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The Spiritual Transformational Processes of Baalei Teshuvah Roberta G. Sands and Rivka A. Danzig (dec.) Goals of Today’s Presentation Present a model of spiritual transformational processes of Jewish adults who have become Orthodox

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the spiritual transformational processes of baalei teshuvah

The Spiritual Transformational Processes of Baalei Teshuvah

Roberta G. Sands and

Rivka A. Danzig (dec.)

goals of today s presentation
Goals of Today’s Presentation
  • Present a model of spiritual transformational processes of Jewish adults who have become Orthodox
  • Identify implications of this model for working with individuals with health challenges
prior literature and research on religious spiritual change
Prior Literature and Research on Religious/Spiritual Change
  • Research on religious conversion
  • Psychosocial and spiritual development theories
  • Spirituality and religion as meaning-making framework
  • Literature on baaleiteshuvah
  • Prior research has not addressed processes of change among baalei teshuvah over time
  • Spiritual transformation: movements of the soul toward and away from the “Divine Source of Being” (Steinsaltz,1987)
  • Processes of ST: “soul work”
  • Soul work involves active meaning-making
  • Three elements
    • Expanded knowledge of Torah
    • Experience of Holiness (Qedushah)
    • Perform commandments (mitzvot).
  • The transformation processes are non-linear, recursive, and spiraling
qualitative research methods
Qualitative Research Methods
  • Data collection methods
    • Individual interviews (N = 48, half men, half women; half observant 2-12 yrs, half 13+)
      • In-depth interviews
      • Time lines
    • Focus groups (N = 2)
    • Key informant interviews (N = 10)
  • Individual and focus group interviews were transcribed; key informant interviews were summarized.
qualitative methods of analysis
Qualitative Methods of Analysis
  • Review of transcribed interviews and focus group meetings, minutes of team discussions, and analytic memos
  • Using a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), inductively developed and revised analytic categories and framework for model
  • Coding of transcripts
  • Cross-checking of findings across methods (triangulation)
case example 1
Case Example 1

Rochel: 31 year-old single woman, observant 4.5 years. Parents divorced when 8. Mother had significant mental illness. Lived with different parents in different cities. Continuity in Jewish affiliations. Traveled in Israel, where learned Hebrew, and Germany. Studied in seminary in Israel and became Orthodox on return to US. Continues to struggle with issues around feminism.

case example 2
Case Example 2

Barbara: 35 years old, married with children; observant 18 years. Grew up in intact home; attended Jewish day school. Active in Jewish youth groups. Started to become observant in high school; continued during college. Law school + high powered job. Married & moved to Israel; later returned to US. Gave up law to teach because law “didn’t jive with my soul.” Gives classes and leads services for women.

the model of spiritual transformational processes
The Model of Spiritual Transformational Processes
  • Spiritual Eclipse of the Soul
  • Spiritual Imprints
  • Existential Vacuum
  • Spiritual Reactivity
  • Spiritual Immersion
  • Movement toward Qedushah
  • Living the Commitment (open-ended)
spiritual eclipse of the soul
Spiritual Eclipse of the Soul
  • Definition: muting, silencing, or blocking of spiritual needs by adverse or non-supportive experiences
  • Result of lack of exposure to Jewish education or practice, disapproving attitudes by family and others, & other experiences (e.g., child of Holocaust survivor, family conflict or abuse)

“I felt so cheated. That there was this whole part of who I was, or who I could be connected to, that was kept totally away from me.” (Shira)

ii spiritual imprints
II. Spiritual Imprints
  • Definition: Individuals or experiences that leave a strong impression on the individual’s soul or spiritual development
    • They may be from childhood or adulthood
    • Examples: grandparents, lighting Sabbath candles, youth group activities, contact with charismatic rabbis

“I was awestruck…a watershed moment in…my relationship with Judaism…a very powerful transformation for me…his impact… on me was very, very deep.” (Jeffrey)

iii existential vacuum
III. Existential Vacuum
  • Definition: A state of inner emptiness and the perception that life lacks meaning (Frankl, 1963)
  • Characterized by feelings of loneliness, shame, chaos, and confusion and a sense that “something is missing”
  • May be manifested by depression, restlessness, tension, ennui, & “spiritual emergencies” (Grof & Grof, 1990)

