The Baal Teshuvah Defined

Baal teshuvah (plural: baalei teshuvah, feminine: baalat teshuvah or baalas teshuvah) translates literally as “a master of return.”

Traditionally, the term baal teshuvah means someone who has done wrong, regretted his behavior, and then turned himself around, resolving never to do the same again.1

But in the widest, most definitive sense, a baal teshuvah is any Jew who is in a constant state of return to his essential true self, an inner soul that connects to the divine through learning Torah and doing mitzvahs.2

This latter definition has practical application today, when most Jews are lacking in observance of Jewish tradition not by any fault of their own, but simply due to their upbringing. Torah observance lies at the very core of the Jewish soul. So as soon as a Jew has begun moving towards a Torah-observant lifestyle—even with one small step—he or she is a baal teshuvah.

In this sense, every person, even one who is already observant, is capable of being a baal teshuvah and should strive to be one. Even one who is already observant, is capable of being a baal teshuvah and should strive to be one. After all, G‑d is infinite, and the journey towards Him endless. As long as you are traveling in the right direction, you are already bound up with that infiniteness.

That’s another teaching of our sages: “One moment of teshuvah and good deeds in this world contains more beauty than all the life of the World to Come.”3 The World to Come contains only a glimmer of G‑d’s light. In the act of returning to G‑d through practical mitzvahs, you have G‑d Himself.4

It also explains how the Jewish sages teach that every person should “spend his entire life in teshuvah.”5 Obviously, that could only be referring to this sort of teshuvah—not on sins, but returning higher and higher towards G‑d.

Many in the Chabad community noted the great attention that the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, showered on baalei teshuvah. Once a Chassid from a long-established Chassidic background complained to the Rebbe that he was showing more favor to the baalei teshuvah than to old-timers in the Chabad community. The Rebbe replied, “Well, why don’t you become a baal teshuvah as well?”

The Baal Teshuvah’s Journey

A baal teshuvah is not expected to jump into observance of the entire corpus of Jewish law and tradition immediately. That would be self-defeating. It is basic human nature that new habits only stick when they are adopted gradually.

A better strategy is to take on mitzvahs step by step, preferably with the guidance of an experienced mentor. Some baalei teshuvah need someone to urge them on, others need someone to slow them down.

“The Torah was not given to the ministering angels,” say the Jewish sages.6 They tell us that G‑d says, “Whatever is possible for you to do, that’s what is pleasing to Me.”7 Because “G‑d is not a tyrant with His creatures,”8 and “He only demands from each one according to his capabilities.”9

As long as the baal teshuvah is As long as the baal teshuvah is climbing the ladder to full observance, at whatever pace it takes him, he is considered fully observant.climbing the ladder to full observance, at whatever pace it takes him, he is considered fully observant.10 Even one small mitzvah or new habit in the right direction can render a person a full-fledged baal teshuvah.

All this is speaking about taking on more mitzvahs and more good habits. When it comes to breaking away from destructive and immoral behaviors, there are no steps—struggling with mud just gets you deeper into it. Like the Jews who escaped Egypt on the first day that the possibility arose, you have to simply make a big leap out of the pit.11

That may be hard, and you will need the help and guidance of others. Nobody expects you to remake your character in a single leap, or on your own.12 Like a person mired in quicksand you have to find someone who is on firm ground who can help pull you out.

Once you make the commitment, a big hand comes down from heaven to help you out, often by putting the right people in your life. As the Jewish sages say, “When you come to purify yourself, heaven assists you.”13

Even then, don’t let bad habits deter you from moving forward. The more Torah and mitzvahs you have under your belt, the more strength you will have to overcome those bad habits. Nobody should refrain from doing something good simply because they’re stuck in doing something else that’s wrong. That’s not hypocrisy, just inconsistency, and there’s no human being alive who isn’t inconsistent in some way or other.

