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.

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About Adam Lee

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