Brazilian Ba'alot Teshuvah and the Paradoxes of Their Religious Conversion

By Topel, Marta F. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Brazilian Ba'alot Teshuvah and the Paradoxes of Their Religious Conversion


Topel, Marta F., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Religious Conversion and the Reformulation of Jewish identity in Sao Paulo

THE BEGINNING OF THE 1990s CONSTITUTED A MILESTONE in the consolidation of Jewish Orthodoxy in the city of Sao Paulo and in the Brazilian Jewish community as a whole. From this point in time a significant number of lay Jews opted for Orthodoxy. There was a shift in the two components that characterize Jewish identity, the ethnic and the religious, and the religious aspect has been privileged since then. Thus, in a vertiginous impulse and in a short period of time-that is, within the last ten years--dozens of synagogues, mikves, (1) and yeshivol (2) were constructed. Various formal and informal educational institutions were created; informal publishers and circulating libraries proliferated; and numerous and multifaceted activities were developed in order to satisfy the desires of a population that was becoming more and more avid to learn about and experience "authentic" (3) Judaism. A "structure of plausibility: was constructed which assured "the rational execution of the group mission," (4) on the social lev el.

Growth of Orthodoxy as a result of the incorporation of these new members to the group, the ba'alei teshuvah, is a well-known phenomenon in several Jewish communities, both in Israel and the Diaspora. (5) It is possible to point out general tendencies with respect to the multiple causes that led a significant number of lay jews to choose the Orthodox way of life; still, there are a number of characteristics of this phenomenon which are the product of each national context--that is, the respective relationships between the Jewish community and the society at large, on the one hand, and, on the other, the social structure and ideological configuration inherent to the particular group. (6)

The birth and consolidation of the teshuvak movement in the city of Sao Paulo is a relatively recent phenomenon, when compared to similar phenomena in North America and Israel, and reveals some distinctive traits. Particularly important are the hybrid and syncretic components which characterize Brazilian society and culture at large, and which shaped the tendencies of religious habits in the country. That is why anthropologists, sociologists, as well as those scholars who study religion utilize the categories "hybridism," "syncretism," "diffuse religion," "faith nomadism," and "religious bricolage," to define the religious expressions which we see flourishing in contemporary Brazilian society. (7) Thus, the pursuer of the sacred in Brazilian society is identified with the image of a wanderer who goes from church to church, cult to cult, and miracle to miracle, trying to confer transcendental meaning on his life and a sense of belonging to a community which helps him to achieve this goal. Simultaneously, data reveal that in this search, the principle according to which a given religion is violated if forms and/or contents of rituals and cults pertaining to other religions are added on or mixed together is no longer relevant. On the contrary, what is observed is a religion that is created in the image of and similar to the believer, and not as a result of an external structure, efficacious in imposing a sole view of religion, considered "the absolute truth." (8)

This "religious nomadism," is a characteristic expression of Brazilian contemporary religion, and is much in evidence among the ba'alei teshuvak of Sao Paulo, not in the mixture of Judaism and other religions and/or religious cults, (9) but rather in the difficulty these new Orthodox Jews face in affiliating themselves to a given Jewish religious stream. Migrations from one congregation to another are frequent as well as the incorporation of customs and distinctive marks of several of these simultaneously.

The statement made by one ba'al teshuvah's mother is illustrative, and expresses the real life experience of dozens of people with whom I have spoken in the past two years:

My son is not radical! …

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