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The Charedi Marranos who live a secret life of doubt

Hidden Heretics – Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age, Ayala Fader, Princeton University Press, £25

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In 2012, 40,000 Charedi men and boys packed the Citi Field stadium in New York. The venue’s unusual crowd had not come to watch a baseball match. They had assembled for a rally against the dangers of the internet.

As Ayala Fader records in her new book, the world wide web has become the nisoyan hador, the challenge for this generation, a communications revolution that has enabled members of the strictly Orthodox community to circulate ideas its leaders regards as inimical.

It has led some to go OTD, off the derech [path], abandoning the community for secular freedom, as portrayed in the recent Netflix series Unorthodox. Others have remained within the community but retained their sceptical views, linking up with other like-minded men and women via social media— the bahaltena apikorsim, the “hidden heretics” who are the subject of Professor Fader’s fascinating research.

For some, dissent lay in coming to see the stringencies of strictly Orthodox society as merely a lifestyle choice rather than theological necessity. But others went further, doubting whether the Torah was truly the word of God or even whether there was a God.

One man’s questions began in yeshivah as a teenager when he was troubled by the commandment to wipe out the Amalekites. Eventually, he became more pluralist in his outlook: “the Torah could be like Reconstructionist Judaism, that keeps mitsves because it is their culture and that is believing in the Torah as well,” he said. One rabbi had his moment of reverse revelation after attending a lecture by the high priest of contemporary atheism, Richard Dawkins.

Some of these self-styled “Marranos” have remained in the community for the sake of their families, women fearing losing custody of their children if they moved away. Others felt trapped by a limited secular education which prevented their exit into the wider world.

Presenting a strictly Orthodox front in their local communities, they expressed their true selves in blogs or Facebook posts, or in meetings with fellow-apikorsim in non-kosher cafés, removing wigs or hats, or in alternative Purim parties. The internet, Professor Fader wrote, “has created possibilities for those leading double lives to find each other and build secret worlds together”.

Alarmed, Chasidic rabbis, though they could not ban the internet altogether, tried to restrict its use to business use. If men did not always prove receptive to the message, they appealed to women to heed it as guardians of the sanctity of home.

The author, who describes herself as a “mostly secular Jewish anthropologist”, offers more than an academicstudy. There are poignant stories of struggle to compromise with a still-traditional spouse and keep the family together. One religious counsellor explained how a couple agreed for the mother would recite Kiddush at the Friday night family table on (as the father’s disbelief was taken to exclude him from performing the mitzvah).

Some suspected of unorthodox ways braved threats to expel their children from school. Some adopted “flexible morals”, like Blimi and Moishy, double-lifers who supported each other in an extra-marital relationship for several years. “We’ve taken crazy risks together, an insane amount of risks, but you live once,” Moishy said.

Some faced the dilemma of how far to influence their children. Chavi told her children not to refer the cleaning lady as the goyte, explaining that it was “not nice” to use the term “goy”. But that example touched on the disturbing broader question of what actually children were being taught in some Charedi schools.

At one point, Fader notes that “ultra-Orthodox Judaism was based on the assertion of an innate superiority of the Jewish people; only the Jewish people have the nefesh elohi (Godly soul).” One Chasidic double-lifer, Leyzer, protested, “Stop telling me that goyim are all pigs and wanna kill me.” How prevalent such views are remains the task of another study.

Another troubling aspect documented by Fader is a tendency within the rabbinic establishment to view doubt as a symptom of emotional ill health. Chavi was prescribed mediation for bipolar disorder — a diagnosis that shocked another psychiatrist she consulted. The second psychiatrist, who had seen a number of double-life clients, felt they had been “pathologised in a deeply serious way” and “medicated up the wazoo.”

Estimates of the extent of hidden heresy range from a few hundred to tens of thousands. Whether they will turn out to be a small, fringe phenomenon with little impact on evolving Charedi society, or a vanguard that presages significant changes n the decades ahead, that we cannot yet know.

But Fader concludes, “Although double lifers and their explorations remain might remain secret, in the intimacies of domestic life, even subtly, they could not help but effect change in all kinds of unpredictable ways.”

 

Hidden Heretics – Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age, Ayala Fader, Princeton University Press, £25

 

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