For many a baal teshuvah, one of the biggest tests is to give up being ‘cool’.
I guess before you can give something up, you have to know what it is, right?
So what is ‘cool’?
Not an easy term to define; but I’ll take a stab at it. Cool includes a certain irony, a certain cynicism. It can include being intentionally quirky, unconventional, avant-garde. It views open-mindedness as a value in itself, and likewise nonconformity. It is unrestrained, un-refrained, rule-bending, border-stretching. It’s being culturally aware and devil-may-care.
It can be really fun (maybe even harmlessly so) and it’s hard to let go…but to raise frum kids with – it’s poison.
A lot of BT’s picked up their penchant to ‘cool’ as a way of rebelling against the falseness of the secular society they grew up in. They saw that its rules were arbitrary and its rulers hypocrites. While being cool didn’t offer them anything more real, it at least showed that they weren’t fooled by, nor willing to submit to, lies being peddled as truth.
Most of this was subconscious. Few, if any, could articulate the motivations behind their behavior. It soon became a habit, and a signal, to communicate and connect with others who also couldn’t ‘buy the lie’; it created a vague sense of community.
‘Cool’ is a powerful tool. It was the crowbar that pried open locked gate of the societal prison they were held captive in. In many cases it opened the breach through which they ran to Torah.
But a crowbar is a crowbar. Wherever you use it, it’s going to pry things open. It doesn’t care whether it’s the gates of a prison – or the gates of your lovingly built, carefully furnished, warm and cozy home.
When a BT’s kids see him acting cool – wielding his shiny crowbar – they don’t (and can’t) know that it’s only meant to break out of a prison that they’ve never seen and of which they can hardly conceive. They just see the ‘shine’ and being kids who are subconsciously ‘programmed’ to emulate their parents (ways, if not deeds), they start adopting some of its ways themselves.
But like the ashes of the Para Adumah (Red Heifer), which purified the impure, yet contaminated the pure, the same ‘coolness’ that brought the BT closer to the light, can take his children further away.
The cynicism Dad turned against his false society, they turn against their true one. The nonconformity he used to separate himself from meaningless mores, they use to distance themselves from meaningful traditions. The ideal of open-mindedness he used to break himself into the Torah word, they may well use to break themselves out.
Therefore it should be a no-brainer to let it go, right? Jewish parents were – and are – willing to give up so much (even their lives if need be) for their kids, so how hard could it possibly be to let go some counter-cultural affectations?
Harder than you’d think. As we said, a lot of these attitudes have become habit, almost second nature. Seeing the world and expressing oneself through nonconformist’s lenses is almost no longer even a choice for some, just a default.
One BT, who worked hard on, and to a large extent succeeded in toning himself down, especially in front of his kids, said it was perhaps the biggest challenge of his Baal Teshuvah ‘career’…
“It’s like amputating a big part of who you are. The things that naturally get you excited you have to deadpan, and at the same time, you have to act gung-ho about things that don’t really move you – although you maybe wish they did.
“You have to know that to your FFB kids; anything a little bit ‘out there’ is associated with ‘porek ol’ (rebellion from Torah). Especially in Israel, where things are very black and white, but even in American Yeshivish or Chassidish communities, the kids have a very strong sense of what’s ‘over the line’, and to see a parent acting out (even if in truth he’s doing or saying nothing objectively against halacha), they are going to get very confused.
“So I guess I just made the choice – and have to keep consciously making it – to ‘reign myself in’, to play the game. Not because I necessarily believe in the game (though I do think it’s the best overall option out there), but because I don’t think there’s any way to reasonably expect that my kids could make the subtle distinctions needed to put it all in a clear and healthy context. So why confuse them? After all, I was the one who bore and raised them into this lifestyle; so it’s kind of selfish to not give them a role model they can understand, just for the sake of my own comfort. Thank God, it seems to have worked.”
In a deeper sense, some of the pain the BT feels in reigning himself in to conventionality may have to do with a concept I once heard from someone well-versed in kabala.
He said (to the best of my memory and as I know little or nothing about kabala, take my words with a big grain of salt), explaining that in its earliest stages, creation was infused with a spiritual light of such magnitude that the ‘vessels’ intended to contain it were unable to and thus shattered. Many of the ‘fragments’ of this ‘shattered’ light – the ‘Light of Tohu’ – then descended into unruly and lowly places that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with holiness.
Afterwards there was a ‘spiritual repair’ and the world was re-created in a way that vessels could indeed contain the light shone into them – i.e. the Light of Tikkun, or Kedusha – which manifests in the obviously holy places and activities that we relate to through Torah observance.
However, the original form of light, the ‘Light of Tohu’, remains, albeit hidden, with its original intensity, which in a sense, even ‘outshines’ it’s more tame and structured ‘Kedusha’ counterpart. And while we are certainly only allowed (and even able) to successfully relate to and draw from the light of ‘Kedusha’, the BT, before he did teshuvah, may well have unknowingly wandered into the ‘forbidden forests’ of Tohu, where he was exposed to that untamable, yet highly-charged and exciting light.
It’s his encounters with this light, I believe, that may have formed the ‘crowbar of coolness’ described above that propelled him out of the darkness of seculars society’s conventions, from whence he eventually found his way to Torah, his true light and heritage.
And while he’s accepted the path of Kedusha, realizing it is the true path to his own, and certainly his children’s spiritual wellbeing, he is unable to forget the unusable, yet thrilling flashes of the Light of Tohu he encountered along the way, and it can be bittersweet, even painful to let them go. His FFB kids, who of course were exposed to none of this, share none of his nostalgia, nor can they understand or healthily process it.
So you see, by choosing to let go of the ‘cool’ for the sake of the ‘holy’ (and more conventional), the BT is in a sense letting go of the experiences that touched his deepest self. Not a small sacrifice at all…
But, what won’t we do for the kinder?