Us and Them
Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
I read your article on yichus
[distinguished pedigree] with great intrigue. You see I
am what they call a “baal teshuvah.” Having
grown up in a secular Jewish home – bar-mitzvah, Yom
Kippur, Israel and not much more – I discovered the
power of my Jewish heritage in my 30’s.
I was enchanted by the beauty and warmth of the observant Jewish community.
I was welcomed into it with open arms, kindly invited to Shabbat tables, introduced
to fine Jewish women, getting married to a wonderful lady, all with the support
of the new friends that I made.
However, it didn’t take long and I began to see the cracks in the community.
But that was not the problem; it was simply unrealistic for me to expect that
people who are observant have to be perfect. What really troubled me was the
subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – condescension that I felt from those
born observant to people like myself. I discovered that many FFB’s (FFB=frum
from birth), often avoided marrying BT’s (baalei teshuvah). How often have
I felt the snicker of the more educated Jews as they dismissed me and my ignorance?
The feeling of “us” and “them” was an undercurrent in the interactions between
FFB’s and BT’s or non-observant Jews. I felt that I would never be totally
accepted as an equal. I’ll never forget the time that I asked a “stupid” question
at a Shabbat table, and I overheard the host whisper to another ultra-FFB
guest in Yiddish: “er is a tzugekumener,” literally a “newcomer,” a greenhorn
of sorts. What struck me was that it was said with a dismissiveness that was
startling in its relative innocence. My host did not intend any malice. He
was a kind and gentle man; it was simply a given from him – and many others
– that we are of a lower class.
Some Rabbis and teachers are even invested in ensuring
that we remain “recipients” of their benevolence
and wisdom; that we always should be reminded of our “second
class” citizenship. Their intensions might be good:
they feel that we need to respect the authority of Torah
scholars, and that since we were not born into the system
we may be lacking some of the “between-the lines”
sensitivities that an FFB has ingrained into his psyche.
But regardless of intentions, this leaves a serious schism
between the FFB’s and the BT’s, to the point
that I have noticed how many BT’s gravitate and hang
out with each other, feeling that they are not part of the
By no means does this include all FFB’s; I have encountered some who are
totally accepting. But there are enough FFB’s who feel this way to draw attention
to this issue.
In no way does this diminish my respect and appreciation
of the Jewish community that so welcomed me. It is a wonderful
community, with many excellent qualities, and it’s
worth the price to be part of this virtuous life style.
Yet this elitist sense of entitlement continues to bother
me. Discrimination of any sort just doesn’t resonate
as being consistent with Torah values. Yet, time and again
I find many observant Jews, including Rabbis and scholars,
caught up in this practice.
Reading your refreshing articles I see that you don’t hesitate to address
provocative issues that others back away from. I was therefore wondering whether
you could address this issue for those of us that have to continuously face
the challenge of yichus.
Whew! That was a mouthful…
I appreciate your candidness, and am glad that you raised this issue. I will
attempt to reply with reciprocal candidness.
First of all, I want to acknowledge that you are not mistaken. It is true
that there are many in the observant Jewish community who are condescending
to so called “tzugeukemene.” This may not be intentional, but part of an overall
mindset, which I will soon discuss.
I will not defend this attitude, yet for the record let’s be honest: Most
groups and communities with strong beliefs often share a sense of superiority
which translates into subtle condescension to those that do not embrace these
beliefs. This is true in all arenas – religious, political, cultural and so
on. Groups are defined by classes – upper class, middle class, lower class
– which carry an inherent arrogance. What do employers and owners of businesses
feel about their employees? What do first class passengers think about those
traveling in steerage? They think they are better because they have more money.
Others feel they are superior because of their ideology, and yet others feel
special because of their skills.
Is there anything wrong with feeling elitist for your unique achievements
or status? Not by the normal standards of our society. It’s quite acceptable
to feel special about who you are – as long as you don’t hurt others in the
True, condescension is more than just feeling special. But once you feel
unique, how far is it from feeling a certain measure of condescension to those
that don’t have your qualities?
Human nature is such that self-esteem often borders on feeling superior,
which is never far from seeing others as somewhat inferior. After all, if
the other person is not inferior then how can you be superior? This is especially
true when it comes to religious beliefs, which dictate absolute values. Once
you believe that a certain system is absolute and you educate your children
in that belief, it seems inevitable that you will see yourself and those that
embrace your belief system as superior to those that don’t embrace it. When
you children ask you “why do we have to live by this system when we have so
many other good people that don’t live by it,” in one way or another, even
if you are absolutely sensitive to others, your answer will contain a certain
measure of “us being better then them.”
This is all good and fine by the normal standards of society, but not by
the high standards of the Torah that expects a human being to be not just
human but Divine. The human was created in the “Divine Image,” and Judaism
behooves each person to live up to his or her “Divine Image” and higher calling.
As such, any form of elitism, superiority, condescension or arrogance is
unequivocally and categorically unacceptable.
How do we then distinguish between “feeling special” and being condescending
to others? How can one have healthy self-esteem (which is a vital force in
our lives) without a degree of (at least potential) elitism? It seems that
the only alternative – the only way to avoid any potential condescension is
to have no self-esteem!
Indeed, we find these two schools of thought regarding human ego. Some thinkers
argue that ego may be the root of all evil, yet it happens to be a necessary
evil, because it also motivates people to achieve great heights. Discipline
is needed to temper the ego so that it doesn’t get carried away to the point
of destructiveness. This is the essential thinking behind capitalism: Personal
gain and profit – even at the risk of greed and corruption – is the prime
motivator to efficient production. The other school of thought argues that
we must do everything possible to eradicate the ego, being that it ultimately
leads to divisiveness and all human vice.
