Escaping Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

I wrote in my previous post about the creeping spread of fundamentalism in Israel and how ultra-Orthodox Jews are constantly pressing for special privileges and greater political power, even though they’re not willing to contribute to the upkeep of the state. The ultra-Orthodox are exempt from Israel’s mandatory military service, and as many as two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox men don’t work at all; they do nothing with their lives but study scripture, and get welfare payments from the state to do it.

In ultra-Orthodox communities, every waking moment of daily life is governed by a maze of rules invented by rabbis over the millennia. To better isolate themselves from the modern world, the haredim are forbidden to watch TV or movies, read secular newspapers, or use the Internet. As always, women suffer the most – they have no real autonomy or decision-making power, and are kept silent, segregated and invisible. (In one infamous incident, several ultra-Orthodox newspapers digitally altered photographs of the Israeli cabinet to censor out the female members.)

The accumulated weight of all that prohibition, all those centuries of dead words constricting everyday life, must be stifling. And yet, even among the suffocatingly insular world of the haredim, religious dogma and brainwashing doesn’t rule the day. Even among the ultra-Orthodox, there are people who see the light of reason – such as in this amazing story:

Yaanki and his wife Miri started questioning the path of the Jewish religion some three years ago, when Miri pointed out to her husband that he would believe in Christianity if he had been born Christian, and would believe in Islam if he had been born Muslim. “If so,” she asked him, “Why do we believe in Judaism without examining it?”

For months, Yaanki tried to answer this question. He looked through books, and corresponded with rabbis who specialize in bringing people back to the faith. When they stopped answering him, he connected his home computer to the Internet in hopes of finding answers. “Suddenly I discovered many contradictions. If up until then I had blind faith in the Bible and the Talmud, I suddenly realized it was a lie. I was completely shocked. I felt like a fool for wasting 25 years of my life, and until then I was considered a wise yeshiva student. I wasn’t one of those guys whose relationship with religion was by chance.”

Although in-the-closet atheists are a familiar phenomenon, the closet for these people is especially deep and secretive. Their religion literally is their life, far more so than is true even in America’s Bible Belt. The feeling of loss and dislocation must be enormous, yet some of them seem to have adapted surprisingly well.

“It was a crazy shock. After years of preparing to leave the faith, it happened abruptly. One minute I was religious, and the next, I wasn’t. Suddenly I came to the conclusion that there is no proof that religion is truth, while there is endless evidence that it is not truth. I remember the exact moment it hit me. It was when I found a pile of archaeological evidence on the Internet claiming that the description of the Exodus from Egypt was a lie. Then I realized that they were simply selling me lies…

Today I am sure that there is no God. And I don’t observe the mitzvoth anymore. I haven’t laid tefillin in a year now. I drink and turn on the light on Yom Kippur and use the internet on Shabbat. All in secret, of course.”

The article interviews several deconverts, and at least one of these stories ended in tragedy: one of the interviewees committed suicide because he felt so trapped and helpless, unable to tell anyone in his life the truth about himself. Considering that secular and humanistic versions of Judaism have a far more established place than in most other religions, I’m surprised by this. Then again, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of peer pressure to make a dissenter feel lonely and isolated, especially when they have to go to such lengths to hide their true selves from others:

At first, they would light candles to warm food on Shabbat, then they turned on lights. Later, they started to watch movies on the computer after the children went to sleep. “We didn’t have a television at home, so we watched movies on the computer with headphones, in case, heaven forbid, one of the neighbors would hear. We closed the windows, shut the blinds, and locked the children in their room so they wouldn’t wake up and find out,” Yaanki says.

What these people need more than anything is a safe place to land, a secular community where they can be their true selves without fear of reprisal. They need, too, to be made aware that they have kindred spirits out in the world, that there’s a life outside ultra-Orthodox Judaism. If the worldwide atheist community continues to grow, we may soon be able to offer that to them.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    … only if, like the brave people in your post, they think to do so. And yes, that is our biggest job — to be an example, a landing pad, a community.

  • Leum

    Fascinating story.

  • Eurekus

    On Friday morning I’m going to Indonesia for the first time in 10 years. I have friends whom are heavily in the throes of their religion over there. I hope I can talk reason to these people in a land where an atheist is thought of as being wicked. If only they could find a landing pad if reason wins out.

