Haredi against their will

‘The Jerusalem Post’ speaks with the leaders of a group of self-described ‘heretical’ haredim who have formed their first support group.

secular/religious Jew 521 (photo credit: Photo: Marc Israel Sellem, graphic: Mali Mizrahi)
secular/religious Jew 521
(photo credit: Photo: Marc Israel Sellem, graphic: Mali Mizrahi)
I met with Yohanan in a coffee shop in a secular neighborhood adjoining one of Israel’s main ultra-Orthodox population centers in order to avoid detection.
Outwardly a fervently religious member of the Lithuanian stream of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism, Yohanan – who requested that I not use his real name or any identifying details for fear of violence by extremist elements – is a self-professed “heretic” and the nominal leader of an underground network of Orthodox atheists calling itself “haredim ba’al karham.” The phrase, which is Hebrew for “Orthodox against their will,” denotes the group’s mission: providing a forum for those who no longer believe in the tenets of Judaism but who are unable, for a variety of reasons, to leave their communities.
As we waited for the waitress to come and take our orders, Yohanan explained that he was only willing to meet with me out of deference to a mutual acquaintance, the scion of one of Israel’s most famous and influential Orthodox families and a member of his group. Were it not for his friend’s assurances of my good intent, Yohanan explained, he would not have been willing to put his trust in a member of the press.
Before we began, I attempted to reassure Yohanan, telling him that both as a journalist and as a member of Israel’s Orthodox community; I felt it incumbent upon myself to tell his story in the most accurate way possible.
He began by apologizing for his lack of English.
Although the son of an American immigrant, he was raised in a hassidic milieu so closed off that his parents refused to allow him to study what they termed an “impure language.”
The father of two, barely out of his teens himself, explained that he began asking questions about his community’s belief structure several years ago and was not satisfied with the answers he received.
In his community, he explained, “it is forbidden to discuss these things and forbidden to ask questions.” Expressing his doubts, he came to believe that it is “not possible to prove” Judaism.
Following a period of discussion, he and his wife, who slowly came to agree with his newly found philosophical convictions, decided to “throw off” their beliefs and “continue to live in the haredi community” while ceasing to observe Judaism in the privacy of their home.
Yohanan’s story, though uncommon, does represent an increasingly visible minority within the ultra-Orthodox sector, who have, through the Internet, been able to come together and create a community for the first time in history.
“Two years ago I got rid of my long beard and my family is getting used to my new physical appearance,” he said.
Having already gone from hassidic to “standard haredi,” Yohanan hopes to spare his parents the pain of seeing him leave Judaism abruptly and plans on eventually moving to a mixed community and to “slowly, by stages, to arrive at a state of secularism.
This way they [will be] hit less hard.”
Yohanan is representative of what has come to be known in religious circles as the Ortho-prax, those who are outwardly pious members of a conservative religious group while privately eschewing their faith’s belief structure and rules.
Because “the phenomenon is in essence secret” he tells me, he cannot know how many people in the community share his beliefs, but he estimates that it is quite small, no more than 0.1 percent of Israel’s haredi sector.
This is due, he contended, to the fact that many of those who “are yearning for the outside world simply become secular” with the help of such organizations as Hillel and Keren Omer, which assist those who leave haredi society to transition into the Israeli mainstream.
THE FORUM, which is the physical embodiment of a recently established online message-board for underground “unbelievers,” meets regularly to provide emotional support for those struggling to maintain a double life, some hiding their beliefs not only from their neighbors but their spouses and children as well.
Aside from the regular meetings, the members of this secretive group also go on occasional trips throughout the country, finding places where they can drop their masks, if only for a short while.
Haredim ba’al karham, explained Yohanan, is comprised of Lithuanians, hassidim, men, women and members of just about all of the various streams of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy.
What his group does not include, he was careful to stress, is the group popularly known as shababnikim.
Shababnikim, Yohanan explained, are those who still retain their belief but actively rebel against the tight strictures of their community.
“In our forum there are no shababnikim, but rather people who do not believe in the Torah,” he said, adding, “Our group is composed of people who are not able to leave.”
Those who come to his meetings, he assured me, are only those who could be classified as “heretics.”
“We meet a lot,” he said, describing his movement.
“The meetings are held under very strict secrecy. It’s not listed on the Internet or in any other place so that we will not be discovered.”
Worried about violence, Yohanan explained that just as vigilante groups operate in some neighborhoods in order to enforce strict standards of modesty, there also exist groups whose purpose is to root out “heretical” beliefs.
“Violence is very strong,” he lamented, citing the case of a friend whose house was broken into and trashed by zealots.
However, it is mostly the fear of losing their children, he said, that motivates the strong focus on secrecy.
Calling his followers anusim (forced ones), a term traditionally used to refer to those who were forced to abandon Judaism against their will and hide their true beliefs behind a false mask of Christian piety, Yohanan explained that someone who believes in a humanistic philosophy and tells his wife is in danger of “bringing about an immediate divorce.”
“The law states that if a couple married as haredim and one [of them] decides to leave and secularize, the one who remains religious retains the kids,” he said.
