The baal teshuva movement has become an intrinsic part of modern Jewish life, but not many of us are aware of another, related movement that has taken hold in Israel in recent years, one that can be called, for lack of any other name, the semi-teshuva movement.
This relatively new phenomenon has not stopped the modern-day baal teshuva movement, well underway since the mid-to-late 1960's, from gaining new members. Some claim that the traditional baal teshuva movement began in tandem with the anti-establishment atmosphere of the sixties, but all agree that it took a major leap forward directly after Israel's miraculous victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Jewish pride suddenly became a preferred stock in which formerly unaffiliated Jews everywhere wanted to acquire shares and reap dividends in the form of trips to Israel, Torah study, and giving traditional Jewish observance a try.
Aliyah skyrocketed as 60,000 North American Jews arrived between 1967 and 1973 – ten times the number that came in the 1950's. At the same time, Torah study for beginners and outreach organizations began to sprout all over the Jewish world.
In the Soviet Union, the sudden rush of Jews to both traditional Judaism and Zionism after the Six Day War was even more pronounced than in the USA. That miraculous victory saved Israel, but it also rescued the three million Soviet Jews whose total secularization at the hands of the communist government appeared to be a fait accompli on the eve of the war. The events of June 1967 abruptly turned the tide, igniting hidden sparks of Jewishness throughout Russia. Many thousands of Jews applied to leave for Israel, and many began studying Torah and practicing Judaism, despite the grave dangers involved. All over the world, the number of baalei teshuva (literally "penitents", the term used when referring to newly-observant Jews) continued to grow.
Of late, however, the search for a connection to Judaism and Torah spirituality no longer necessarily ends in a fully Torah-observant lifestyle. If until recently those awakening to Judaism would invariably spend some years in a yeshiva and then become normatively religious, this is no longer the rule. Instead, it appears that many are searching deeply for spirituality, but not always taking it to its halachic (Jewish law) conclusions.
Consider, for example, Mr. Eran Rolls, Chairman of the Housing Ministry's Israel Building Center. Recently, he expounded on his belief that "G-d gives a sign to every Jew. I began to notice that without belief in a Guiding Hand from above, nothing made sense. I saw that G-d directs us, and I began to feel His presence in my world." He now puts on tefillin every day, prays in the synagogue every Sabbath, and disseminates a weekly Torah thought to some 8,000 subscribers.
However, he drives on the Sabbath, is planning to continue wearing only what he calls his 'transparent' yarmulke, and has declared: "Being religious is not for me. I don’t feel like being there… Our children learn in public schools, and at the same time we have classes on Judaism at home and they absorb much love of Israel. I like living between both worlds."
Another notable example is that of former Israeli Interior and Education Minister Gideon Saar, a man who has been mentioned as a candidate for Likud Party head and Prime Minister. He and his second wife Geulah Even, a nationally-known TV news anchor, had their first son nearly a year ago – and Saar has observed the Sabbath ever since. "I am not a Jew who keeps all 613 commandments," he said during a visit to leading hareidi Torah giant Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak earlier this year, "but I made a vow at our baby David's brit that I would keep the Sabbath." For the record, he also attends occasional Torah classes.
Michal Chernovitsky, a free-lance columnist for the Maariv website who describes herself as "social activist, hi-tech worker, and hareidi," tackled one aspect of this phenomenon in one of her columns. One of the factors driving it, she wrote, is the "many young secular men and women who are interested in a practical connection with Judaism – leading to more and more synagogues opening up in Israel [serving] dynamic congregations of both secular and religious people."
How do observant Jews view this? After all, observing halacha is, by definition, not a pick-and-choose process. Are these spirituality-seekers to be considered "on the right path?" Must religious observance be all-or-nothing? Is there a third option?
Torah scholar Rabbi Yitzchak Greenblatt is Yeshiva.org.il's official responder to questions dealing with the teshuva phenomenon. His explanation of the phenomenon is that "one's first thought might be that there's no such thing as half-way; either you accept G-d as the boss or you don't. But this is not correct. It is very important to know that every good deed and mitzvah that a person performs is a great treasure. That which he omits is painful, but this cannot overrule the good that he does. One must always judge others favorably, see the positive, and give support."
"Sometimes people don't keep all the mitzvahs because they don't have the spiritual strength to do so," Rabbi Greenblatt continues, "or for other reasons, and it is then a great mitzvah to encourage them – not with criticism, but with support and a positive approach to help them advance."
A similar position is taken by the dynamic Rabbi Levi Bezenson. Drafted by his students to head a Breslov outreach community in downtown Tel Aviv, he explains how this approach is actually practiced: "[My goal is] to follow Rabbe Nachman [of Breslov] and bring his light to people who are in a state of struggle… We don't offer solutions, and we don't tell anyone what to do. We just want to bring light and inspiration. We awaken them to a point of thinking and emotion, and they must digest it as they wish." In Tel Aviv, he says, "there is searching and great thirst, and a great potential for holiness…"
More examples of the new phenomenon? There's actress and model Gal Gadot, who Instagram-ed herself and her toddler daughter lighting candles on Friday eve while praying for the IDF soldiers fighting then in Operation Protective Edge. Then we have advertising exec and TV personality Gimmel Yafit, the new owner of the Steimatsky book store chain, a woman who keeps kosher, meets with rabbis, and partially keeps the Sabbath.
Well-known TV show hosts and husband-and-wife team Oded Menashe and Eden Harel are there as well. Although their children are now yarmulke-clad and wear tzitzit, Eden says, "Right now I don't cover my hair, though who knows what will be? I want to be at peace with every decision I make, and in general, I try to put the emphasis on what's going on inside me. My spiritual work is more inner and then outward, and not the opposite."
Rabbi Daniel Kohn, the rabbi of Bat Ayin, a small town in Gush Etzion that is home to many baalei teshuva, observes that "ideally, and this applies to the fully-observant as well, mitzvahs should be performed in their context. But one thing I know is that anything that comes from a desire to connect with G-d's will is a good thing. And any inspiration that comes from mitzvahs is also very special."
Explaining the trend towards more mitzvah-observance while not giving up a secular lifestyle, sociologist Dr. Nissim Leon says, "It's a revival of traditionalism amongst the middle class, an attempt to rebuild links of Jewish memory in an environment that has become distanced from it…. I think it's an accumulative, secondary effect of the teshuva movements and organizations. These are people who want to be connected to tradition in their own way."
While this phenomenon places Torah Judaism in a positive light, it also presents a challenge to those who have long been fully-observant. It is not simple to be fully accepting of those who are "different," and to learn to appreciate their sincere spirituality while not accepting the validity of any changes in the faithful performance of the Torah's tenets.
Time will tell if the semi-baalei teshuva are a lasting phenomenon or a temporary resting stop on the way to becoming fully observant Jews.