Media reports on ultra-Orthodox Jews often describe them as a cohesive community with homogeneous religious practices, voting patterns, and adherence (or not) to coronavirus response policies. The recent hit Netflix series “Unorthodox” details the dire consequences afforded those who rebel. But a new book suggests that despite the risks involved in bucking convention, ultra-Orthodox communities are far less unified than commonly perceived.
In “Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age,” Fordham University anthropology professor Ayala Fader explores ultra-Orthodox Jews who question their faith and clandestinely share their views with other like-minded individuals, whether in online forums or at Thursday-night meetings in bars. The level of transgression ranges from questioning religious precepts to altering one’s appearance, to, in some cases, having an extramarital affair.
Fader interviewed 40 ultra-Orthodox Jews — 20 men and 20 women — who are living double lives: practicing religious observance in public but not in private. She also spoke with social workers, therapists, and rabbis who work to persuade dissenters to return to their faith — or at least keep them from leaving. In total, she interviewed over 100 individuals.
“My job is to have all of these pieces fit together into one coherent story,” Fader told The Times of Israel. “I don’t see any bad guys or good guys. It’s kind of a heartbreakingly difficult story for everybody involved.”
Written pre-pandemic, “Hidden Heretics” seems even more relevant today. It was released by Princeton University Press this summer, with a book launch on Zoom. Earlier this spring, Fader co-wrote a coronavirus-themed op-ed for The New York Daily News, “Why are some ultra-Orthodox Jews flouting social distancing rules?” The op-ed examined ultra-Orthodox community members who defied civically imposed social distancing early in the coronavirus response.
In a follow-up conversation, The Times of Israel asked Fader about hidden heretics’ attitudes toward the recent coronavirus spike and anti-lockdown protests in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of New York.
“Hidden heretics really reject the refusal to comply with the state,” she said. “They’re very critical of rabbis and rebbes. They’re very infuriated by the decision to keep schools open and to keep gathering for big events inside. They were critical back in the spring, and they’re even more critical now.”
Although she noted she cannot speak for all hidden heretics, she keeps up with members of a WhatsApp group she interviewed who are “real adherents to science, believe in science. They question the authority of rabbinic leadership. What many hidden heretics think, some described to me that they themselves always wear masks, their immediate family wears them, they socially distance, but people around them don’t do it.”
As Fader did not wish to jeopardize her interviewees’ relationships with their families and communities, she kept their identities anonymous in the book, with several composite characters.
“Most ethnographic texts don’t use real people’s names,” she said, adding that she realizes that even under the cover of anonymity, her interviewees were taking a risk. “I appreciate that. I’m very aware of that. I hope I did it justice and that no one’s anonymity was compromised,” she said.
In a sign of the risks faced by private doubters, over the course of Fader’s research, two interviewees were ostracized from their respective communities.
Virtual double lives
The book grew out of Fader’s previous look at the ultra-Orthodox community, “Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn,” which won a 2009 National Jewish Book Award in the Women’s Studies category.
While continuing her research, she was surprised to learn about individuals who had blogged about their dissenting views.
“I realized there is a whole other world online — people with life-changing doubt, living double lives,” Fader said.
I realized there is a whole other world online — people with life-changing doubt, living double lives
Fader, who is Jewish but not Orthodox, began reaching out to those posting in such online forums. After building up trust, she asked them to refer her to others.
At the time, in the early 2010s, the ultra-Orthodox leadership was roiled by the question of what role the internet should play in their communities. Some rabbis embraced the internet, but with restrictions. Others viewed it as worse than the Holocaust; Fader attended a massive anti-internet rally at New York’s Citi Field in 2012.
“There were a lot of public rallies,” Fader recalled, with such claims as “the internet would corrupt the Jewish soul with porn, and the other, kind of more sophisticated [charge that it was a] danger, an inappropriate mix of men and women but also the danger of like-minded people supporting each other.”
Throughout, ultra-Orthodox individuals secretly aired dissenting views about their faith in online forums. One of them — a blogosphere called JBlogs — “became this space,” Fader said, “for people with life-changing doubt to post about their own intellectual and emotional struggle, and interact in real-time with people.”
For almost all of her interviewees, it was not the internet where they made life-changing discoveries, it was library books. Fader found much doubt came from becoming aware of biblical criticism, archaeology and science.
However, the internet is having a direct impact in another way.