The inability to leave the community stems less from fears of economic hardship stemming from the lack of a secular education than from the pain of seeing their families torn apart, he said.
The forum’s regular meetings allow those who “who have more strength to affect each other and to help” support their fellows. “In terms of support,” Yohanan said, these meetings “truly help many people who are alone” and have no one with whom to discuss their concerns.
The members of the forum “simply sit and talk” during their gatherings, he said. Everyone “tells of his experiences that happened over the week.”
Yohanan related that he had recently secured the services of a psychiatric professional for a new member of his network, a young divorcee from what he termed an “extreme” community.
According to Yohanan, the 26-year-old woman had been told by family members that she was suffering from a mental illness when she began to ask theological questions. After turning to a hospital for treatment she was told that “everything is all right” and that she should return to her family.
However, “at home they didn’t want her” either and she ended up staying in a hotel “because she has nowhere to go,” he said.
She is currently suffering intense emotional trauma, Yohanan said.
“I spoke with a shrink about this matter... and found [someone] who was ready to listen to her pro bono.”
According to Yohanan, despite the new course of treatment, however, a long recovery period will be required before she can resume her life in either the secular or the religious community.
“She came from such an insular place that she doesn’t know what is happening outside at all,” he explained.
The pressures of living a dual life are hard on the members, they say, with some of them experiencing difficulties dealing with the issue of their children’s education.
One member, who asked that he be identified merely as Benjamin, explained that while he has not yet reached a stage where he feels that he has to actively interfere in his children’s strict religious upbringing, stated that he finds it “annoying that we are raising them” in an Orthodox manner.
This feeling was echoed by, Yishai, yet another member of the forum who told The Jerusalem Post that while his older children were being raised in a strictly Orthodox manner, he was working to place doubts in their minds in order to bring them to a crisis of faith.
Stating that he had already been expelled from one community, in which he was the principal of a religious school, due to his non-observance, he explained that he could not teach his children his personal beliefs for fear of being accidentally revealed again. However, he continued, he did plan on guiding his children to an existential crisis that would lead them to their own abandonment of Judaism.
It is fear of educators such as Yishai that has led some religiously conservative groups to roundly condemn the phenomenon of the haredim ba’al karham.
One Orthodox publication recently went so far as to term the Ortho-prax “treacherous frauds” and “a danger to society,” going on to describe them as “almost... mentally ill.”
HOWEVER, NOT all members of the religious community in Israel agree with that assessment.
Citing the talmudic verse “Would that [the Jews] abandon Me and still observe My Torah,” writing on his website, Rationalist Judaism, Natan Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi and frequent commentator on Israel’s religious scene, explained that many of the Ortho-prax are “sincere Jews who are [Torah observant] but who, tragically, no longer believe in any form of [divine revelation].
Not the kind who campaign to bring down Judaism.”
While professing his opposition to those who would attempt to undermine the societal structure of the Orthodox community, Slifkin clarified that he did not believe that the Ortho-prax, in general, pose the threat that their opponents in the haredi community describe.
Traditionally, he wrote, Judaism has been less interested in what its adherents believe than in how they conduct themselves.
However, another rabbi, a member of the Orthodox rabbinic establishment who asked not to be named in this article, expressed frustration with the members of the haredim ba’al karham and stated that in his view Yohanan exaggerated the extent to which questions are proscribed.
“It is only among the more extremist elements within our community that questions of a philosophical nature are shunned,” he told the Post.
“This does not represent the mainstream haredi mentality.”
Prof. Menachem Friedman, emeritus professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University, speaking with the Post from his home in the Rehovot suburb of Mazkeret Batya, posited that the reason many of the members of the forum do not leave the Orthodox community is because of haredi society’s unique structure.
In today’s post-modern culture, Friedman said, there is less of a sense of community or belonging than in past generations. However, among haredim, who meet regularly in synagogue and travel in small and intimately connected social circles, there is a sense of support and belonging that is hard to give up for the uncertainty of life outside.
“Everything is connected to the community,” he explained. “There is almost no social life” apart from that. Not knowing what lies outside, Friedman said, makes leaving a daunting prospect.
Aside from being raised in a culture so far removed from that of a secular Israeli, making it nearly impossible to bridge the cultural gap, the lack of a higher education, a requirement for success in a modern economy, hamstrings those who would leave the religious sphere, he said.
Add to that the fact that many ultra-Orthodox marry early and have a large number of children, and suddenly the barriers to exit seem almost insurmountable for the nonbeliever.
The introduction of the Internet into haredi society did not breed the haredim ba’al karham so much as give them the means to “find others who share their suffering,” Friedman noted, dismissing rabbinic concerns that access to the Internet would lead to widespread dissent amongst the ultra-Orthodox.
The importance of the haredim ba’al karham, the professor said, lies not so much in their numbers, which are negligible, as in the fact that now, with the advent of the Internet, Ortho-prax Jews are able to network and come together.
“It’s an important phenomenon today not because it’s something new but because it’s becoming a social phenomenon,” Friedman stated. “It’s not one here and one there hiding themselves; they are looking for one another and gathering.”