These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Returning in Choice (חוזר בבחירה)

Posted on March 19, 2013 by David Bogomolny

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“I assume that you’d consider yourself a ḥozer beteshuva, right?”

As somebody who was raised by parents who self-identify as traditional, ḥiloni Jews, and chose himself to live a life committed to and guided by halakha, I’ve come to expect some form of this question from people in conversations about Jewish faith and practice.

But this term does not sit well with me. For reference, here’s the Wikipedia definition (emphasis mine):

Baal teshuva literally means “master of repentance or return (to Judaism)”. The term has historically referred to a Jew who had not kept Jewish practices, and completed a process of introspection and thus returned to Judaism and morality. In Israel, another term is used, ozer beteshuva (חוזר בתשובה), literally “returning in repentance”. Also, Jews who adopt religion later in life are known “baalei teshuva” or “ḥozerim beteshuva”.

The word “teshuva” is most commonly used to mean repentance, but this definition doesn’t resonate with my sense of myself. I don’t feel that I owe penitence for being raised in my traditional, ḥiloni Jewish family, and accepting this premise would further imply that all ḥiloni Jews, including my parents, owe penitence. As my love for the Jewish People and Israel was instilled in me by my parents, and the depths of my passion for deeper understanding of my family’s Jewish heritage was inspired by my proudly Jewish upbringing, I utterly reject the idea that my ḥiloni parents should repent for not practicing halakha. They are proud Jews, and kind, morally upright people.

“But the root of the word ‘teshuva’ is ש-ו-ב, which means ‘to return’! So ‘teshuva’ isn’t simply repentance – it’s actually a ‘returning’ to your Jewish heritage!”

This is the response that I most often get when I explain that I’m uncomfortable with the implications of the term ḥozer beteshuva; it’s a response which I appreciate for its nuance, but I’ve come to reject for its substance. It informs my understanding of how repentance is understood in Jewish tradition; but if ‘teshuva’ means ‘returning’ then ḥozer beteshuva would mean ‘returning in returning’ (rather than ‘returning in repentance’), which strains the limits of my willingness to engage in word play.

I’ll note now that the word ‘teshuva’ also means ‘answer’; and in Israel the common term for somebody who was once religious and became secular is ‘ḥozer be’she’ela’, which literally means ‘returning in question’. It follows then that the opposite of this would be ‘returning in answer’, which is another legitimate translation of ‘ḥozer beteshuva’, and one which also doesn’t resonate with me. After all – I haven’t found answers in religion – only more questions and some humility.

So I am adopting a new term: ‘ḥozer bebeḥira’ (returning in choice). This has a twofold meaning to me:

  1. First, my heritage was forcibly torn away from my ancestors in the former Soviet Union, leaving a Jewish people who didn’t know enough of Judaism to either reject or accept it. And in today’s world, with a plethora of educational resources available to the common Jew, one can educate hirself and truly choose Judaism.
  2. Secondly, adopting halakha is also a choice – knowledge empowers our choices, but we also have to choose to seek knowledge, and live informed, meaningful Jewish lives.