On Religion as a Defense Against Psychological Weakness: Rethinking Stereotypes of Baalei Teshuvah

By Savyonne Steindler

The following is an excerpt from Savyonne’s senior thesis in anthropology: “Being a Baal Teshuvah: Religion and Secularism in the Lives of Newly Observant Jews in Washington Heights.” Her paper is grounded in two weeks of ethnographic fieldwork in Washington Heights, New York, one in August of 2011 and the second in December of 2011. Her ethnographic research draws upon 17 interviews with 11 baalei teshuvah (newly Orthodox Jews), participant-observation, and informal discussions. In her thesis, she first examines how religion and secularism are intertwined in the circumstances and tensions baalei teshuvah face, and then proceeds to analyze moments of intervention during which her informants disrupt common scholarly, secular ways of conceptualizing religious peoples. The excerpt below comes from this second part of the paper. She has changed the names of her informants to maintain their anonymity.

During my fieldwork in Washington Heights, I came to realize that some of my preconceived notions about baalei teshuvah, which I had learned both from books and casual conversations, did not resonate with my informants’ life stories. Instead, these assumptions seem to be stereotypes that many secular Jews and FFBs, Jews who are frum (religious) from birth, have internalized. During our interviews, I asked baalei teshuvah if they also felt that there are stereotypes about newly observant Jews and, if so, what are they? Leah Silver, a NYU graduate student in her mid twenties, replied with the following answer:

That baalei teshuvah had really wild and crazy lives before they became observant. People assume that I did drugs, that I slept around. I was the nerdiest child ever. I did none of those things, not to say that it negates anything if I had, but they were all so shocked when they found out how boring my life was pre-religion. They think that they’re ignorant, overenthusiastic, that they became religious to deal with something, like some trauma, to cover something up, like something that relates to having a really wild life or whatever.

Approximately half of the baalei teshuvah I interviewed gave similar responses to my question. These stereotypes of the wildness and instability of the early lives of baalei teshuvah are not wholly representative of the experiences of my informants. Instead, they fit within a larger secular explanation for religion as a defense against some kind of psychological weakness.

The argument that religion is a tool used, either universally or by particular individuals, as a defense against psychological vulnerability is widespread in academic approaches to religion. Talal Asad calls this explanation the Marxist-inspired idea of religion as a “psychological response to an emotional experience” (1986: 12). In a later piece, he contextualizes this view of religion as beginning with Enlightenment ideas that “make it possible to think of religion as a more primitive, a less adult mode of coming to terms with the human condition” (1993: 46). This view of religion extends past Marx and the Enlightenment and is apparent in some anthropological approaches to religion. Melford Spiro (1987), for example, draws on Weber and Freud to describe two psychological functions of religion. Consciously, religion gives meaning to and alleviates adult concerns with suffering. It also acts as a defense mechanism, allowing individuals to unconsciously redirect the potentially dangerous feelings they have towards their parents to the socially acceptable outlet of the “mythicoreligious world” (181-182). Thus, religion masks reality for an individual who is not psychologically equipped to handle it. This view of religion resonates with stereotypes about the pasts of baalei teshuvah, which can be broken into two parts, each indicative of psychological vulnerability: the family trauma of the baalei teshuvah, and the wild period of their early adulthood.

Above, Leah presents the belief that the baal teshuvah uses religion “to deal with something, like some trauma.” In her book on the virtues of modesty, author and baalat teshuvah Wendy Shalit (1999) discusses how this characterization manifested in her childhood, specifically regarding baalot teshuvah, newly observant women. Among her Reform Jewish family and friends, modestyniks (baalot teshuvah) were rumored to be abuseniks. Nonobservant Jews would whisper to one another when they saw a newly observant woman: “She is turning herself into the kind of woman her father could never touch” (5). Shalit felt the gap between this perception and lived experience when she looked at a picture of a happy, newly married religious couple. She compared religious women to the anorexic and bulimic women she met at college and began to feel that perhaps all modestyniks are not abuseniks. I similarly found the stereotype of family trauma in the early lives of baalei teshuvah to be not entirely accurate. Some of my informants did have troubled childhoods. Elliot Levin, a married lawyer in his late twenties, has a physically abusive father. Chava Shloss, a married mother of two, was raised by drug addicts. Both Chava and Leah lost a parent at an early age, and several informants told me their parents had difficult divorces. But if family trauma is the primary explanation for why baalei teshuvah become religious, then Daniel Greenburg, an undergraduate student at Yeshivah University, Abby Weintraub, another NYU graduate student in her mid-twenties, and Joseph Kramer, a man in his thirties who is trained in medicine, should never have become observant at all. Trauma did not characterize their early lives and they are still incredibly close with their families. Joseph even told me that his father is his best friend. As Dafna Stein, a recent college graduate, said to me, “There are people from stable, loving homes who become religious.”