The Torah offers a third option (Tiferet). In explaining the verse that Moses
was the humblest man that ever existed on the face of the planet,” the question
is asked: Was Moses not aware of all his qualities and strengths? After all,
he was chosen by G-d to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, to receive the
Torah at Sinai, to be the greatest leader of all time – a true man of G-d.
In Hebrew a humble person is called an “anav.” There is another type of person
called a “shafal.” A “shafal” is a demoralized person who deludes himself
and feels that he has no virtues; a self-loathing individual. An “anav” on
the other hand is someone who is fully self aware of his own qualities; yet
at the same he feels completely humble. Why? Because he knows that all his
qualities are not his own but a blessing from G-d. And he feels that if someone
else were blessed with his gift that person would have done better.
Thus the “anav” – of which Moses is the epitome – has healthy self-esteem,
but his self-respect is not due to his own arrogance, feeling that he is a
“self-made” person. Rather, he feels at all times that his “self” with all
its virtues are not his own; they are a channel of Divine blessings.
The true “anav” therefore has no condescension or superiority complex, because
he recognizes that his qualities are not his own. In his humility he also
recognizes that by virtue of being created in the Divine Image” every person
has an indispensable mission to fulfill in this world. Every person is indispensable
to the big picture and we all need each other to be complete.
All this is only possible when a person is aware of his or her soul, and
does not see himself merely as a material creature in a material world.
Material creatures are subject to the “laws” of human nature, which inevitably
results in class distinctions, discrimination in all its forms.
I would also add, that living in an insecure world compels people to develop
a “club mentality” that my club is better than yours. This gives people a
sense of security and confidence, compensating for their fear of insignificance
in a large world.
However, all this applies to the rules of the material world. When you see
yourself as a soul sent by G-d to fulfill a Divine mission in this world,
this awareness is the greatest source for security. You do not need to feel
superior to others to feel important. Your value is self-generated by virtue
of you being created in the “Divine Image” with an indispensable calling.
This is the great challenge facing people at all times, and especially today.
Without special effort, all people, even observant Jews can unwillingly succumb
to the “way of all flesh” and feel superior in their choices and life styles.
They may even be attempting to find security and comfort in a hostile world.
However, the Torah demands of us to transcend our own nature and our fears
and insecurities. The Torah expects us to recognize that the fact that you
are observant is a gift from G-d who blessed you with the opportunities and
environments that allowed you to be who you are. But simultaneously you must
know that this does not give you the right to feel superior. Because it’s
not about you; it’s about G-d and the mission He gave you. And just as you
have your unique opportunities, other people as well have their unique opportunities
that allow them to fulfill their indispensable mission.
If you were blessed with more knowledge – or another gift – this does not
make you a better person; it means that you have the responsibility to share
and teach that which you know. And as much as you have to give to another
you also have to receive from the other. Especially considering that our different
opportunities were not determined by our choices but by G-d. Who decided that
one soul should be born into a healthy family that gave him a decent education
and another soul should not have these opportunities?
This fact is also true the other way around. A BT (baal teshuvah) has virtues
that even a tzaddik cannot reach. Let alone a regular FFB. Yet, this not mean
that the BT should be condescending to a tzaddik, because each of us must
humbly recognize that each of us has both gifts and challenges given to us
from Above, and we all are part of one large mosaic, with each piece absolutely
necessary to complete the entire picture.
And each of us has to help the other overcome the temptation to separate
ourselves into a “special club.” Think of it this way: If your own child or
family member did not live up to your religious standards would you see him/her
as a “tzugekumener?” If your left arm did something wrong would you dismiss
it as “unnecessary” or “inferior”?!
We are all one people, part of one family and one organism.
With all this being said, I should add for the record, that there are also
legitimate reasons for observant Jews to choose matches for their children
amongst people with similar backgrounds for compatibility reasons. Observant
Jews also take great care in wanting their children to marry individuals who
were born and brought up in the sanctity of Torah laws. This does not justify
any condescension or arrogance; yet there is legitimacy in diversity as well
and the respect of individual needs.
To conclude: The condescension you experience should be seen as a challenge
to us all today. It compels us to look at ourselves – at our insecurities
and our ability to love another who may not be like us.
As far as yichus goes, all of us have the great yichus to have
been created in the Divine Image. In addition to all being children of Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob, and all of our souls being at Sinai and receiving the Torah.
Additionally, every child, with no exception, has been taught the entire Torah
in its mother’s womb. Even if that was the end of the child’s Torah education,
I would submit that those nine months of learning are far superior to any
teacher we had in Yeshiva…
So none of us is really a “tzugekumener,” especially from the perspective
of our souls. On the other hand, we are all “tzugekumene” from the perspective
of our bodies – which on its own does not feel its connection to G-d.
Obviously, there may also be virtue in carrying additional yichus
genes that go back to immediate generations. But as I wrote last week: Yichus
is like a bunch of zeroes. If they follow a number then each 0 multiplies
the number by ten. If no number precedes them, a bunch of 0’s add up to one
One of the reasons that I chose to reply to your letter at length is because
we stand now in the Three Weeks, when we commemorate the destruction of the
Holy Temple, which happened because of baseless divisiveness. The way we repair
this break is by intensifying in baseless love.
May we help each other get out of our own “comfort zones” and get beyond
our stereotypes and discriminations, and finally create a surge of unprecedented
love that will counter any adversary.
May each one of us, FFB’s, BT’s, “tzugekumene,” “gezah,” nurtured or natured,
inherent or acquired – whatever name you give someone – play our unique musical
note and together create music that will ripple across the world.