The Modern Baal Teshuvah Movement

Historically, there have been many times when large numbers of Jews returned to their heritage. The baal teshuvah movement of the second half of the 20th century was one of the most dramatic.

What began with aWhat began with a trickle in the 1950s, when the Rebbe assumed leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, grew to a steady stream of seekers in the 1960s and ‘70s. trickle in the 1950s, when the Rebbe assumed leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, grew to a steady stream of seekers in the 1960s and ‘70s. The movement was worldwide, throughout North and South America, the U.S.S.R., France, the U.K, South Africa, Australia, and, of course, Israel.

The Rebbe spurred his students to “get out there and wake up Jews,” actively dispatching them to every part of the globe, providing guidance and direction. The key, he said, was a combination of sincere love and real action—simply getting Jews to try it out.

In 1962, this inspired Rabbi Israel Jacobson, a leading Chabad activist, to found Hadar Hatorah, a yeshivah catering specifically to the needs of young men who had not grown up in a religious milieu. A decade later, this was followed by Machon Chanah, a school for women from similar backgrounds.

Over the next half-century, these institutions spawned dozens of similar schools in Israel, the US and abroad—most notably Jerusalem-based Mayanot Institute of Jewish studies for both men and women and Tiferes Bachurim for men in Morristown, N.J.

Eventually, other Jewish organizations, seeing the success of the Rebbe and his students, also entered into the field of Jewish outreach. The goal is the same: To provide Jews a taste of their heritage, and encourage them to increase their commitment, even in any small way.

Why Does Someone Become a Baal Teshuvah?

Jews have been doing what they do for a long time. For many Jews, it just feels natural to return to a way of life which is rightfully theirs.

Their parents or grandparents may have had their reasons to let this all fall aside. Perhaps it was due to the challenges that face every immigrant to a new land and a new world. Perhaps it was their response to the Holocaust. Perhaps Along comes a new generation that says, “This is beautiful. This is wise. And this belongs to me. Why shouldn’t I be doing this?”they simply did not receive a proper education in Jewish practice and reasoning.

But along comes a new generation that says, “This is beautiful. This is wise. And this belongs to me. Why shouldn’t I be doing this?”

Many baalei teshuvah are particularly attracted to the inner, spiritual side of Judaism, as expressed in Kabbalah and Chassidic teachings. They find these teachings bring rich meaning to Jewish practice, something which their parents or grandparents may not have been aware of.

Yet it’s likely that most baalei teshuvah are initially won over by their experience of an authentic Shabbat with a traditional Jewish family, experiencing for the first time a delightful, peaceful island in time.

Whatever the reason, it takes tenacity and commitment to become a baal teshuvah, a quality to be admired whether you agree with their choice or not.

The Baal Teshuvah and His Parents

Honoring parents is one of the Ten Commandments.14 Obviously, Obviously, it does not make sense that becoming a should diminish a person’s respect for or connection to his parents.it does not make sense that becoming a baal teshuvah should diminish a person’s respect for or connection to his parents. On the contrary, his teshuvah should be manifest in much greater respect.

Naturally, conflicts do arise, but with some patience, mutual understanding, and perhaps a little assistance through a third party, most such bumps along the way are eventually resolved.

The Rebbe admonished several baalei teshuvah from attempting to convince their parents to follow in their footsteps, as this is disrespectful. Let another individual, of your parents’ age and stature, speak to your parents, the Rebbe wrote.

