories. One he calls teshuvoh protis and the other he calls teshuvoh kelolis. The difference is this: A person is traveling on a road and arrives at the crossroads. By turning one way, either to the right or to the left, he automatically rejects the opposite way entirely and goes further and further away from it. He has cut himself off totally from the other direction. This, in terms of teshuvoh, is a complete rejection of the past and there is no connection with past conduct. This is teshuvoh kelolis -- an overall teshuvoh.

However, there is the person who recognizes spiritual weaknesses in himself and resolves to modify his activities for the better. For example, someone who is an avid television watcher, Rachmono litzlan. He watches everything. In a moment of introspection, he decides that from then on he will watch only documentaries or educational programs. He has indeed done teshuvoh, but because he did not reject the television completely, it is a limited teshuvoh. There is some improvement, although he is misguided. This HaRav Dessler calls teshuvoh protis. The decision to limit his TV viewing cannot be compared to a crossroads where a fundamental decision has to be taken.

So it is not only the person who becomes frum who has done teshuvoh kelolis, but even the frum person who makes the decision to completely reject a former habit or aveiroh, and becomes punctilious in the observance of a mitzvah or middoh in which he had been previously lax, has also done teshuvoh kelolis.

Every orthodox Jew always wants, sometimes deep down, to better himself spiritually. The potential for both forms of teshuvoh is there. Yet the inner conflict with the yetzer hora takes its toll on all of us. Some might go a long way in subduing the yetzer hora, while others are unable to muster enough strength to change, so they plod on in the way which has been most comfortable for them up till then. Each person is different, and who but Hashem knows the level of effort people put into their avodoh?

Outward appearances do not admit to the level of effort, but uniforms often reflect the result of the effort.

Today we live in a world where human rights have become a buzzword. No one is a private individual any longer. Everyone is either a victim or an oppressor. Words are scrutinized, people watch for politically correct speech. The uniform has to be just right.

We Jews wear the uniform of the victim, but the world sees us as the eternal oppressor. We need to turn to Hashem.

We all have different ways in turning to Hashem. Some emphasize one thing; others stress something else. By looking at a fellow Jew we cannot see where his priorities lie.

However, the time has gone when we can pick and choose where we will excel spiritually. We might have had in the past the luxury of teshuvoh protis. Now is the time for teshuvoh kelolis so that while we might all look different and our personalities are different, there will be just one direction we will all have to face, and one uniform. That will be to serve Hashem "as one person and with one heart."

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.