Before and after: Shulem Deen as a Skverer Hasid, left, and a modern secular Jew. Photo at left courtesy of Shulem Deen; at right, by Pearl Gabel

A Chasid becomes a heretic

In 2005, at the age of 31, Shulem Deen was excommunicated from the Skverer Chasidic community of New Square, N.Y., where he lived with his wife and five children.

His crime? “Heresy.” Like in the Middle Ages.

In the early pages of his award-winning 2015 memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” he gives an accounting of his alleged medieval sins:

“I was speaking ill of the rebbe.

“I was no longer praying.

“I disparaged the Torah and the teachings of our sages.

“I was corrupting other people. Young people. Innocent people.

“In fact,” Deen wrote of the accusations of the beit din, “people were saying I had corrupted a yeshiva boy … so badly that the boy left his parents’ home, and … went to live with goyim in Brooklyn. It was rumored that the boy planned to attend college.”

To secular eyes, Deen’s tale of woe has elements of the ridiculous: Who wouldn’t want a child to get an education? But it is also tortuous, terrible and tragic. To leave religious life, Deen had to forsake everything and everyone he ever knew.

“It was a very difficult year, a very isolating year,” he said of his transition into the outside world. His nonconformity was so destabilizing that friends and family — including his five children — stopped wanting to see him. “I didn’t have anybody,” he told me.

When he recounts this traumatic chapter, Deen says he “left” the Chasidic community even though he was exiled, because, heretic or not, leaving is what he wanted; leaving was his choice.

“I wanted no more than a world in which I was not lying and hiding,” he writes in his memoir. “I wanted the freedom to simply be who I was, without fear or shame. When caught in a world where your very essence feels shameful, life turns into a feverish obsession with suppressing your true identity in favor of a socially accepted one.”

Who among us shares this same “heresy”? It is the experience of all those whose gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or skin color has deprived them of the right to live with dignity and truth. It is the heresy of individualism. Deen’s crime was that he placed his need for “the mystique of freedom” above family, above community and above tribe.

In a way, we’re all heretics, choosing our communities based on beliefs, politics and values considered anathema elsewhere.

During the Middle Ages, when rabbis were vested with full judicial authority in their communities, so-called heretics were at the mercy of rabbinic courts. Living in 21st-century America, Deen was free to leave totalitarian New Square for democratic Brooklyn without transgressing the law. But there were other consequences.

Outside of a system in which every aspect of existence pivots around community, Deen was plunged into a “soul-crushing solitude.” The modern world and its attendant freedoms —  newspapers, books, television, internet — presented strange, new choices, such as what to do for the first Shabbat on the outside, as if he had breached a prison wall.

“I had nothing to do Friday night and it was really, really depressing,” he said. “I reached out to a guy, not Jewish, who was a reader of my blog and sent him an email, ‘Hey, want to hang out?’ There was something uncomfortable in that for me because it came from a place of desperation, a place of need. I was desperate for contact.”

In New Square, Deen was lonely among the faithful. In Brooklyn, he was lonely with no faith at all.

In the decade since, he has reinvented his life. The support of Footsteps, an organization for frum Jews who leave their communities, was vital. Deen’s fluency in English helped him land a job as a computer programmer, though he gave that up to pursue writing. Still, his children refuse contact.   

Deen’s story is a subject of fascination among secular and religious Jews alike, many of whom are alien to the ways of the ultra-Orthodox. Although we glimpse them in Hancock Park and Borough Park, tell their tales and sing their songs, we don’t know them. And mostly, they don’t want to know us.

“The worst part about the isolation wasn’t that I didn’t know anyone,” Deen said. “It was that I wasn’t quite sure I was a normal person who could get to know someone. I had a feeling that I was different, almost literally an alien. So the idea that I could make friends was a question I had. It was about whether the possibility existed.”

