By: Amara Overmyer
What happens when the faith you have built your life upon is no longer an absolute truth? In her most recent research project, Dr. Ayala Fader of Fordham’s Anthropology department studied ultra-Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn and Upstate New York who reject the idea that the Torah is the word of God, the foundational belief of their religion. This is a hidden community of people attempting to navigate two worlds — one in which they practice a faith they no longer believe in, and another in which they come to terms with this loss of faith by finding others like them.
United States Jewish Orthodoxy is, in general, about a commitment to observing the 613 mitzvahs that Jewish law supports. These ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah is the word of God given to the Jews at Mount Sinai. People in the community must follow these texts exactly. Thus, their lives are shaped entirely by these beliefs. Most attend schools only within the community, rarely attend college, and participate minimally in entertainment. Recently, their internet has been filtered, granting them less access to the outside world. They call this restriction fencing off. However, this is not to say that they are an isolated people. While they are committed to living amongst themselves and boosting their community, ultra-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. also participate heavily in the country’s political and economic affairs.
Fader’s interest in the hidden heretics of New York was first sparked by ex-Hasidic bloggers who had left the community. She realized after interviewing these bloggers that a group of non-believers existed who still lived and practiced the faith within the community. The dissenters, Fader observed, called themselves “hidden heretics” — bahaltena apokorsim in Yiddish. She explains that there are two types of doubts: doubt that “defines belief and faith” and the doubt these hidden heretics experienced, known as life-changing doubt — a doubt in “the basic narrative of [one’s] religion.” The religion that they were taught from birth, which they have followed in every aspect of their lives, is torn out from under them when this doubt sets in. It becomes increasingly difficult for them to continue practicing publicly, but they must in order to remain hidden. They live double lives in their devoutly religious communities, unable to leave due to marriage and familial ties.
Fader found that even within the community of hidden heretics, men and women have very different experiences. Men in their 20s and 30s who face this life-changing doubt experience depression due to loss of their most foundational beliefs. However, the devastation becomes more manageable when they meet other hidden heretics online and connect with them to explore New York and break commandments together. Women, unlike men, experience far more anger than devastation. They have less freedom after marriage than their husbands — they do not work or drive, since their role is at home, taking care of the children. These women, so restricted in their daily lives, are enraged that they have given up so much for a religion they no longer believe in. However, despite restrictions, the internet serves as a social platform for men and women alike, albeit at different levels, to both the outside world and to other heretics like them.
In the digital age, it plays an essential role in showing that they are not alone in their loss of belief, however isolated they may feel from devout ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Seeing as the ultra-Orthodox community is so tightly knit and wary of outsiders, it was not easy for Fader to make her way in. She had some connections from her previous research project, but it was essential to gain the trust of heretic groups as well. Her research began online, with communications on public forums and chat rooms, which led to in-person interviews. With time, her network of friends made a WhatsApp group for her which mirrored their own so that she could ask questions and stay up to date. Fader attended public events, such as anti-internet rallies for women, and was even invited to some private events.
This is the nature of participant observation in anthropological fieldwork. She became an active part of the community; she was invited to join and accepted into it, while always making her presence known so that they were aware of her observation. In the end, Fader’s greatest obstacle was not access to the people, but ensuring that they remained completely anonymous. She explains that there is constant anxiety within the community about “heretics lurking among us,” which tends to surround said heretics with a negative image. They were often eager to be in contact with Fader in hopes that an academic like herself could present them as ethical people in a sympathetic way. However, the stakes were high for Fader as far as keeping their identities a secret. Even the smallest detail could expose them, in which case Fader would be asked to omit their interview, and other information involving them, from her data.
The influence of ultra-Orthodox Judaism on those who were raised in the community is a powerful one. It is often easier for the family and friends of heretics to believe that there is something pathologically wrong with someone than to believe that they are experiencing life-changing religious doubt. In this way, the community always has its members’ best interests in mind — a pathological problem can be fixed, a loss of faith cannot. Fader continues to be involved with her previous connections, still actively receiving messages in her WhatsApp group about how they are doing and now, how they are handling the current pandemic in their conservative home environments. Fader, while not an ultra-Orthodox Jew, is a Jewish New Yorker who hoped that her shared background with the hidden heretics might lend itself to her research. In the end, she stated that she was “shocked by their differences,” yet still she was able to form bonds that remain intact to this day.
Dr. Ayala Fader’s most recent book, Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age, is on reserve as an e-book at the Fordham Library.