Recently there was quite a dust up on a frum, online writer’s forum I belong to about the vaccination issue. This has obviously become a hot topic of late with the reported measles outbreaks in various communities in the US and Israel.
As I cursorily followed the heated debate, which I wisely kept my nose out of (while I have an opinion, it isn’t one of my ‘crusade’ issues, nor is it germane to this article, as you’ll see), it occurred to me that something deeper than the matter at hand was likely bubbling below the surface.
Taking a step back from the issue itself, the matter seemed to boil down in an abstract sense as to whether to follow conventional wisdom or resist it.
This dichotomy is a very hot button issue for baalei teshuvah.
A baal teshuvah (as the term is commonly used to denote one from a non-observant background who became frum), by definition only got to where he or she did, by radically bucking the conventional wisdom of the society they grew up in.
Part of this process is swallowing the very bitter pill that his parents, teachers, media and entertainment icons, and peers had all been (perhaps unwittingly) lying to him concerning some of the most fundamental matters of life.
One logical psychic side effect of this process is the rise of a blanket mistrust in the conventional itself – simply because it’s conventional. “After all, if they could lie to me about the meaning of life and my very identity, why shouldn’t they be lying about this too?”
It takes tremendous courage, faith, and just plain stubbornness to existentially turn one’s back on everything and everyone near and dear, often at first based only on vaguely defined, almost intuitional hints and whispers from a soul that until now you had been assured (by your biology professor and others) that you didn’t have.
Those tools of personality that provided the thrust to rise above convention were hard won – and they die hard.
That’s why, when the BT finally makes it to the world of Torah, where the conventions (i.e. mitzvos, minhagim, etc.) are largely true and real, it is for many a monstrous struggle to suddenly shelve (or even tame) that unconventional part of self that got him there in the first place.
We instinctively bristle at terms like ‘normal’, ‘mainstream’, ‘conventional’, or even ‘conservative’.
In the old world, these were the pacifying pabulums of the status-quo enemy, and now, even when uttered in the name of truth by its unimpeachable purveyors, our antennae involuntarily twitch, and while we may heed their call, it takes a conscious effort to stifle our battle-honed suspicions.
For many, the move from the secular lifestyle to Yiddishkeit can be punctuated with a number of false starts, partial truths, and ill-conceived rebellions.
I know personally, part of the transition process toward my embracing Torah involved a sort of ‘back to nature’ drive, which involved jettisoning the societal credo of the time that newer is better and that scientific precision has supplanted nature’s clumsy copings.
While I still believe there is much truth to the premise that God implanted divine and perfect wisdom into all creations and their processes, I now also believe that He also implanted wisdom within human beings to discover, manipulate, and even synthesize materials and process, not to supplant natural ones, but to complement and enhance them.
In a word, my view has become more nuanced. While I no longer genuflect to ‘conventional’ science, I no longer demonize it either. They have their ‘hits’ and ‘misses’, their altruists and cads, like everyone else.
And as I said, I’m neither informed nor foolish enough to publicly throw my kerchief into the ring of the ‘vaccination debate’, but I do understand how it stokes a smoldering fire within many of us, and pray that we have the wisdom to always use our fires to enlighten (ourselves and others) and never to burn.