A review of Turning Back: The Personal Journey of a Born-Again Jew, by Michael Lesher. Published by Lincoln Square Books
The typical Jew-who-has-found-the-light-and-discovers-God book follows a familiar pattern: some description of the author’s upbringing in an identifiably Jewish but resolutely secular family, some event that causes him as a young adult to examine his or her values and study the tenets of traditional Judaism, a gradual embrace of orthodox Judaism, and finally a wholehearted commitment to what he or she describes as Torah-true Judaism and a concomitant rejection of outside values.
By this point, the author has become an enthusiastic, full-fledged baal teshuvah (a man; a woman is described as a baalot teshuvah), the Jewish version of a born-again Jew (hence the title of Lesher’s book). The term literally means a master of return, denoting a return to all-encompassing Jewish life, a lifestyle characterized by a commitment to an sometimes-unbending, sometimes-flexible series of commandments and beliefs, an uncompromising life that the author’s parents or grandparents had often forsaken.
Together, these books provide a counter-weight to the spate of books and films in recent years that have documented the migration of dissatisfied men and women, mostly young, from orthodox upbringings, often haredi (aka “ultra-orthodox”), who have become disaffected from their strictly religious milieus and opted for a non-observant lifestyle.
Lesher made the reverse trip, joining the ranks of the Orthodox.
Lesher, who lives, in many ways, a traditional Jewish life, observing the Sabbath and the biblical dietary laws and sending his children to Jewish day schools for their Jewish and general education, is a full-flegded baal teshuvah, living in a northern New Jersey community whose Jewish population is largely comprised of fellow baalei teshuvah (the Hebrew plural; “B.T.s” in the nomenclature of Orthodox Jews). But, a noted activist attorney who has challenged the acceptance of sexual abuse that characterizes part of the Orthodox community, and an advocate for the abuse victims, he has written a spiritual biography that is every bit as iconoclastic as his liberal political approach to Jewish life in the United States and in Israel.
He had not intended, he writes, to enter the realm of what he had considered “a disease I associated with the old, and from which I thought I enjoyed a lifelong immunity” – but intellectual honesty required that he examine the creed that had sustained the Jewish people since Mount Sinai.
Lesher asked himself, in essence, “what does it all mean?” And he asked his parents about their tenuous relationship with Judaism. “I began to write this book,” he says, “when it occurred to me that my children may one day have a similar quarrel with me. Maybe they will resent me for narrowing their own range of religious choice.”
He is, as his memoir shows, a decidedly unorthodox Orthodox Jew, an unconventional newcomer to a society that thrives on convention. He is, as is the wont of an effective lawyer, an unsparing, unremittent asker of questions – of himself, of members of the Jewish community, and of its leaders. He is, by any reasonable measure, a moderate theologically in a movement often associated with extremism – a type of behavior that his book shows he decidedly eschews. “I have not remained in Orthodox complacently … I have continued to change and to question.”
He veers from the blind acceptance of dogma to which believers of any faith naturally gravitate.
“I’ve moved into the framework of Orthodox Judaism, but my questions haven’t stopped there,” he writes in the introduction. “They have only evolved. And I’ve evolved with them.”
Though Lesher philosophically follows his own path within the structure and strictures of Judaism’s most conservative branch, he neither lauds without reservation the life that he has chosen, nor serves as a mouthpiece for Orthodox Judaism’s critics. “I am not writing in order to preach Orthodox Judaism to the reader, nor am I offering an expose of my coreligionists’ failings or shortcomings,” he stresses. “This my own story, and for better or worse it’s more about transformation than certainty.”
No missionary to unschooled Jews is he. His focus, he makes clear, is not to preach to others, but, in the argot of the Orthodox community, to “work on himself.”
While many autobiographies of this Jewish genre write disparagingly of the religious upbringing – or lack thereof – they experienced in their childhood (homes where non-kosher food was served, Hebrew school lessons whose best feature was the closing bell, synagogues that the family visited at most twice a year – if even that often), Lesher avoids falling into that disrespecting-one’s-parents-with-faint-praise trap. He concentrates instead on his journey, on his final spiritual destination, not on the failings of his past.
He largely skips over that predictable part of a raised-in-the-USA-Jew’s personal history, and starts his narrative – he has a good eye for dialogue and descriptive detail – with the salient part of his emerging path to “fully Orthodox” Judaism as a young adult, highlighting some of his internal conflicts, and disagreements with the zeitgeist of the community in whose midst he would live, but some of the prevailing values he would battle.
He receives from others, but does not offer, easy answers for the questions he continues to pose to himself and to his religion’s thought leaders.
Along the way he offers insights into the neighborhoods where he lived, the yeshivas where he studied, the intricacies of Talmudic study that he mastered to an acceptable degree, the theological challenges he encountered, the apparently arcane customs he came to understand, the exotic (to outsiders) dating rituals, and the interesting characters – of various levels of renown – whom he befriended.
He doesn’t romanticize or patronize the lives of the Orthodox men and women, many of them part of the “black hat,” “yeshivishe” (“ultra-Orthodox”) world he inhabits, but paints them in realistic, flesh-and-blood terms, with the foibles and strengths of anyone.