  • Scotlyn

    Lovely story. It goes to show, though, that religionists are right to shut down external sources of information as much as possible. To a mind questing for the truth, it may not require very much access to outside knowledge sometimes….

  • Benjamin

    One of the reasons it is so difficult for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Israel to break with the community is the Haredi education system. It is separate from the mainstream educational system, and involves study in yeshivas (traditional religious schools) in which no secular subjects are taught. This includes basic subjects like mathematics. As a result, adult Haredi Jews often have no basic skills and would be unable to support themselves economically outside the community. This is an enormous problem and the article only scratches the surface of it.

  • Valhar2000

    As a result, adult Haredi Jews often have no basic skills and would be unable to support themselves economically outside the community.

    Isn’t it strange that they have so much influence then? If the state quit paying them welfare they would have no money at all, and no way to get it, and then they would be unable to influence the government anymore, wouldn’t they?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I don’t think it’s strange, Valhar, because the one thing they are good at is rioting when they don’t get their way. No surprise that politicians often give in to them rather than be forced to deal with that. It also doesn’t help that ultra-Orthodox parties have tended to be the tie-breaking vote in closely divided parliaments.

  • Scotlyn

    Benjamin, I think your observations are spot on, and also that they have a wider application than you think. As the daughter of evangelical missionaries, I used to dread the jumped up begging tours we had to go on as children (known to anyone in that business as “furlough”). And there are huge numbers of people who similarly make their living by convincing church people to donate to “the work.” (To be fair, I think my parents dedicated themselves to “the work” sincerely, and that they have accomplished some actual good in the world other than proseletysing -sp?. But would they ever have been able to earn a living otherwise? I’m not sure – I know I’m not exactly excelling at making a living myself because I am hypersensitive about not wanting to have anything I’m not entitled to). You may correct me on this, Sarah, but I know a few Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I get the impression they are strongly discouraged from getting anything beyond a secondary level education, which leaves them badly suited to earn a living and become more mobile and more independent of their inward-looking communities. This may be why the control of education is turning into such an epic battlefield.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Scotlyn,

    Absolutely true. JWs are strongly discouraged from obtaining a higher education.

    This also plays into the subjugation of women. They are left with few options. And, makes it even more difficult for JWs to adjust to the outside world. (Also, it’s impossible to get fed financial aid unless you have documentation that one of your parents was abusive to the point that the authorities were involved — a restraining order, etc.. Fortunately, I had this. But, without it, and without a relationship with at least one parent who will sign financial aid forms — these kids are out of luck when it comes to being able to obtain a higher education of their own volition. Same is true for all kids coming out of abusive backgrounds — religiously abusive or otherwise. I think this is something that has to change. Education was my ticket out of hell. I know it is and could be for many other kids as well.)

    But, even the exposure to the outside from public high school seems to be enough to decimate the retention rate, which is why the other groups try to keep their kids out of public school.

  • Grimalkin

    I am so pleased that the first story has the wife asking the tough question – how wonderful! It’s a bit of an odd deconversion story, though. Wife asks the tough question, husband thinks about it and can’t come to an answer, couple is now non-religious. What about the wife’s deconversion? What about her reason for asking the tough question in the first place?

    Very strangely male-centric.

  • jane hay

    @ Grimalkin : Adam and Eve?

  • yisroel cohen

    I am an atheist chassidic guy who actually was born in a more moderately religious family on my search for the truth I became chassidic I got deeply involved and became integrated fully into the community but I wasn’t happy, I felt something was missing intellectually it just didnt make sense where’s the proof for an invisible force and why should i believe in it more than fairy’s….. I started watching debates on u tube in private obviously (cuz by the chaassidim its prohibited to use the internet and speaking English is also considered wrong) I then came across Richard dawkins and downloaded his audio book the god delusion and that was the beginning of the end i then went to a multitude of rabbis and organisations for answers but i was driven away by the more extreme ones and the other ones failed to answer the fundamental lack of proof the only sort of proof they had is that the world is to complex to have happened on its own but Richard dawkins addresses all these issues and i slowly realised that there are no answers and there is no god. I still dress chassidic because im stuck in the community and would be thrown out if i didn’t my job relies on it as well as all the kind of social standing that i’ve ever known i’m desperate for a way out but i see non heeeeeeeeeeeeelp!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!