“There’s something missing….When you think of a wheel and a tire, you think of the spokes and the hubcap. Now what’s the center of our life?” (Danielle)

Opens up space for the unfolding of spiritual reactivity 

iv spiritual reactivity
IV. Spiritual Reactivity
  • Definition: Struggling, striving, and searching for meaning in response to existential vacuum
  • Unfocused spiritual seeking within diverse spiritualities and Judaism
  • Reactions: rebellion, separation from family/friends, wandering

“We used to go up to the ashram…. It wasn’t so much about G-d; wasn’t about religion. It was about spirituality…having transcendental experiences, feeling my body floating or whatever.” (Yehudis)

“I see a poster... that there was going to be a Bible study class….I had no interest in learning the Bible; I just wanted to meet some girls. But I met this rabbi.” (Steven)

v spiritual immersion
V. Spiritual Immersion
  • Definition: serious engagement in activities within Judaism that enable connection with G-d
  • Characteristics:
    • Incremental study, gradually taking on mitzvot, and forming new relationships that link them with religious community.
    • Idealization of new connections and community.
    • “Spiritual canyoneering” ----------- >
spiritual canyoneering
Spiritual Canyoneering

"I'm the kind of person that doesn't like to walk into cold water; I like to jump….I jumped deeply into it before I really knew what it was all about or what I was going to experience…. As a kid I would jump off large cliffs into quarries.  And it's kind of what I did going into being religious, too.  I didn't think about it too much.” (Jeffrey) 

vi movement toward qedushah
VI. Movement toward Qedushah
  • Definition: a spiritual process in which one deepens one’s relationship with God and intensifies one’s commitment to the practice of Judaism
  • Characteristics:
    • Engagement in a deliberate and directed transformational process
      • Cascading learning process
      • Continued, expanded spiritual seeking, learning, and observing
      • “BT high”
    • Spiritual struggles
    • From straddling two worlds to making a commitment

"You can't just do one mitzvah.  You start doing one. Because I wanted to learn to read from the Torah, I started to go to minyan, and I started putting on tefillin.  And then I started going to Shabbes services." (Barry)

vii living the commitment
VII. Living the Commitment
  • Definition: observance becomes normative and pervades one’s everyday life and spiritual/religious existence.
  • Characteristics
    • Observing mitzvot on daily basis
    • Regular Torah study
    • Engaging in acts of lovingkindness (chesed).
    • Participating in community and leadership.
living the commitment
Living the Commitment

“I'm trying very hard now to structure my week to go to as many women's shiurim (classes) as I can….That it keeps me…revved up and in the right direction." (Shira)

“Davening is… the most important part of the beginning of my day.” (Amy)

“… we wiped ourselves out as a family, with doing a lot of volunteering. But it felt so good…. We had so much energy and enthusiasm, and we wanted to give, and we wanted to raise money for good causes, etcetera.” (Yehudis)

  • Gradual process, not leap into faith
  • Prior eclipses and losses of meaning create need for new sources of meaning
  • (Spiritual) transformation occurs in the context of relationships with “spiritual models” (Oman & Thoresen, 2003)
  • Heightened group identification and solidarity support the process
  • Deepening of knowledge of one’s religion & religious values is inspiring
discussion cont
  • The need for knowledge slows the process down
  • Social support, modeling, and community reinforcement spur the process on
  • “Doing” reinforces what one has learned
  • Chesed and community service appear at the highest level of spiritual transformation
implications for health
Implications for Health
  • Spiritual transformation develops from an unmet need for a framework to structure meaning
    • Need derives from prior losses or gaps (eclipse of soul)
    • Need to construct a meaningful life (existential vacuum)
  • Serious health issues of oneself or others can provoke a need for a new framework for meaning
  • Critical elements for change:
    • Emotional support
    • New knowledge
    • Religious communities or social networks that draw people in and enhance and reinforce spiritual/religious values
research team
Research Team

Roberta G. Sands, PhD, PI

Rivka Ausubel Danzig, DSW, Co-PI

Robyn Rapoport Spero, MA, Research Associate

Samuel Z. Klausner, PhD, Research Consultant (volunteer)

Interviewers from 3 metropolitan areas

Transcribers from 2 metropolitan areas


We are grateful for the funding and support provided by The Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program, sponsored by the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science, with the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation.

We also thank Temima Azizollahoff Danzig for creating our logo.