Ayala Fader on her book, Hidden Heretics

Interview by Yzza Sedrati


Yzza Sedrati:   What led you to divide the book in two? And what or who is the book in conversation with? 

Ayala Fader: Thanks Yzza! It’s great to be in conversation with you. Hidden Heretics is about a crisis of authority among ultra-Orthodox Jews, and this crisis that connects Part I and 2, though each focuses on different aspects of the crisis. Many of the same folks I spent time with thread through both parts of the book, but I wanted to lay out the technological, cultural, theological, and historical context for what the community called, “a crisis of emine (faith).” Part 1 (Chapters 2-3) accounts for the changes that digital media brought to ultra-Orthodox communities in the US. Specifically examining the affordances digital media offered those with religious and cultural questions, how rabbinic leadership responded, and how those with what I call “life-changing doubt” began to use digital media to create a heretical counterpublic to the ultra-Orthodox religious public sphere. My interlocutors explicitly connected their experiences in New York to what they saw as a parallel moment in 18th century Europe when influenced by the Enlightenment, there were similar struggles over Jewish Orthodoxy and authority sparked by a then-new technology, the printing press and the circulation of print-media, which afforded opportunities for sharing heretical ideas across time and space. In ultra-Orthodoxy today, many men with life-changing doubt even called themselves, maskilim (Jewish enlighteners), the same term used in the 18th century to refer to those with Enlightenment-influenced ideas.

The second half of the book (Chapters 4-7) turns to the arc of gendered doubting and its implications for families, friendships and marriages. These chapters analyze the everyday lives of those who described themselves as “hidden heretics” or living “double lives”: men and women who experienced life-changing doubt but decided to remain in their communities to protect those they loved. Part 2 follows the course of life-changing doubt, from secret violations of commandments, to discovery by a spouse, and even sometimes expulsion from their communities by rabbinic leadership. The course of life-changing doubt affected marriages in different ways, with women having fewer resources and options than men. I followed those living double lives as they secretly explored new ways of being with friends and lovers without ever fully embracing the secular. I also learned about the frum (religious) psychologists, who were often called in to help when someone’s double life was found out. Frum therapists often pathologized religious doubt even as they tried to help those suffering from depression and anxiety that doubting frequently dragged with it. In the final chapter, I explore how double lives impacted parenting, children and extended families, which was particularly complex and poignant.

The overarching theoretical argument I make in the introduction is about the importance of ethnographically studying religious doubt in the anthropology of religion. Attention to doubt, questioning, and failure is a recent turn and complements the study of piety. Within this, I aimed to recuperate belief into a lived religion approach, not as a private interior state, but belief as practiced intersubjectively with others. In my analysis of doubt, I defined two different kinds: the doubt that is part of and refines faith/belief and the doubt that disrupts faith, what I called “life-changing doubt.” Drawing on the experiences of those living double lives, where belief and practice were at odds, life-changing doubt presented as a continuum, from theological doubts of different kinds to doubts about the legitimacy of contemporary ultra-Orthodox social institutions and leadership. Life-changing doubt had many reasons, expressions, and implications and was experienced differently depending on gender.

Each successive chapter embeds a distinctive theoretical argument within the broader framework of doubt, integrating literatures on gendered publics, media, and ethics. I drew literatures that are less often in conversation especially in the the study of Orthodox Jews and Judaism. For example, Chapters 2, 3, and 6 all engage with religion and media scholarship to show both how media and mediation can disrupt religious authority, as well as how digital literacies can change language varieties.  Chapter 5, in contrast, tracks how a new epistemology (religious therapy) evolved among Orthodox Jews and was frequently leveraged in communal attempts to reframe life-changing doubt as a form of mental illness. Chapters 4 and 7 consider anthropology of ethics scholarship, arguing for a re-orientation to families linked through ties of obligation and affect, rather than focusing on the individual autonomous subject of philosophy. This chapter also emphasizes including children and teens in our studies of ethics, rather than the theoretically autonomous adults of much of the literature.

Yzza Sedrati: The internet/social media is continuously re-defined throughout the book, and its meaning is complicated by the fact that it is at once a medium carrying content and site of study. Can you explain what were the challenges of studying the internet and social media, and how you understand these multiple and competing meanings?

Ayala Fader:: I charted a dramatic change over a decade: rabbinic leadership’s understanding about the dangers of “the internet” (meaning all digital media) went from concern over the medium’s content to the medium itself. This distinction between content and the medium is of course an ongoing methodological and theoretical tension in ethnographic studies of digital media. Hidden Heretics addresses these tensions by considering the internet (blogs and later social media) in the broader media ecology, including print, telephony, etc., which all showed how ultra-Orthodox semiotic ideologies about media and mediation changed for leadership. In contrast, for those with life-changing doubt, digital media was a lifeline because it connected them to others in similar positions and reassured them that they were not “crazy.” Digital media offered access to forbidden bodies of knowledge such as biblical archeology and created friendships that moved to in-person meetings. The meaning of digital media then not only changed over time, but it was struggled over by different groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

My methodology emerged from the research, from my efforts to account for what I was observing and participating in, which is not unusual. If all interaction is mediated, then research that crosses among media of different kinds is critical. These are much more than methodological issues, though. They are ethical ones about access and representation, as well as competing ideas of publicity and accountability.  This has become especially pressing in the pandemic, when for so many, online ethnography or digital anthropology has been the only option. Theoretically, we may have to reconsider what constitutes fieldwork, as well as explore how the folks we work with form networks of friends, family, lovers, across spaces and technologies.

Yzza Sedrati: The second part of the book sheds light on the worlds of double-lifers. You explain that we need to look at the unofficial, intimate/private spheres to understand double life because the moral responsibility to choose between two lives invokes these different binaries. 1) Can you explain how social spheres are refracted through morality and what it means to study moral choices ethnographically? What are the different interpretations of choice for double lifers (in relation to liberalism) and for ultra-Orthodoxy?

Ayala Fader: Great questions!  Living as a hidden heretic was by default living in two different worlds simultaneously or having at least two very different lives. This separated private belief, public religious Orthodox practice, and secret experimentation that often broke Jewish law. What intrigued me most was hidden heretics’ ongoing struggles to make ethical judgements. They explicitly wanted to convince me and each other that despite the necessity for secrets and lies in the most intimate spaces of their lives, they were in fact making the most ethical choices, especially in contrast to those with similar life-changing doubts who ultimately left, what is called, “going OTD (off the derech or path).”  I built on the exciting work in the anthropology of morality and ethics, while shifting the focus from freedom to judgement and obligation, from the individual to gendered dynamics in families and among friends.

Those living double lives embraced what they termed “secular” values of pluralism, tolerance, autonomy, as lived through individual choice. For example, they wanted their children to be able to “choose” their futures, something they felt that Jewish Orthodoxy had no room for. At the same time, they didn’t want to get their children in trouble with school or with a still-religious parent. Competing ethical systems could be difficult, especially on teenagers who sometimes felt they had to protect themselves from the influence of their own parents. Similarly, I discuss the ethical dilemmas of frum (religious) therapists, who were often called on to treat those with life-changing doubt. Some therapists struggled between helping clients make choices and their own desires to see their clients remain as Orthodox Jews.

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