September 16, 2019

Leaving religious life: The ‘un-Orthodox’ path

The path between the secular world and highly observant Judaism is a two-way street. The baal t’shuvah travels in one direction, but he or she may be taking the place of someone who has abandoned Orthodoxy.  It is these so-called “defectors” whose lives are explored with color and compassion in Lynn Davidman’s “Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews” (Oxford University Press).

Davidman knows whereof she speaks. “By the time I was 13, I knew in my gut I had left Orthodox Judaism,” she writes by way of introduction. The fact that her mother died of cancer despite the Rebbe’s “special blessing” was the event that “created a tear in the sacred canopy that had sheltered and protected me,” Davidman explains. “From then on, I no longer believed in God, or in the religion in which I was raised.”

Now a professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of Kansas, Davidman has studied the phenomenon of which she is a part with academic rigor, but her scholarship is charged with empathy toward the “defector,” as she calls those who leave highly observant (or, as she puts it, Haredi) Judaism. She reveals, for example, that women raised in highly observant Jewish communities were given neither language nor knowledge about their own bodies with the result that they “suddenly found themselves bleeding ‘down there’ and thought something horrible was happening to them.” A married man is a patriarch according to the biblical example, and a married woman “is expected to be a dutiful wife and mother, caring for as many children as God blesses them with.”

Yet the human mind refuses to be constrained by law or tradition. “Haredi families, like all others, raise children who may question or even go against the families’ values and behavioral rules.”  Because they live in a community that does not tolerate, much less encourage, such questioning, “even the slightest deviations in Orthodox practice can deepen into a desire to leave.”  According to Davidman, the passage out of Orthodoxy can be likened to the experience of LGBT men and women: “I was always out,” recalls one young woman, “and my brothers were always closeted about it.”

Leave-taking, as we learn, is shattering and even revelatory event in their lives.  A young man named Sam was sent from Lakewood, N.J., to a yeshiva in Baltimore at the age of 17, a fateful decision of his parents. “If I had stayed in the seminary in Lakewood…, I would have had to take the business to the center of town,” he recalls. “In Baltimore, I walked everywhere.” What he saw was shattering: Newspapers, for example, television – I had never seen television before, never in my life.” Most corrosive of all, however, was Sam’s discovery of the public library, a repository of forbidden books.

Just as often, however, the disenchantment begins in the intimate family circle. A woman named Leah attributes her loss of faith to the secular cousins whom she encountered on family get-togethers. “They seem to have more interesting toys and more interesting candy than we did,” she explains. “And so everything about them made us doubt our brainwashing.”

And sometimes the insularity of an observant community worked to conceal outright abuse.  “No one in the community wants to hear whether you were neglected or beaten,” says Abby, a former Satmar woman. “And therapy is a stigma which will automatically scar you for life.”

Once on the path out of Orthodoxy, the first tentative steps might be too subtle for secular Jews to recognize. “My rebellious thing [was] talking to boys,” says Abby, who thereby violated the rule of strict modesty known as tzniyus. Adina went even further: “And one of my games was to touch the boys,” she explains. “I’d be like, ha-ha, I touched you, I awoke your urges!” For Binyamin, the first act of defiance was to read a Yiddish translation of a philosophical tract by Spinoza, which was regarded as “taboo and forbidden.”  For some, including the author, the biggest step was the first taste of something treyf. For Rachel, it was a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich: “As I was eating it, I was waiting to be…you know, the lightning to strike or something, and of course, the lightning didn’t strike.

Yet, in a way, lightning did strike. Suddenly, these men and women found themselves in a brave new world: “I just felt this void and this emptiness,” says Aliza. Then, too, they were mourning their former selves: “I did feel a great and very deep sense of loss,” Ehud says about the emotions occasioned by his first sampling of shellfish and pork.” But they were rewarded for their courage with new opportunities: “I longed to write, to study, and to be an intellectual,” says Rutie. Ultimately, as Davidman allows us to see, “Becoming Un-Orthodox” is a book about self-liberation and the sheer courage that one must have to achieve it.