Hid­den Heretics: Jew­ish Doubt in a Dig­i­tal Age

By – August 17, 2020

In Hid­den Heretics: Jew­ish Doubt in The Dig­i­tal Age, Ayala Fad­er, a pro­fes­sor of anthro­pol­o­gy at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty, offers a dig­i­tal and anthro­po­log­i­cal analy­sis of those who have bro­ken from Hasidis­m’s ide­o­log­i­cal under­pin­nings but have not left its phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty. Fader’s vol­ume is part of Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty’s Stud­ies in Cul­ture and Tech­nol­o­gy series.

Fad­er fol­lows the reli­gious jour­neys of a few such indi­vid­u­als, and sum­ma­rizes soci­o­log­i­cal and reli­gious fac­tors in loss of reli­gious belief over the past two hun­dred years. Fad­er offers a respect­ful view of those strug­gling to lead dou­ble lives” as they expe­ri­ence life-chang­ing doubt” about their Ultra-Ortho­dox reli­gious beliefs. As doc­u­ment­ed in the book, the past two decades, in con­trast to pre­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal eras, have allowed for those who oth­er­wise would be alone in their reli­gious strug­gles to build what Fad­er deems secret worlds;” ini­tial­ly they came togeth­er through blog­ging, and now they use social media and What­sApp groups as they express anx­i­ety, tell self-dep­re­cat­ing jokes, crit­i­cize author­i­ty fig­ures, and offer com­fort to fellow-doubters.

Fad­er weaves togeth­er anthro­po­log­i­cal the­o­ry with in-per­son obser­va­tions. She built a net­work of dou­ble lif­ers” who allowed her to observe their gath­er­ings, par­take in their oth­er­wise closed What­sApp chats and Face­book groups, and even attend their weddings.

While much cov­er­age and even award-recog­ni­tion has fol­lowed those who have left the Hasidic fold — such as Shulem Deen, a 2015 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award win­ner who blurbed Fader’s book — Fader’s account offers a con­tin­u­um of doubters, and their dynam­ics with friends, spous­es, lovers, ther­a­pists, and rab­bis. Read­ers are giv­en insights into the minds of those nav­i­gat­ing ten­sions between moder­ni­ty and meso­rah (tra­di­tion), from Yid­dish blog­ging to side­locks hid­den under base­ball caps. Fader’s exam­i­na­tions of indi­vid­u­als wrestling with their indi­vid­ual auton­o­my, mar­i­tal moral quan­daries, strength of their friend­ships, and par­ent­ing dilem­mas as they attempt to find their way in a world both with­in and beyond the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty are at once heart­break­ing and heartwarming.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions

Exchang­ing a Man­hat­tan professor’s garb for a field­work out­fit of a long skirt, stock­ings, and a hat, anthro­pol­o­gist Ayala Fad­er spent five years talk­ing with ultra-Ortho­dox men and women lead­ing dou­ble lives. Unlike those who have gone off the derech,” aban­don­ing their reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties, these adults have expe­ri­enced life-chang­ing doubt” about their faith yet remain most­ly out­ward­ly obser­vant. But behind closed doors, where com­put­er screens glow, they have dis­cov­ered alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ties, inter­act­ing with like-mind­ed souls on social media. Hid­den Heretics widens the cir­cle of those impact­ed by the dou­ble lif­ers. Rab­bis and ther­a­pists pathol­o­gize their doubts. Par­ents, spous­es, and chil­dren are changed by liv­ing with them. Fader’s brisk nar­ra­tive and first-rate schol­ar­ship uncov­er an impor­tant dimen­sion of New York City’s fastest-grow­ing Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. The book makes a stun­ning con­tri­bu­tion to Amer­i­can Jew­ish stud­ies and to the study of doubt and obser­vance in all religions.