The Baal Teshuvah Advantage

Intuitively, it may seem that a person who has strayed and then returned is tainted. How could he ever attain the status of a pure and innocent soul who has never sinned? But Jewish tradition teaches otherwise. “The baal teshuvah,” the sages taught, “stands in a place where the perfectly righteous could never stand.”15

What is it that places the baal teshuvah so high? Several explanations are given. Among them:

  1. The baal teshuvah has tasted the forbidden and now restrains himself from those pleasures.16

  2. The baal teshuvah, having experienced distance, is now driven towards the divine with a force the perfectly righteous could never attain.17

  3. The baal teshuvah is driven by his own decision, rather than by habit and schooling. On his own power, The baal teshuvah builds his own life from the inside-out and writes his own script. he has undergone a transformative experience.18 Most people’s lives are built from the outside-in—from upbringing, schooling, community and the habits gained in childhood. The baal teshuvah builds his own life from the inside-out and writes his own script. His experience of life is much deeper and his commitment to Torah much more real.19

Aside from the above, the baal teshuvah brings with him a perspective of the world and an appreciation of Jewish wisdom and practice that is beyond the grasp of one who never stepped outside the fold. All that he has learned and experienced is meant now to be put to good use.

Nevertheless, every baal teshuvah needs to take the hand of a Tzadik—a pure and untainted soul—who will help guide him. Indeed, the same passage of the Talmud that states the advantage of the baal teshuvah over the Tzadik also cites an opinion that the Tzadik is far greater than the baal teshuvah. Each one has what the other lacks. Together, they are a perfect harmony and union.

Classic Baalei Teshuvah of History

The first baal teshuvah was Cain, who repented, in part, after murdering his brother.20

Reuben, son of Jacob, is considered the first to repent entirely,21 which he did after mixing into his father’s marital affairs.22

Reuben’s younger brother, Judah, was the first to repent and publicly state that he was wrong.23

King David became the paradigmatic baal teshuvah when he repented for his affair with Batsheva.24

The entire Jewish People became baalei teshuvah after the sin of the golden calf.25

Rabbi Akiva, the greatest A great baal teshuvah of the Talmudic era was Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, who had lead a band of highway robbers before becoming one of the greatest scholars of his time.sage of the Mishnah, became a baal teshuvah at the age of forty, when he abandoned his spite for Torah scholars and realized that he, too, must study Torah.

A great baal teshuvah of the Talmudic era was Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, who had lead a band of highway robbers before becoming one of the greatest scholars of his time.

Some of today’s leading Torah scholars are baalei teshuvah. Two noteworthy examples: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who first translated the entire Talmud into modern Hebrew and English, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who served as chief rabbi of the U.K.

Other notable baalei teshuvah of the 20th century include Israel’s third president, Zalman Shazar, authors Franz Rosenzweig and S. Y. Agnon, Israeli director and comedian Uri Zohar, popular musicians Peter Himmelman and Alex Clare, and Emmy award winning screenwriters David Sacks and David Weiss.

The Baal Teshuvah and Torah Study

It should be obvious that a Jew cannot be a true baal teshuvah without proper study of what a Jew must do and why. Many books have been published in multiple languages that teach the basics of Jewish practice. Our own site provides much of those basics as well.

But book-knowledge is not enough. EveryEvery Jew, and especially the baal teshuvah, needs a mentor to guide him. Jew, and especially the baal teshuvah, needs a mentor to guide him, as well as an expert rabbi who is accustomed to responding to baalei teshuva at different points in their journey to answer their questions in halachah (Jewish law).

Study of Jewish practice is also not enough. Without constant inspiration, the fire of teshuvah can easily burn out in the rigor of practice. Reading stories of tzadikim is one way to keep the fire burning. A deep study of the inner meaning of the mitzvahs is another, especially as they are illuminated in Chassidic thought, is another vital fuel.

Nevertheless, action precedes study. Once you begin to feel comfortable with your level of practice, it’s time to move up and take on something new. Once you’ve tasted the experience of this new mitzvah or custom, you can learn its deeper meaning.

Learning Torah never ends, and this applies especially to the baal teshuvah. Any Jew who stops learning Torah on a regular basis will have a hard time keeping his observance inspired. But a baal teshuvah who has stopped learning regularly and intensively is very likely to relapse into that past he has spent so much effort leaving behind.

The Baal Teshuvah and Community

There’s no such thing as a lone Jew. Jewishness means being part of a people. A baal teshuvah must strive to integrate into a strong Jewish community while retaining his identity formed by his particular experience. This is especially so if he hopes to raise a family.

