I’ve always had a very strong sense of truth, “emes”. It’s one of my core values and something that drives me every day. I for sure would not be religious now if my mind wasn’t always analysing and evaluating what is really true. In a society with so much information and so many opinions, the truth is a most valuable but often hard to find asset.
Seeking truth, searching for truth, building truth. Is that not what a baal teshuva is? The seeker of truth? A questioner of norms? A discoverer?
But what is truth? Is it an objective reality? Are we always experiencing truth based on our subjective ideas, experiences and personalities? Would I have ever become a religious Jew if I were not born a Jew with my preexisting history and circumstances? Would I have converted?
Recently I read an article about why an ex-chassid from Skever Chassidim became secular. For me, the first question was, as it is for many, “why not just become main stream Orthodox, and still be able to do all those things you want to do: a career, creative outlets, living in the real world?”
The response, as I understood it, is not about our actions, but about truth. Basically, it’s all about truth. Trusting in the truth. That the truths we are taught, that society teaches us, that parents teach us, and that figures of authority teach us are actually true. How do we know it is real truth? And moreso, what if we discover that some of the truths we were sold aren’t so true after all?
I wonder if children who are told that Santa brings them presents and eats the cookies grow up not trusting the society that taught them that because their truth evolved.
This issue of truth is really at the core of who we are, for when the truths we are taught don’t align with our inner compass, we either reject ourselves or reject the ‘truth’ we were sold
. Both outcomes happen in our society. But is there another option?
Having friends that are ex-Chassidish but stayed religious, I notice in them (and love immensely) a very strong sense of truth. They’re grounded in their deepest belief that there is an ultimate truth. It may not be the same one they were sold as children, but one exists. They went searching on their own as teenagers and adults, and they believe they found it. They saw the false sale they experienced as a reflection of rot in the seller or the bad product batch, not in the quality of the product overall. The truth is constant, but they were able to distinguish between the truth they were sold as children and the truth they discovered themselves. It’s really a mirror of the experience baalei teshuva feel, a movement from society’s teachings and a discovery of your own.
Yet it’s not so simple. We as mere humans, with all our frailties and sensitivities, can really struggle to move past the human truth and reach for a deeper truth. To unmask despite our memories and experiences is really a super human task.
I find myself always attracted to these individuals, from all different communities, who see beyond the walls of society and connect with Hashem so purely and directly. Indeed my ex-chassidish friends moved past the people and their version of truth and reached for the essence. So too did my baalei teshuva friends. Their adult truths seem to be a balance of what they have been taught or discovered themselves, weighed up against what they intrinsically sense. It reminds me of hearing Rav Noah Weinberg of Aish HaTorah speak when I was just discovering Judaism. He was one of these people where truth is truth. I remember him speaking with passion, saying that truth is a type of remembering, a feeling of ‘I’ve heard this before’. An innate comfort of sorts.
But does everything feel comfortable? Definitely not. Many things when becoming religious make you think ‘really? That’s what Hashem wants?’. Many times I still think this. And you should never be afraid to keep asking. But even when we ask we often do the actions because those in authority have told us that’s what Hashem wants. There’s definitly a dependency and trust we have to place on those around us to tell us the truth. That’s why finding an authentic God-fearing truth-seeking Rabbi can be so challenging and is so vital. In fact were instructed to find ourselves a Rabbi in Ethics of the Fathers. If we’re fortunate we can learn enough to go find the sources ourselves, but this takes time to develop either way. At the start of the baal teshuva journey trust is vital, and those leaders who break this trust are very dangerous.
Just like in all facets of life, sometimes we do get burnt. Sometimes those in authority abuse their authority or simply aren’t in touch with their own inner compass. And then the same question arises: Is it the people or is there a truth beyond the people? Can you look past the sales pitch?
I can only speak for myself. In my own baal teshuva journey, I knew Hashem before I knew the term Hashem. For me an ultimate truth exists: one beyond languages, authority figures and societal norms.
I’m religious not because I’ve been sold a product of religion but because religion is a way to connect to the truth I already knew inside. Becoming religious and staying religious is about looking through the world, beyond the hiddeness, and becoming one with the greatest truth there is, the Godliness within