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.

Yoram Bilu on his book, With Us More Than Ever

Cover of With Us More Than Ever by Yoram Bilu


Interview by Yael Assor

Yael Assor: The book first came out in Hebrew and was then translated to English. I was wondering why did you decide to publish this book first in Hebrew, and why publish it in English at all? Are there any prominent differences between the Hebrew and English versions?

Yoram Bilu: All my books first came out in Hebrew.   Since I find it easier to write lengthy texts in my mother tongue, it would have been awkward not to look first for a local publisher.   But there is also ideology behind it.  Studying phenomena pertinent to Israeli society, I always felt obliged to give priority to local readership (papers are a different story).  This holds for this book as well, as It sheds light, among other things, on the peculiarly Israeli face of Chabad and on significant processes within Israeli society (for example, Mizrachim joining Ashkenazi-based Hasidic groups). At the same time, The messianic surge in Chabad is a golden opportunity to study fundamental issues of religious belief and experience, and this justifies publication in English (e.g. the role of culture in shaping basic cognitive processes through which the Rebbe becomes manifest).  The English version is a bit tighter. 

Yael Assor: On page 259, you write, “Believers experience the Rebbe directly and do not perceive the media that bears his image as standing between the Rebbe and themselves. The ethnographic writing of the anthropologist is a similar kind of mediator; he or she can also vanish from the reader’s consciousness.” Indeed, throughout most of the book, story after story, we read of the Rebbe’s miraculous presence, and to some extent become witnesses of his continuous presence. At the same time, your presence as the ethnographer who mediates these stories to us gets backgrounded. Can you elaborate on your choice to take up this style? Would it be correct to say that by engaging this style, your Chabbad interlocutors were right about your own contribution in disseminating the belief in the Rebbe?

Yoram Bilu: My uncritical  perspective in showering the readers with miraculous stories was not unintended. I wanted them to be immersed in the enchanted world of the Meshichistim, in the messianic ecology they constitute, which I find all-encompassing and at times overwhelming.   By doing so I myself embodied the dialectics of the mediation process.  I agree that some parts of the book can be read as if written from a credulous perspective, though others account for the miracles using social science explanatory models.  Aligning my reply with your next question, I have to qualify the “very experience-near book” designation.  While I sought to depict the inner worlds of the radical messianists, I relied on texts (probably edited thus adding more layers of mediation) more than on interviews and observations.  By doing so, I left unexplored the darker side of experiential worlds of the Meshichistim, where allegedly conflict, frustration, and doubts  also reside.  Focusing on these aspects would have called for a very different book.

Yael Assor: Relatedly, in the Introduction, the two last chapters and the Conclusion, you still take a more distant point of view, discussing your researcher position, contextualizing this study in contemporary theoretical debates and parallel phenomena. Why did you decide to still incorporate this tone in this otherwise very experience-near book?

Yoram Bilu: See above.  Also, my tone has to do with my attempt to calibrate the not-so-compatible fields of psychology and anthropology, which are my combined disciplinary background.  Note, for example, that I use theoretical models from cognitive psychology, such as dissonance reduction or signal detection, as departure points in explaining how the absent Rebbe becomes present.  My critique of these theories in the book is not designed to supplant them but rather to supplement and enrich them by staying attuned to contextual noises which these theories usually discount.  Lastly, I consider myself a modernist at heart, still viewing anthropology as a scientific project (admittedly by stretching the definition of science) and thus necessarily as a comparative one.

Yael Assor: A concept the book centrally engages is “virtual Rebbe.” You argue that “virtual” is not the opposite of “unreal,” but a different form of realness.  Can you expand on how you think this concept contributes to current discussions about “religious imagination,” a term broadly utilized to discuss non-physical dimensions of the cultural life (including subjective and intersubjective experience) of religious movements?

Yoram Bilu: Clinging to virtual worlds is in fact  at the heart of each and every religion.  The sustenance of the virtual Rebbe in messianic Chabad is in this sense just an illustration, albeit uncommon and extreme, of the horizons opened before 21st century believers in cultivating the religious imagination.  The rapid development of virtual realities through new technologies may bolster this imagination – as my book shows.  Does it mean that a contemporary believer enjoys an epistemological edge over a first century believer?   I am not so sure.  One could claim that human imagination – free floating, not bound by technology – could expand rather than curtail the religious horizons shaped by the new technologies.

Yael Assor: Throughout the book you offer a very nuanced analysis of how the Rebbe’s presence is maintained with the help of technological means and in correspondence with contemporary world events and global trends. All this made me wonder about the role of  American neoliberal ideology in informing this dynamic. I was thus curious about your take on this: do you see such connection between American neoliberalism and the Meshichists’ manner of making the Rebbe present? 

Yoram Bilu: Yes, I do see such a connection.  After all, Chabad was reshaped in the 1940s and 1950s in America, with its epicenter in NYC.  Its technological adeptness is but one expression of adopting aspects of the American ethos and style.  In a globalized world Chabad could be viewed as a very successful transnational firm. Note that Harold Blum called Chabad an American Religion.  There are some parallels, I think (with all due differences) between Chabad’s expansion and the growing popularity of Evangelical Chrisianity in various parts of the world – and these similarities are not unrelated to a capitalist, neoliberal theology.