Friday, December 17, 2004

Born-agains: in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam

Many years ago, I spent a very considerable chunk of time with Ba'alei Teshuvah; enough time so that I could have done a whole sociological study of them. I didn't, but I assume that someone has. I hope so. There is a lot that can be learned from such a study.

"Ba'alei Teshuvah" are "born again Jews" so to speak. They are Jews who have "repented", or "returned", usually to Orthodox Judaism.

There are many schools that seek out ba'alei teshuvah and they exist all over the world, though many are located in Jerusalem. There are all types. There was a school for the "thinking-rational" type of person, there was a school for the more "feeling/spiritual" type of person, and schools for those who took too much drugs. It is a rather large industry. There are even high school programs.

All this shows is that the type of person to go to these schools varies. However, what you do find in these schools, in a much larger concentration than you would find in the general population are "intense" people. What do I mean by that? It is hard to describe. You meet many people who get VERY into the programs. They become very committed to a radically different lifestyle, extremely quickly. They start to eat different foods, stop having sex (or even interacting with the opposite sex), some cut off communication with their families, some decide to settle in a country where they have no friends or family outside their new school friends, they adopt a new lingo, take on a new and difficult course of study, start learning hundreds of new Jewish legal regulations, adopting new political views, develop a disdain for secular culture, etc. People who do this very seriously, and very many do, suddenly become whole new people, and they are the most dedicated adherents of the group. They preach (regardless of how little they understand), they study, they often look down on those who are different in ways that are far more intense than those who, for example, were raised as Orthodox Jews.

For some there is a pendulum effect. Start in one far "spiritual corner" then go to the other, and then come and find a nice middle ground. That seems to be the normal pattern. Few people ease their way in this lifestyle to this gradually.

None of this is news - to Jews. For Christians it is a bit different. Jewish ba'alei Teshuvah make radical changes in their lives; so much so, that the institutions have often been compared to cults (though I would not endorse this too quickly). Christian born-agains, tend to have spiritual revelations that generally require less drastic behavior shifts than do shifts to Orthodox Judaism.

Anyone who has spent time with large numbers of ba'alei teshuvah can confirm any of this. The modern "ba'al teshuvah movement" started as a manifestation of all the movements of the 1960's, spurned on by the 1967 taking of Jerusalem after Israel's Six Day War.

But there is a new movement, that is just like the ba'al teshuvah movement, though it is not in Judaism. It is in Islam. There seems to be little doubt that Most radical Muslim Terrorists, most Islamic suicide bombers, most of the real fanatics that do the real crazy things, are Islamic Ba'alei Teshuvah. Islamic ba'alei teshuvah resemble Jewish ba'alei teshuvah in very many significant ways. 1) There is a belief that they are returning to something authentic. 2) It is something that comes from a dissatisfaction with establishment middle-class values. 3) It comes with the authority of tradition. 4) It has all the trappings of authenticity. 5) It provides a whole community. 6) It involves a radical change in lifestyle. 6) It provides a way to ignore your community and family in the guise of a higher and more important purpose. It allows you to devalue those things. 7) There are profound psychological effects of new sleep patters, new sexual habits, new eating habits, new peer groups, new authority figures, sudden changes of dress codes, shaving habits, and linguistic patterns. These need to be explored. 8) This one is rather important - one reason for the large amount of preaching that ba'alei teshuvah do is that they believe that the message that they started to believe in is incumbent on all - not just them. Everyone is obligated the same way that they were. Thus any sacrifice that they make is really a sacrifice that others should be making. If others don't it is OK to treat them with scorn, and in some cases make them do it without their consent.

All of this is manifested in radical Islam as much as it is in Orthodox Judaism. That is in the "born again" versions of both.

Muslim terrorists (like our 9/11 hijackers) are usually men who grow up in moderate Muslim households. They somehow fall in with radical groups or schools. They become religious, which involves returning to an "authentic" Muslim way of life. They do not trust their parents and former friends who "lost" the authentic way of life and start performing new rituals in the name of Islam. Some rituals are authentic to Islam, some are not. They wear strange clothing like tight socks, value certain burial rituals, shave or not depending on the situation, wear religious clothing, start reading the Koran intently and obsessively. Most importantly they believe that they are doing something that everyone ought to be doing. If they are obligated to die for some cause, then so are others. If my shooting the infidel from a hospital roof is endangering the people inside, . . . well it is their obligation to die for this too.

All this suggests that the newcomers to this are easy to manipulate. They take the word of the authority over what they know to be right and wrong. They take the word of their community and peer group over their former friends and close family. They can be told to do anything. And in the case of radical Islam, the "recruiters" know this, and it is deliberate.

This also give mainstream Islam some plausible deniability. "This is an extreme version of Islam" they say. "This is not mainstream." But this is disingenuous. These movements are generally funded from within mainstream orthodox Islam. The religious want the non-religious to come around. So they fund these movements in the name of religion. But they then express shock at what comes out of them.

This must stop.

Generally when Orthodox Jews try to get the non-Orthodox to become Orthodox the result is fairly benign. Many make a lifestyle change. Many make a radical lifestyle change, and those who do probably are not any worse off then they would have been otherwise. When radical Muslims do it they turn secular Muslims to human bombs. This is not benign. This is as malignant as it gets. Everyone in the Jewish community knows all the big Jewish institutions that do what I am talking about. Who is aware of the Islamic counterparts? Has this been studied? Have people been looking at these Sheikhs sitting in American prisons to see what their organizations, and those like them are up to? Have we put sociologists in place so we can see what is going on? Do we have psychologists working on this? Do we have good intelligence on these people? We need to know where these organizations are, who funds them, how they attract people, how they approach people, if they are interconnected in some financial way, if there is some way they centralize their education and training, etc. That will go a long way toward curbing the threat of radical Islam.

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