Leah referred to the second aspect of the stereotype when she said, “People assume that I did drugs, that I slept around.” Joseph referenced a similar idea when he told me the following:

So this is one thing I hear from either nonreligious Jews or just non-Jews … when I explain that, ‘no, this isn’t what I was always like. I didn’t grow up this way. This is a decision I’ve made.’ The reaction is usually something like, ‘Oh well, you must have been bad. Or you must have been doing something really wrong to make you move in this direction,’ which I guess seems like sort of a logical thing to guess, but I really don’t think that’s the case for 99% of baalei teshuvah I know.

According to the assumptions Leah and Joseph describe, baalei teshuvah are people who love extremes; they have been at one extreme—using drugs, partying, having casual sex—and now they have decided to explore the other side of the spectrum and have become devout. Perhaps, in this vein of thought, baalei teshuvah’s supposedly traumatic childhoods first predisposed them to reckless behavior. Like Joseph, I did not find this description of baalei teshuvah at all accurate. In fact, several of my informants were

attracted to observance because they were the exact opposite of the wild person of the stereotype. Leah said she was “the nerdiest child ever” and has done none of the things her FFB friends assume she did. Dafna even left a public university after two months because she was so put off by the partying culture she found there. Furthermore, several of my informants—like Samuel Jacobson, Leah, and Daniel—started becoming observant in high school, before they had much time at all to live scandalous teenage years. The stereotype of the crazy early adulthoods of baalei teshuvah seems even less representative than the stereotype of family trauma.

Both aspects of the stereotype allude to a psychological instability that would invalidate the reasonableness of a baal teshuvah’s decision to become religious. The stereotype implies that if baalei teshuvah are damaged by something from their childhoods or due to reckless behavior, then their choices are not rational. Leah touched on this point when I asked her if she thought that the argument that baalei teshuvah tend to have early experiences of trauma was valid:

Suggestions like that have to be taken with a grain of salt because the underlying assumptions there are that if you weren’t messed up, you’d never do this. We can have a whole other discussion about patronizing attitudes towards religion in academic literature. But that being said, was there trauma in my teenage life? 100%. My mom died when I was nineteen. There were a lot of serious issues going on and religion was definitely part of that. It’s just a really touchy argument and you should be really careful with it because the underlying assumptions behind it are so offensive. Because the assumption is, normal people who don’t have any problems would never have done this and also, the idea is that if it is because of trauma, that somehow invalidates the experience, which I don’t think is necessarily true.

The assumption behind the stereotypes is that religion is abnormal and thus its presence must be explained. There is a similar foundation to Spiro’s view of religion. In justifying why he needs to develop such a nuanced description of the functions of religion, Spiro claims that other approaches “do not explain, for example, why religious doctrines persist even in the face of competing, and often compelling, counter-claims of fact or reason, nor why cognitive dissonance is resolved not by abandoning the doctrines, but rather by resting their truth in faith” (171). The driving axiom behind both the stereotypes about baalei teshuvah and Spiro’s theory is that religion does not belong in the modern world; it is not rational.

Among FFBs, these stereotypes may just speak to “a general fear, kind of xenophobic: we don’t want anyone who’s different, who’s not sort of blue blood,” as Dafna suggested to me. But among nonobservant Jews, these stereotypes may indicate anxieties with secularism, as they do not reflect the realities of experience. In her 2010 article about the conflicting discourses that arise in debates about the head scarf ban in France, Mayanthi Fernando asks: “Could it be, then, that the consternation about ostensible Muslim unfreedom in fact helps to sustain a secular fantasy of personal autonomy, deferring an underlying anxiety about the very interconnectedness of autonomy and authority that continues to haunt the Republic?” (30) Stereotypes about the pasts of baalei teshuvah may similarly reveal “an underlying anxiety” with secular claims to reality. Baalei teshuvah threaten secular conceptions of modernity; they choose religion in the age of reason. Academics and lay people alike attribute the apparent anomaly of intensified religiosity in the secular West to psychological weakness, instead of reevaluating their own beliefs about how religion relates to the categories of secularism and modernity.

Courtesy of Savyonne Steindler

References Cited:

Asad, Talal 1986 The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. Washington DC: Georgetown Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Occasional Papers Series.

1993 Genealogies of Religion. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Fernando, Mayanthi 2010 Reconfiguring Freedom: Muslim Piety and the

Limits of Secular Law and Public Discourse in France. American Ethnologist 37(1):19-35. Shalit, Wendy

1999 A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. New York, NY: Touchstone. Spiro, Melford

1987 Collective Representations and Mental Representa tions in Religious Symbol Systems. In Culture and Human Nature. Benjamin Kilborne and L.L. Langness, eds. Pp 161-184. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Published on page 21 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.

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