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 “privileged club.”
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 process.
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 your 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 does 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 big zero.
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.