“Every person living a double life told me, ‘the internet makes me feel like I am not crazy, I’m not the only person that has these ideas,’” Fader said. “It’s a powerful feeling.”
While living a double life is hardly unique to these ultra-Orthodox doubters, what is new, said Fader, is the ability to remain within the community through the help of a secret online support group.
“There are others like you, and you sense others are questioning and can still be part of a family, an extended family, in a way you didn’t think you could before,” she said.
Talking about doubts ‘irl’
Some individuals eventually met with fellow doubters in real life to further push boundaries. The ways they “rebelled” included adopting a less traditional form of Yiddish, changing their physical appearances such as their clothing or hairstyle, exploring New York, coming together to explore familiar ultra-Orthodox times together like late at night on holidays, and learning recreational sports such as bicycling or skiing.
Every person living a double life told me, ‘the internet makes me feel like I am not crazy, I’m not the only person that has these ideas
Fader found there was an evolving range of transgressions, from clandestine texting on Shabbat to breaking other commandments. She found less experimentation with non-kosher food than perhaps expected, although she said it was an occasional rite of passage.
“It was almost like a test to try non-kosher food,” Fader said. “Everyone agreed that kosher food is delicious… I did not see many people trying exotic cuisine.”
In contrast, she said, “A lot of reading happened, reading and discussion, a lot of intellectual exploration.”
However some transgressions were more life-changing. Fader said that affairs could happen in marriages in which one spouse remained religious.
In speaking with people who had affairs, she found many were contemplative about their decisions.
“In some way, people living a double life are sacrificing themselves. They sacrifice the life they wanted to live by staying with their families,” she said. “A man might say, ‘I’m making this sacrifice, I’ll take a little happiness for myself. I’ll stay if I get a certain kind of happiness, romance, intellectual fulfillment,’” whereas it was “a struggle for a woman to be able to stay, a kind of balancing act.”
Fader described differences, in general, between men and women who decided to stay in a family despite their doubts about the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
She said that men experienced a kind of devastation and loss of their belief systems; although some cited a newfound freedom from suddenly feeling in charge of their lives, the majority felt sadness.
Women felt sadness as well, but also anger, Fader said: “They gave up so much for a system they no longer believe is true.”
Not in front of the children
Fader found that ultra-Orthodox leaders are aware that dissent exists, and that multiple professions in the community are trained to address it and more formal education is available.
“People either confessed doubt to their spouse or rabbi or relative, or they were found out and sent to a therapist, life coach, rabbi, activist,” Fader said.
In some cases, she said, such authorities could end up “pathologizing doubt into a mental condition” in order to “try to keep people in the fold [at] all costs.”
Some of her tougher interviews were with authorities such as rabbis, life coaches and community activists called askanim.
“They were worried I wouldn’t represent them fairly,” Fader said. “They were concerned about their image — especially with someone who is not an Orthodox Jew. They asked me right away. They did not want you to air their dirty laundry.”
She unexpectedly found that some dissent is tolerated as long as it is not passed onto future generations in a family.
“I think what really fascinated me was the degree of flexibility of the community,” Fader said. “I did not expect that.”
I think what really fascinated me was the degree of flexibility of the community
If people living double lives did not publicly flout rabbinic or communal expectations, they were allowed to remain within their communities. That changed if their children started to question, act out or become at risk of leaving.
“A huge piece of the puzzle is what happens to the children,” Fader said. “That’s what everybody is really concerned with… If your children are suddenly at risk, that’s the dealbreaker.”
For one individual she interviewed, his wife was encouraged to divorce him. He no longer has contact with his children.
“If you take your hat or wig off, your extended family discusses it,” Fader said. “You represent your whole family and community. You might be forced out — but very, very slowly.”
Fader considers possible terms that might characterize such dissenters, such as “Modern Hasidic” or “Hasidic Lite” — two emerging categories that people use themselves to describe a less stringent form of ultra-Orthodoxy that may be developing, she said. Yet even if such terms become popular, she wonders if many such individuals would be accepted in their home communities.
At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox have had an “incredible rate of growth. They’ve done so well here [in the US] after the Holocaust.”
Now, she said, there is “surprise and anxiety over people leaving, and self-examination among all the ultra-Orthodox” about Hasidic schooling, as some suggest kids are not allowed to question and there is too much emphasis on discipline and not enough on feeling close to God or spirituality.
“It’s kind of an interesting moment, and sort of a self-examination as well,” she said.