Debra from NJ asked:
I’m at an early stage of considering becoming observant in Jewish lifestyle and practices, but something is on my mind that I think holds me back. If I go ahead and follow Jewish Orthodoxy, will I be looked down upon as a “second class citizen” by others who were born observant? Maybe this shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Thanks.
I can't promise you what exact reaction you'll get from every single Orthodox Jew, but I can tell you, from my experience, that the correct Jewish attitude towards one who decides to become Torah observant is the accepted attitude of the observant community everywhere.
Rabbi Abahu said in the Talmud, “In a place where ba’alei teshuva (returnees to Torah observance) stand, not even one who was always completely righteous can stand.” Rabbi Abahu bases this well-known teaching on a verse in the writings of the Prophet Isaiah (57:19). A different Talmudic Sage disagreed with Rabbi Abahu and said that one who never transgressed is first (as one might very well think should be the case based on logic).
Nevertheless, the Rambam rules according to the view of Rabbi Abahu that the newly observant is more lofty (Laws of Repentance 7:4): “Our Sages stated, ‘In the place where ba’alei teshuva stand, even the completely righteous are not able to stand.’ The level of ba’alei teshuva transcends the level of those who never sinned at all, since they overcome their inclination to transgress more so than a righteous person who never sinned.”
Rashi explains that the power of the returning Jew is so great that no one is worthy of standing (in a spiritual sense) “in front of him” or along with him in his unique spiritual place.
Another explanation for the higher level of the ba’al teshuva is given by Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler. He enlightens us on the apparent paradox of why one who returns after transgressing occupies a greater place of honor than one who was righteous his entire life. The purpose of the Creation — and especially Mankind — is to express the glory of the Creator. The righteous do this by always fulfilling the will of the Creator by themselves, so to speak. On the other hand, one who sins and then repents and returns to the way of God reveals another dimension of Divine glory. He shows that with the acceptance of merciful assistance from God to help begin his return, he is able to make a great effort to successfully conquer his previously unbeatable inclination to transgress.
Another way to help understand this teaching of Rabbi Abahu is the following: One who eats on the day preceding Yom Kippur is attributed as if he fasted for two days. Why? After a person eats on one day, it is often even harder for him to refrain from this activity of eating on the next day. He is accustomed to eating. In a similar fashion, since a ba’al teshuva has eaten from “forbidden fruits” by transgressing, it makes refraining from sin that much harder. Therefore, when he repents, does teshuva and returns to the way of God, he stands in a place where a person who never transgressed cannot reach. (Torah Temimah)
A personal observation, if you don’t mind. As one who has taught and interacted with ba’alei teshuva over the years, there are numerous times when I have heard the same reaction from students who have returned after going to eat Shabbat meals with host families who have been life-long observant:
“What a surprise! I am a ba’al teshuva (or in the process of becoming one) and look up to someone who is an FFB (frum- from-birth) as my spiritual superior. However, my hosts told me that they love to invite ba’alei teshuva into their homes since it greatly inspires them to improve their spiritual growth when they see how a Jew has changed to become observant, often with some degree of self-sacrifice. They look up to me for inspiration!”
I have no doubt, however, that in truth they all look up to each other. They all help one another in every way possible in their ongoing efforts to follow the ways of the Torah and share in much happiness and success.