Question & Answer With Rabbi Dovid Sears - The Spiritual Supermarket Mentality
A Simple Jew asks:
In an e-mail you once wrote, "I think most ba'alei teshuva and gerim, being independent-minded people, often have a certain ambivalence toward authority, Yes, guidance is a prime commodity -- but don't intrude on my freedom! This can lead to the yetzer hora that I call the "spiritual supermarket mentality," where people pick the eitzah or psak or hashkofa they like, and resist following any one Rav or one derekh. I know this yetzer hora from personal experience, and it is a powerful one!"
Could you elaborate a bit further on how you came to this conclusion?
Rabbi Dovid Sears answers:
Just from observation. I never took a survey.
Obviously, to break away from one's previous culture and / or religion takes a lot of will power and independent thinking. Most people pretty much follow in the footsteps (or skid marks) of their families and especially their peers. These powerful character traits of will power and independence run pretty deep in baalei teshuvah and geirim. But like all character traits, they have a positive side and a negative one. The positive side is the idealism, courage and strength it takes to pursue the truth, even if this entails making enormous changes in one's life. The negative side is that the BT / ger often has a hard time relinquishing that fierce, independent spirit in submitting to a teacher and tradition.
This is especially true of Americans. The whole enterprise of America is its stand against tradition and tolerance of multiple religions and philosophies (within the limits of the Bill of Rights -- it can't be totally hefker). To paraphrase the famous Seven-Up commercial, we represent the "un-tradition!" So this inevitably has an impact on American BTs / gerim, on top of the character traits mentioned above.
Probably the hardest thing for most newcomers to frumkeit is finding their niche. We have to shop around first -- there is no way around it. But the danger is that we may never really stop shopping. We'll take one of these and one of those, and a few years later discover something else appealing on the religious shelf. This can be almost comical when it comes to things like dress and minhagim. The new BT may decide he likes a Satmar hat, a yeshivishe short jacket, sneakers, jeans and a knapsack. He might as well wear a neon sign on his back blinking on and off "Baal Teshuvah!" (Of course, this is an extreme example -- but the same mentality in more moderate forms is not so rare.)
Then there is the issue of minhagim. By definition, minhagim are things we inherit from our families and communities. But the BT / ger usually doesn't have such traditions. So here we go again with the "spiritual supermarket" business. For some, anything too "standard" in one's immediate environment must be set aside in favor the exotic. "Why not?" the person may think. "I chose to be here in the first place, why not choose my customs, too?"
When it comes to halachah, this can be an even bigger problem. For some, it may be tempting to look for a psak that suits his own personal bias, rather than chose a posek and humbly abide by what he says with no "chokhmahs."
Despite all of these challenges, though, as one gets one's feet on the ground, reality begins to set in. We begin to see that to really make spiritual progress, we must submit to a mesorah and a derekh and a teacher. "Sit in the dust at their feet and drink in their words with thirst" (Avos 1:4), the Mishnah says of apprenticeship to the sages. Not only does this lead to normalcy -- but to the tempering of the negative side of those personal qualities that were so useful in getting us to the front door. Now it is time to truly enter.