His was the heresy of curiosity, of seeking difference. Questioning. Arguing. Not believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible. The things many of us consider definitional to our Judaism — intellectual life, civic engagement, biblical metaphor, encountering The Other — are apostasy for the Skverers.

In a way, we’re all heretics, choosing our communities based on beliefs, politics and values considered anathema elsewhere. We hide parts of ourselves we don’t want seen. We struggle in shame and in silence with secret heresies that we know others might not understand or accept. 

Yet most of us think, whether we’re believers or not, that by engaging with Jewish tradition we are doing God’s will. That by adhering to the wisdom of our tradition we are attaining, if not holiness, something close to wholeness. Even if our theological understanding demands a more expansive view of the God personified in the Bible, the ideals that God represents — goodness, kindness, mercy, wonder — are qualities we seek.

What would Jewish life look like without Judaism?

“Occasionally, I miss a rebbe’s tisch,” Deen said. “So I’ll put on a white shirt, a jacket and a yarmulke, and go to Borough Park on a Friday night. For nostalgic reasons. Sometimes I feel a little bit moved by it. There are certain experiences I want to connect to again.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Middle Ages and 21st Century Clashing

The following are excerpts from an interview with Wafa Sultan, an Arab American psychologist from Los Angeles. It aired on Al Jazeera TV on Feb. 21, 2006.

Wafa Sultan: The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality.

It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights on the one hand and the violation of these rights on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts and those who treat them like human beings. What we see today is not a clash of civilizations. Civilizations do not clash, but compete….

Host: I understand from your words that what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?

WS: Yes, that is what I mean….

Host: Who came up with the concept of a clash of civilizations? Was it not Samuel Huntington? It was not Bin Laden. I would like to discuss this issue, if you don’t mind….

WS: The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression. The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations. The Prophet of Islam said: “I was ordered to fight the people until they believe in Allah and His Messenger.”

When the Muslims divided the people into Muslim and non-Muslims and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash and began this war.

In order to stop this war, they must re-examine their Islamic books and curricula, which are full of calls for takfir and fighting the infidels. My colleague has said that he never offends other people’s beliefs. What civilization on the face of this earth allows him to call other people by names they did not choose for themselves?

Once he calls them Ahl Al-Dhimma, another time he calls them the “People of the Book” and yet another time he compares them to apes and pigs, or he calls the Christians “those who incur Allah’s wrath.”

Who told you they are People of the Book? They are not the People of the Book; they are people of many books. All the useful scientific books that you have today are theirs, the fruit of their free and creative thinking.

What gives you the right to call them “those who incur Allah’s wrath” or those who have gone astray, and then come here and say that your religion commands you to refrain from offending the beliefs of others?

I am not a Christian, a Muslim or Jew. I am a secular human being. I do not believe in the supernatural, but I respect others’ right to believe in it.

Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouli: ( a teacher at Al-Azhar University) Are you a heretic?

WS: You can say whatever you like. I am a secular human being who does not believe in the supernatural.

Al-Khouli: If you are a heretic, there is no point in rebuking you, since you have blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran.

WS: These are personal matters that do not concern you…. Brother, you can believe in stones, as long as you don’t throw them at me. You are free to worship whoever you want, but other people’s beliefs are not your concern, whether they believe that the Messiah is God, son of Mary — or that Satan is God, son of Mary.

Let people have their beliefs…. The Jews have come from the tragedy [of the Holocaust] and forced the world to respect them with their knowledge, not with their terror; with their work, not their crying and yelling.

Humanity owes most of the discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries to Jewish scientists. Fifteen million people, scattered throughout the world, united and won their rights through work and knowledge.

We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people.

The Muslims have turned three Buddha statues into rubble. We have not seen a single Buddhist burn down a mosque, kill a Muslim or burn down an embassy. Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies.

This path will not yield any results. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind before they demand that humankind respect them.

Translation from Arabic is courtesy of MEMRI: The Middle East Media Research Institute.