Over at his newly-revived blog, my friend ZT is considering the appropriate term for progressive Jews to use to refer to Jews who have become more traditionally observant. The most common one out there, as he notes, is the uber-problematic ba’al teshuvah (“master of repentence”). Ba’al teshuvah is understandably popular with many people in the group being described; teshuvah, generally translated as repentence, literally means answer or returning, and a fair number of folks I’ve talked to who’ve become much more observant do indeed understand that choice as a return to traditionally/ divinely mandated practice and a repentance for having strayed. Many of the changes such people have undertaken are, to my mind, choices to be celebrated to the extent that they bring meaning and intentionality to the lives of those taking them on. However, as ZT notes, the use of “ba’al teshuvah” language by non-traditionally-practicing Jews to refer specifically to other Jews who have become more Orthodox is too easily understood not as a celebration of willful personal religious exploration in general but rather as a reification of traditional Judaism specifically as the answer (teshuvah), and non-traditional practice as something to be repented (teshuvah) for.
ZT is right that we could use an alternative. And, in classic form for such discussions, he throws out another question as well: What do we call Jews who’ve moved from traditional Orthodox practice to meaningful engagement with non-traditional forms of Jewish practice? He throws out “ba’al tzedek” (master of justice), and rightfully notes that such language is needlessly divisive and renders invisible the central role of social justice work in the lives of many more traditionally-practicing Jews. Then he offers the English acronym PWWFAPOLJBWPAIACBLAO, whose drawback I think is obvious.
ZT doesn’t mention the most interesting – but also deeply problematic – answer I’ve heard: is “ba’al she’ailah” (master of question). Ba’al she’ailah satisfyingly tweaks what’s problematic about the ba’al teshuvah language and validates religious questioning as a project as critical as religious answering. It also intersects interestingly with the increasing use of “questioning” in activist/ campus discourse about sexual orientation, a zone, like religion, in which questioning is too often discouraged and itself a form of subversive activity.
The problem with “ba’al teshuvah,” though, is that it’s as divisive as “ba’al tzedek” and also needlessly limits the meaning of Orthodox Jewish practice. Plenty of Orthodox Jews, needless to say, question constantly. The assumption that davening three times a day (which plenty of non-traditionally-practicing Jews do as well) means you don’t question your religious beliefs parallels the assumption that marching on a lot of picket lines means you don’t question your own politics (an assumption I saw trotted out in full force at a recent debate here at Yale on the relative merits of “activism” and “debate”). Some traditionally-practicing Jews question much more than others. The same, of course, is true of non-traditionally-practicing Jews.
Ideally, everyone – whatever their religious practice – would be ba’al teshuvah and ba’al she’ailah both. But then we’re not talking about useful categorizations of people religious practice and religious path anymore, are we?