The best entry into a Jewish community is by spending at least a few months in a yeshivah environment. Regular study, as well as camaraderie with Jews who were raised within an observant Jewish community also helps. SegregationSegregation of communities into those who were raised observant and those who were not can only work to the detriment of everyone. of communities into those who were raised observant and those who were not can only work to the detriment of everyone. Both groups have much to gain from one another.

Nevertheless, the baal teshuvah must always remember that he is playing a different game than someone who was always on the right track.

On the one hand, if a baal teshuvah begins to slip, the risk is much greater than for someone who can fall back on his childhood upbringing.

On the other hand, a baal teshuvah who is satisfied with running just as fast as the rest of the pack is wasting a high-risk divine investment. G‑d invested a precious Jewish soul into a world distant from Him, a parched desert of His Torah, in order that this soul would come back with greater energy and enthusiasm. Use out that extra, hyper-fuel you carry with you. Don’t let your Divine Shareholder down.

Bringing Up the Past

It is forbidden to chide a baal teshuvah with words such as “You used to eat pork, and now you think you’re so religious?”

The baal teshuvah himself must also be careful about reminding himself of his past. Remorse Remorse over the past is hazardous. It can transform a person, or destroy him.over the past can transform a person deeply, shaking him to the core. But it must only last for a fleeting moment. We have precious little time on this planet, and we need to spend it doing good things, not flailing about in the mud. Being absorbed in regrets over the past only serves to pull you deeper into that mud.

The classic works on teshuvah describe an initial stage of remorse and penitence, only afterwards followed by a thrust to rise higher and closer. These stages are called lower teshuvah and higher teshuvah.26 The Rebbe, however, repeatedly emphasized that this is not a path for our generation.27

The Rebbe provided several reasons for this. One is that we have already been cleansed by the suffering of the previous generations. Another is that the darkness today is too strong to deal with before first charging up the fuel to rise above it. Thirdly, is that teshuvah today is of an entirely different sort than that of previous generations—as I’ll explain in the next section.

As the years pass and the baal teshuvah matures, he becomes more capable of dealing with his memories of the past, reframing them into the context of his present. At each stage, another degree of remorse and bitterness opens uponly to be closed immediately, with the complete faith that G‑d has entirely forgiven you, and embraced you lovingly for returning to Him with all your good deeds.

The Final Teshuvah

The mass movement of baalei teshuvah today was foreseen thousands of years ago by the master of all prophets, Moses himself. It is the harbinger of the final ingathering of the exiles, and the fulfillment of the entire purpose of creation.

As Maimonides writes:28

The Torah has assured us that in the end, at the close of the period of exile, Israel will turn to teshuvah and immediately will be redeemed, as it is said:

“And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you, the blessings and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall rethink about yourselves while you are among all the nations, wherever G‑d your G‑d has driven you, and you shall return to G‑d your G‑d, and hearken to His voice according to all that I commanded you this day, you and you children, with all your heart, and with all your soul;

that then G‑d your G‑d will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the nations wherever G‑d your G‑d has scattered you”29

This is a different sort of teshuvah than that of any previous generation. On the one hand, it comes from us—“Israel will turn to teshuvah.” On the other hand, it occurs only because “the Torah has assured us.”

It is a powerful teshuvah, precisely because it is not predicated on the character of the individual, or his personal situation, but simply on the Torah’s promise. It is a mighty wind of teshuvah that is capableWe are empowered today to leap beyond everything that restricts us, including all the limitations of the world about us, to redeem ourselves and the entire world. of reaching those who outwardly appear completely lost to the Jewish people, drawing them from their innermost core, for no reason they can explain, to return.30

We are empowered today to leap beyond everything that restricts us, including all the limitations of the world about us, to redeem ourselves and the entire world. Today, no Jew will be left behind.31