Monday, May 05, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Dovid Sears - The Spiritual Supermarket Mentality

(Picture courtesy of

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.


At May 5, 2008 at 8:24:00 AM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

I'm going to propose that it's impossible not to shop. It's more a matter of how often, how blatantly, and for what reason. Some do it in a transparent way to 'get what they want', sort of like a child. Others do it in subtle ways after much deep thought, perhaps the way a very well-educated Rabbi might choose a specific approach to a philosophical issue, for example.

How does one tease out all of the subtle factors that lead one to choose a certain this or that?

I understand that the greater point here is that newbies, especially from cultures that stress the importance of the individual, may be inclined to use their own logic to make a decision rather than seek out guidance from someone better educated and on a higher spiritual level. And that that can be a really foolhardy, sophomoric thing to do.

But on a deep level, I think that because we are in a world where Hashem hides from us and because we are so limited as humans, we will by definition be making arbitrary decisions much of the time. It seems like an inescapable part of the human condition.

Am I missing something?

At May 5, 2008 at 8:53:00 AM EDT, Blogger Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...


This post definitely speaks to me in more ways than one. I think it's a good one to share with the community as well, so I think I'm going to post up some thoughts and link you over there sometime today. The rabbi makes some interesting points.


At May 5, 2008 at 12:08:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly agree that we as BT/Geirim are particularly susceptible to such tendencies, but I think that the only reason we are able to actualize such tendencies is because the "spiritual supermarket mentality" is pervasive among those raised observant as well. I don't think submission to mentorship on a single derech comes naturally these days.

This is also somewhat inevitable, cultural influences aside, as illustrated by the topic of minhagim. For example in previous generations some had the minhag to wear t'fillin on chol haMoed what others did not. It was not appropriate, however, for members of the same kehilla to differ in practice because of "lo sisgodedu". The Igros Moshe and others have ruled that it is not such a problem to day. We do not have, in most places at least, a "minhag hamakom" any more. That world was lost.

At May 5, 2008 at 12:23:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said... is "Journal of Biological Chemistry" -- I don't understand.

I think ASJ and R' Sears are right that the supermarket mentality can be a problem, but I think Alice also has a point, that perhaps some shopping is inevitable.

There are some Orthodox Jews who actually celebrate (something like the) supermarket mentality as a great thing. The late dati leumi Rav Shagar is the main person I'm thinking of here. Here's his profile on jpost and haaretz:

It's the ha'aretz article that talks about his writings about the postmodern religious sensibility.

I'm not sure what I think about this, except that there is the danger of going too far.

The Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Bat Ayin has been described as the "first post-modern Breslov chassid." I'm not sure if his version of postmodernism resembles that of Shagar.

Yeshivah Bat Ayin, in a small West Bank settlement focused on organic farming, is known for its ChaBaKuK philosophy (Chabad-Breslov-Kook). Is this unacceptably supermarket like, or the useful and interesting creation of a new derekh that is meaningful and inspiring to a particular crowd of people? I personally don't see what's wrong with it, since it's a way for dati-leumi people to learn chassidus, become more charedi and devoted to spirituality, without abandoning the parts of their dati-leumi/modern orthodox outlook and practice, such as the environmentalist devotion to organic farming and the nationalistic statement of living in a yishuv, that they find valuable.

At May 5, 2008 at 1:42:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Did you possibly overlook this statement from my post:

"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..."

Best wishes

At May 5, 2008 at 2:23:00 PM EDT, Blogger Long Beach Chasid said...

I think a big problem with Yiddishkite is there are so many different sects in Orthodox Judaism and of course each one things their methods, ideals, and hashkafa is the correct one. A lot of FFB's growing up in religious homes cant differentiate sometimes between Halacha and Hashfaka. As B.T.'s we are sometimes not sure if what we currently follow is right or wrong when we find another group doing something different. I was kiruved through a local chabad, but once being introduced to the larger scheme of Judaism I realized that Chabad Chassidus wasnt for me. Ive made the mistake a few times in following more than one Rav, but I found my Rav and follow what he says. I plan to meet his Rebbe soon and then it will be less of an issue of trying to "find myself"

At May 5, 2008 at 3:09:00 PM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

Yup. : )

At May 7, 2008 at 12:46:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can really relate to this post. I was mekaruved through Chabad first, then Aish HaTorah. The dichotomy was confusing, and quite frankly...disheartening. It wasn't until I discovered Breslov about 4 years ago that I "found" my derech. My Rav is Breslov and I hold by what he says. Still, I live in a Chabad area and daven there, far from a Breslov kehilla and have some of their minhagim. I feel comfortable that it's a chassidic environment. Doing the best the best I can;)


At June 27, 2008 at 8:49:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And dare I add that in some ways it can be even harder for a BT with Breslov leanings, because it may well be that he was m'kareved by the Rebbe's teachings themselves, may not have a Breslov manhig in his neighbourhood but moreover is encouraged to rely on hisbodedus and searching in the Torah and advice Rabbi Nachman gave orally and in writing, rather than rushing to one's local rav with every seemingly tricky question.

But I think it is important to shop - as I heard recently from a Rosh Kollel, a Litvak who has not delved into Chassidus and a Chassid who has not tried out Litvishe/ Mussar world, never can be sure if his derech is right- and he wasnt talking about BTs.

At June 27, 2008 at 4:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right. My only point was that we must beware of becoming fixated on shopping around to the point that we cannot submit to anyone or anything in Yiddishkeit and get past this initial stage in our spiritual growth.


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