Weaving in some academic sources to augment his poetic voice, Lesher’s literary skill (not automatic for someone schooled in composing turgid legal briefs) is making the unfamiliar (to him, at first; to non-Orthodox Jews and to non-Jews) seem familiar. And natural. And logical, though many Orthodox actions and beliefs inevitably seem illogical to anyone who did not grow up within the confines of what its practitioners call “Torah-true Judaism.”
Lesher doesn’t apologize for features of Orthodox Jewish life that he clearly does not share or appreciate; he doesn’t condemn or hector; he simply conveys what he has experienced, and offers an insight into the vagaries of the people who have alternately influenced, infuriated, puzzled or judged or inspired him.
His tacit message: every group has its quirks – allow us ours. Neither he, nor the culture surrounding Orthodox Judaism, is perfect, he stresses. His book documents how a newcomer to the exclusiveness of a “religious” Jew, as many Orthodox Jews would consider only themselves, to the exclusion of members of other denominations, or of no Jewish affiliation, must buy the whole package in order to fit in or to be considered properly orthodox
Lesher tells how he changed, or how change was forced upon him.
For instance, his name.
He describes an initial encounter with a rabbi at a B.T. yeshiva, an institute of advanced Talmudic learning, where he wanted to study the intricacies of the Oral Law and the folkways of an intensely Orthodox community.
“You’ll gain from us,” the rabbi told him, calling Lesher mee-kho-el.
From his first day at the yeshiva, “I almost never heard myself called anything else. Mee-kho-el. The full significance of this did not strike me for a long time, but … it bears on the shift in identity that was so much a part of my experience of those days. At the yeshiva, I ceased to be Michael. I had not only changed my dress, my location, the nature of my reading, the language in which I would mainly study. I had even changed my name. Or rather, it had been changed for me. No one had asked me.”
The question of his name’s pronunciation was more symbolic than substantive. It did not shake his attachment to the Orthodox community, or his commitment to the cause (defending the interest of abuse victims) that he sees as an expression of his Jewish values.
Though Lesher has devoted much of his professional life to aiding abuse victims, frequently attracting the ire of the Orthodox establishment, he does not deal with that in the pages of his autobiography. He concentrates on the route that brought him to his current spiritual life, not what his professional life has consisted of since then; on introspection, and on his personal obligations.
Though much in his life has changed, one part of his approach to life has remained constant : his proclivity to ask probing questions. Which has served him well in his legal career.
“Where are the questions?” he asks. “Why aren’t B.T.s questioning Orthodoxy as they once questioned secular culture?” Why, he asks, does the yeshiva pedagogic culture, which is built on a question and answer – or a question and resolution – ethos, not foster a spirit of questioning itself and its own theological/cultural underpinnings?
He offers no easy answers – but, in part of the Orthodox world, questioning the foundations of one’s faith and behavior, or showing doubts about accepted wisdoms, is simply out of bounds. Who wants to be a pariah? Most B.T.’s, he concludes, don’t.
“People fascinated by tradition are unlikely to ‘wish to forget’ their own pasts, unless of course their new community finds those pasts unassimilable,” he writes. “No B.T. I know really believes his nonreligious past encompasses ‘all in life’ outside Orthodoxy – but this is the way born-Orthodox Jews tend to view the newcomers … a B.T. could hardly deny a spiritual challenge to the culture in which he first experienced his own religious stirrings.”
The author’s retrospective conclusion about his choice to position himself within the world, and demands, of Orthodox Judaism: “I do know that my attitude toward Orthodoxy isn’t the conventional Orthodox one … I’m different from many others who have entered orthodoxy.”
With a healthy contrarian and libertarian spirit, he retains enough of his old self to look at his insider life through the eyes of an outsider. He questions when others accept. He contradicts when others acquiesce. He shakes his head when others nod. He moves to the left when much of his community veers to the right. “I’ve become sort of exile within an exile – an exile within Orthodoxy.”
Despite the inconsistencies he cites in the actions of some Orthodox Jews, or those who purport to lead authentically religious lives, as well as the discomfort he might feel when his wider, humanistic leanings confront the narrower demands of a card-carrying Orthodox Jew, Lesher writes that he still is at peace with the choice he made to embrace Orthodox Judaism.
“I don’t regret the decision I made to turn back on everything that makes up my life, to examine and reexamine, to widen the context of my identity by locating myself within an older history and tradition.” This, despite the limitations on what he can or cannot do, within the confines of halacha, normative Jewish law. No going to the movies on a Saturday. Or writing then, “no matter how deeply the desire stirs.” Or other such no-no temptations. Such actions “are off limits.”
“It’s unsatisfying to fall back on a rule out of mere habit,” he writes. “Sometimes I miss the simplicity of my old non-religious days. Yet I still think that the demands have been worth the trip … my journey has introduced me to a world that contains as rich an experience of life as any I’ve ever heard of.
I’ve experienced the most tantalizing of discoveries: I’ve experienced a part, a very deep part of myself – a part I never would have known if I hadn’t taken a step back from me as I am now to consider my moral and cultural antecedents … it has never been dull.”