“The deepest disappointment of all (for the newly observant person) is in the discovery that observant Jews-the “bearers and keepers of the Torah”-are themselves frequently, not really interested in Torah!
The ba’al teshuvah hears the idle talk in the synagogue and sees the neglect of mitzvot both great and small, even in the narrow realm of ritual.
He finds that many of the people he has met in the synagogues and houses of Torah study lack any inner feelings for either prayer or study, and treat these as rote observances.
He finds an alarming degree of ignorance about Judaism itself.
Many of the men look like “rabbis” but turn out to be empty of either knowledge or interest in knowing more than they do.
The world of the observant is, all too often, a hollow one, devoid of fervor, learning, or even faith.
Naturally, such discoveries are profoundly unsettling.
Yet one must not get carried away with them so that one loses his sense of proportion.
One must remember, for example, that the religious community is made up of all kinds of people.
The ba’al teshuvah is by definition the product of a certain kind of self-selection.
One does not undertake a massive redirection in one’s life without a high degree of motivation, in this case, a strong attraction to Judaism.
Such is not necessarily the case with Jews born into observant families.
It is true that many of them, in some places the majority, are conscious and wholehearted in their commitment.
But for others, the Jewish way of life is simply a matter of inheritance, which they are too lazy to cast aside or to which they have not found a satisfying alternative.
Religious Jews, in other words, are an unselected group, in their views, their modes of behavior, and their levels of observance.
One finds among them the whole range of types–honest and dishonest, scrupulous and unscrupulous–to be found in any other unselected population.
Thus, generalizing about them on the basis of a few unpleasant experiences is hasty and misleading.
At the same time, one may legitimately ask how religious observance seems to have had no positive effect on these people, how all the time they have spent in the world of Judaism has not made them better people than they are.
In fact, observance usually does have a profound effect on those who adhere to it–witness the negative change in behavior common among those who leave their religious life–but it is not the only factor which determines their personalities.
Moral flaws exhibited by a religious individual simply reflect the inability of religion to overcome these qualities inherent in his character, not religion’s lack of effect upon him.
Indeed, were it not for the restraining influence of religion, might he not be a much worse person?”
From “The Observant Community.” p. 81-82, in Teshuvah by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz