Leaving Orthodoxy, Again

Losing faith in Orthodox Judaism is an old story. But today it’s often the “heretics” who rely on faith, and the “faithful” who draw on science.

Although in a sense, I was one myself, I didn’t know who the maskilim were until graduate school. In seminars on the history of Jewish literature, my Berkeley classmates were put off by these long-dead yeshiva boys gone bad, who were followers of the Haskalah, the 18th- and 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment. But although these maskilim were a sad lot, I envied them the collective character of their rebellion. And I devoured their stories: secret heretics smoking cigarettes behind closed doors on Friday nights in Eastern European towns, debating the fine points of socialism or free love in Talmudic sing-song.

The envy came from what connected us and what differentiated us: my own flight from the ultra-Orthodox world—at 18—had been much more solitary, and I took my companionship where I could find it. I left in the late ’70s, during the sudden arrival in our community of a wave of “born-again” secular Jews, in wide-eyed pursuit of the spiritual beauty and authenticity they saw in traditional Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox door swung open for them; in the confusion, a few of us slipped out.

Ayala Fader’s Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age aroused some of those same old longings. This time, however, I wasn’t identifying with those who had preceded me “off the path” a century or two ago but rather with those who came after. Losing faith in the Orthodox world is an old story, repeating itself in generation after generation; Fader’s book is about what such defection looks like in the 21st century. “Until recently,” she writes, “ultra-Orthodox Jews experiencing the kind of life-changing doubt that Yisroel [a Hasidic young man whose story opens the book] did had trouble finding others like themselves”; the internet “created new possibilities for those living double lives to find each other and build secret worlds together.” Likewise, it’s only in the past few years that I’ve found something of a community on off-the-derech (path) social media, where I get to speak “OTD”: a sociolect that combines (in its ideal, shorthand form) esoteric Orthodox references with impiety, satire, rage, and loss. Despite its medieval ring, heresy and the community’s response to it are part of the present digital moment.

The social media groups that I now frequent typically include some closeted heretics—that is, people still within the Orthodox community—instantly recognizable by their transparently fictional screen names. These “double lifers” send dispatches from the heart of the old neighborhoods (Borough Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Monsey, Lakewood, and so on). For myself, decades distant, it remains a persistent source of relief that I managed to leave before marriage and children might have complicated the escape. It is this very predicament that shapes the lives of the “double lifers” Fader interviewed.

If secular ethnographers are sometimes impelled by the search for community, for “thick” cultures and intricate social networks, then Fader has zeroed in on something juicy indeed. She reveals a “secret” community hidden within an “insular” community, a transgressive sub-subculture within a patriarchal subculture, with distinctive practices and discourses overlaid on other distinctive practices and discourses, and with a keen self-consciousness about its own place in Jewish history.

If ultra-Orthodox Jews occasionally let their modernity show, the heretics in their midst are sometimes surprisingly traditional.

Unlike those ethnographies that visit one familiar “traditional” touchstone after another—the Hasidic court, the Sabbath table, the yeshiva, the marriage canopy—Hidden Heretics provides a view of contemporary ultra-Orthodox life from a series of unexpected angles and tucked-away corners. Some chapters describe living rooms where Fader parties with defectors and “double lifers” away from the eyes of neighbors, in mutual curiosity about what constitutes the life of a defector, a double lifer, or a professor. And much of the research takes place in the internet-chat groups where freethinkers find support and conversation partners, and act as full participants in and critics of Fader’s research.

In one episode documenting the efforts of religious authorities to control internet use, Fader describes putting on the modest outfit she wore to conduct previous fieldwork on ultra-Orthodox women (which culminated in the 2009 Mitzvah Girls) to participate in a 2015 anti-internet event at which women were encouraged to exchange their smartphones for kosher flip phones: an ultra-Orthodox variation on gun-buyback programs.

And Fader introduces her readers (by means of a glossary) not only to the lingua franca of Orthodox life (mitzva [plural, mitsves]: “commandments”) but also, more specifically, to the English/Yiddish/Yinglish sociolect of its secret heretics. This part of the lexicon includes maskil and ofgeklert (open-minded, enlightened), in their double signification: these somewhat high-flown terms of opprobrium have been used by Orthodox intellectuals to describe their historical rivals, my beloved maskilim. So, in turn, these terms have been reclaimed by the heretical blogosphere, for the ironic purpose of constructing a “distinguished lineage” to rival more normative Orthodox varieties.

This discourse swings low as well as high: Fader includes in her glossary the Tuna Baygel, which refers—to abbreviate Fader’s wonderfully detailed definition—to an ultra-Orthodox Jew who tries to blend into the non-Jewish world by dressing less conspicuously Hasidic, but whose “true Hasidic background, with limited English fluency, is exposed when he orders a tuna salad sandwich on a bagel, using the Hasidic Yiddish pronunciation to say ‘baygel’ [with ‘ay’ pronounced like ‘i’ in ‘fine’] instead of ‘bagel.’” This is pretty inside baseball—Fader knows her people, even if their own families sometimes do not.


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The story that opens Hidden Heretics is about Yisroel, a young married “earnestly pious” Hasidic man who begins to experience radical religious doubt. His life reaches a crisis point when the local modesty committee, having discovered that he had purchased a book about science for his daughter, correctly suspects that he has been reading secular material on the internet. As a result, the committee asks him “to sign a contract promising he would stop using any social media.” When he refuses on the grounds that he was “following his conscience,” the committee threatens to have his children expelled from their school, unless he and his wife agree to seek religious therapy.

Fader gets all this right: Yisroel’s passionate defense of his right to choose what to believe, the modesty committee, the use of school-admission policies to enforce social control (and the power of the marriage market to do similar work), and the recourse to religious therapy. The Orthodox world meets the challenge of a discourse of freedom of conscience with not only modesty patrols but also religious therapists.

Both sides, that is, speak the language of modernity: according to Fader, Orthodox communities are responding to secularist threats with tools adopted from evangelical syntheses of faith and therapy. These modern tools view doubt as psychological disturbance and “treat” it by delving into the “emotional and interpersonal dynamics” that obstruct faith. In such thinking, faith is cast as the healthy or default human condition. (Fader does not say this, but the recent Orthodox Jewish emphasis on “faith” rather than proper practice may also reflect the influence of Protestant norms.)

If ultra-Orthodox Jews occasionally let their modernity show, the heretics in their midst are sometimes surprisingly traditional. Against the therapeutic interventions—which, at their worst, equate religious doubt with mental illness—Fader’s double lifers claim both the Enlightenment mantle of “freethinkers” and the traditional theological language of heresy.

The chasm that separates the ultra-Orthodox and secular worlds obscures some of what connects them.

Unlike the internet, psychological approaches to religious skepticism were a part of my own experience. In fact, one Orthodox therapist my parents sent me to had a column in the local paper about “at-risk youth,” in which I once made a brief, anonymized appearance.

In her chapter “The Treatment of Doubt,” Fader visits the offices and scans the bookshelves of the life coaches, spiritual mentors, religious therapists, and rabbis who specialize in, deal with, and attempt to “cure” ultra-Orthodox skeptics. The treatment of doubt seems to have become—like so many other aspects of Orthodox life—more organized and ramified since my own travels through it. That said, Fader also describes these therapists and counselors as complicated people, seeking ways to reconcile sympathy for their clients and their professional training (to the extent that they have it) with the roles they are called on to fill by the Orthodox community.

I saw myself how this might work: the last therapist my family saw during those years, as bearded and religious-looking as the previous ones, told us that he didn’t see therapy as appropriate for us. This was because our main problem was that I didn’t want to be frum (religious), and everyone else wanted me to. As he saw it, he said, that was more of a theological than a psychological issue. It would be a few more years before I made my move, but that therapist’s words were what set me free.

Orthodox Jews who begin to doubt religious truths thus have a complicated struggle. On the one hand, they must wrestle with religious and philosophical questions; on the other, they must struggle to understand and own the meaning of that questioning. And they must do so against Orthodox framings that often (but not always) view doubt as a response to trauma, addiction, or abuse, and defectors as weak-willed materialists, hedonists, assimilationists, or traitors.


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These categories all operate differently for boys and girls, men and women. Fader discovers much fellowship between heretical men and women. But for all that, gender, which organizes so many dimensions of life in strictly segregated ultra-Orthodox communities, also determines which paths men and women might take away from normative belief and practice. (Fader suggests that class status, too, plays a part in who discovers within themselves the freedom and means to transgress.)

Ultra-Orthodox (and particularly Hasidic) boys and men, thanks to differences in educational structure, are less fluent in English than their female counterparts. But these men will typically have more freedom and time as adults, which they might use to explore heretical community.

Moreover, the very category of heresy, highlighted in the title of Fader’s book, more easily embraces men than women. As Fader underscores, religious skepticism in women, who are taught to defer to fathers, husbands, and teachers in the realm of belief and observance, is more typically read by the community as psychological disturbance or sexual threat.

It is a painful irony that a similar gender divide is emerging in the OTD world, if I can judge by the cover designs of books that recount experiences of leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. This genre of memoir was launched centuries ago by such male Jewish enlighteners as Salomon Maimon (1753–1800). For its first century, it included almost exclusively male writers.

Women are by now overrepresented among such memoirists. Even so, their participation has not entirely shifted the gendered assumptions that govern both Orthodox and secular discourses. These assumptions maintain that men leave the traditional Jewish world on a philosophical journey while constraining girls and women to a departure that is widely understood, and graphically rendered by book designers, as a sexual passage.

Orthodox Jews who begin to doubt religious truths must wrestle with religious and philosophical questions. They must also struggle to understand and own the meaning of that questioning.

Not only gender conditions the shape that “life-changing doubt” will take among Fader’s secret heretics. Fader expresses some regret that, in blurring the identities of her participants to keep their secrets safe, she loses something of the specificities of their religious affiliations.

These specificities are enormously consequential in shaping ultra-Orthodox ways of living and thinking. For instance, English fluency, of obvious relevance in opening channels of information or escape, varies not only between men and women but also among different Hasidic and non-Hasidic groups. The hidden heretics continue to live in what outsiders call a “close-knit” or “insular” community. But insiders know this is no singular “community” at all. Instead, at best, it is a fractious and variegated set of neighborhoods, in which “minor differences” play major roles.

Still, the loss here of Fader’s usual fine-grained detail may be a small price to pay for safeguarding the anonymity of her double lifers. What counts for both Fader and her interlocutors is their character as distinct individuals, whose heresy makes absolutely clear that their identities cannot be reduced to their membership in whatever group may seem to claim them.

Here, too, the chasm that separates the ultra-Orthodox and secular worlds obscures some of what connects them. Indeed, the failure of their own communities to allow these individuals a choice about what to believe and how to live is curiously mirrored by the failure of the surrounding society to imagine ultra-Orthodox Jews as distinct individuals. Their portrayal in popular media as a single bloc—signified in visual media by the (male) shorthand of Hasidic “garb”—leaves little space to imagine the interior self within this garb. Nor does it allow the imagining of a subjectivity that diverges in such consequential ways from outward performances and external indicators.

I hazarded earlier that what ethnographers and their readers might be aiming for is a recovery of (a fantasy of) lost community. My own belated recovering of OTD community a few years ago was complicated by my timing. I discovered OTD social media just as what could be called a #MeToo moment was shaking up this community (a few months earlier than the larger movement). And the stories were no surprise, in retrospect, given how poorly Orthodoxy equips men and women to interact with each other, how it depicts the secular world as an orgy of license and lust, how its own focus on female modesty works to sexualize women.

The upshot was (along with new programs in consent by Footsteps, a social-service organization that helps OTD individuals) that new and better-vetted social media groups sprang up; one was called “OTD Sisterhood.” Just my luck, to have this community divide along sexual lines (along those old sexual lines, I couldn’t help feeling) just as I was joining.

But maybe what makes Fader’s book so compelling a read is not the flavor and fantasy of community, which works even on people like me, who should know better. Maybe what draws us is what she discovers in this community within a community: the heroic individual of reason, freedom, and science.

Hidden heretics, as belated figures of the European Enlightenment, are misfits not only in their own communities. They don’t fit also within the postsecular and postcolonial academic culture in which Fader shares their stories. This culture—secular as it still mostly is—at least pays respectful lip service to religious difference, to religious faith and practice, having dethroned once regnant assumptions about secularism, reason, and individual autonomy or exposed them as facades for Western imperialism and a sham universalism.

Might the satisfaction provided by Hidden Heretics derive less from its travels through esoteric worlds than from what it finds there, the heroic and enlightened self, entangled in but not reducible to family and community? For Fader’s readers, is religious skepticism (the book’s own included) redeemed by being clothed in Hasidic garb?


This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke. icon

Featured-image photograph by Zoltan Tasi / Unsplash