Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism September 12, 2010

Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

You often hear from atheists who left Christianity and occasionally from atheists who left Islam. You rarely hear about atheists who leave ultra-orthodox Judaism.

But apparently, there are many non-believers in their ranks and they’re starting to tell their stories:

Matan (a pseudonym like all names in this article) was an ultra-Orthodox Jew who stopped believing several years ago. “I don’t believe there is a God, but I also don’t really rule it out,” he said. “It can’t have an unequivocal answer. Our understanding as humans ends somewhere…Religion tells you exactly how to understand things, how to interpret them. This is exactly the problem.”

Matan was not alone. He was part of a growing phenomenon found deep within ultra-Orthodox society, part of a large group of haredim of all streams and divisions who call themselves the “Marranos,” secret Jews – haredim against their will, who have stopped believing, but are forced to live a lie and hide it from the people around them. But contrary to haredim who openly leave behid the faith to live a secular lifestyle, these “Marranos” look ultra-Orthodox on the outside, but their inner world is the exact opposite.

That’s only one example; the full article has a number of them.

Adam Lee hopes that more will be willing to come out and that we’ll be ready to welcome them

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.

I agree with Adam. If anyone wanting to leave any faith knew there was a place they could go where they would be welcomed and accepted, who knows how many people would leave the fold.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Michelle

    Thank you, it is very true, these stories are almost never heard. The internet has done so much to help end faith and give people a sense of connection that we often don’t appreciate.

  • bigjohn756

    This is why we are putting billboards up all over, isn’t it?

  • There should be a organization to help Atheists come out of the closet. Some communities are so close-knit, they must feel very isolated.

  • Richard P.

    Well after 6000 yrs of bullshit somebody has to come to their senses.
    Wahoo!! Way to go.

  • ultra orthodox jews are a tiny number, among the ranks of the believers of the world. to me, it’s a pretty nutty cult, and i can understand why sensible people would want to leave it. but i have to be critical: what “cost” do those who struggle with leaving it pay, when they do? yes, some of their family and community will shun them. well, life is hard and unfair. i really don’t see any difference between these previously believing types and any other type of people who choose to embrace reason, and stop denying themselves.

    don’t get me wrong: i am sorry that one of the people in the article chose to kill himself rather than walk away. that is very sad. but a key step in self-acceptance is… self-acceptance. which is to say, i am angry that he chose to kill himself, rather than embrace his own desires and act on them. his suicide hurt his family more than leaving religion ever could have. it’s not “hard” unless the unbelieving person chooses to make it so. and that’s self abuse.

    and this says it all:
    As far as the haredim are concerned, they are not really bothered with you not believing in God, as long as you’re not showing it on the outside.

    wow. hypocrites, much? if a person is smart and brave enough to question a religious tradition, they should also be brave enough to realize that hypocrisy is indefensible. if a religion is only all about making an impression on others, including those who don’t believe as you do… well, i guess i just don’t know what to say. except that i left popularity games like that behind, long ago in my high school days. what bunk. and more importantly, nothing to be so afraid of, if what you really want is freedom. just do it, as they say.

    i didn’t read about any economic or legal repercussions resulting from leaving the community. being shunned by family is hard. but zillions of queer people have learned to walk away from bigoted family, and the truth is, all but the most vulnerable have learned that it’s completely possible to have a life, a successful one, even, outside of a hater cult. UO doubters can and should do the same.

  • Ron in Houston

    See, here’s the problem. There are always a number of accepting secular folks. The problem is that these people have small worlds. Generally, in their small worlds there are no “accepting” people. Hell, in general there are no neutral people. In their small worlds there are only disapproving people.

    It’s sad, but it’s a reality. It’s only when people are really willing to abandon everything that they will be able to find peace.

  • G*3

    > and this says it all:
    As far as the haredim are concerned, they are not really bothered with you not believing in God, as long as you’re not showing it on the outside.
    > wow. hypocrites, much?

    Yes, but not as much as you’d think. Unlike Christianity, beliefs are relatively unimportant in Orthodox Judaism. It’s much more about ritual than it is about faith.

    As for the rest, leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy is very different than coming out as gay, or even from coming out as an atheist in a Christian community. While a gay person may face being shunned by his family, an UO Jew who leaves the community is leaving everything he knows and is trying to make it in a wider world that he’s been brought up to avoid completely and regard as evil. There are third-generation Americans who speak broken English and can barely read or write the language. There aren’t any companies outside the UO community that do business in Yiddish. The world of American general culture is completely alien.

  • Have you heard Penn talking about this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toRWai-66b0

  • I read a fascinating book on this topic a few years ago:

    Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Hinston

  • Rose

    Economic or legal repercussions are nothing compared to the emotional difficulties that a person goes through when choosing to leave religious traditions. It’s not the religion and belief that you are leaving behind. A persons family and community are the stuff of what you are made of. Even if you don’t like that it’s not really you but someone that you’ve pretended to be. If all you’ve ever known is the life that you’ve led and don’t know people will accept you in another community or if you will like another community any better the religious one you are in, it can sometimes seem an impossible situation. Kind of like a child who is living in an abusive situation but they are not mature enough to just walk out and find another solution so they stay and endure because they don’t know anything else.

    It’s all fine and good if atheists just want to live in their own little world and not worry about whether those trapped in religion ever get out or not. But if atheists begin forming communities in which those who need to get out of religion can feel safe in beginning an exploration of facts and truths…then the acceptance of atheism grows.

    The gay community hasn’t always felt like it was possible for them to come out as gay. It is only a relatively recent freedom that they are only beginning to feel like they can enjoy. Many, many still cannot just as many people trapped in religion feel that there is no way out.

  • Roxane

    What a way to spend the only life we have.

  • Erp

    I believe the ultra-orthodox in this article were Israeli ultra-orthodox who have a somewhat different set of problems than American ultra-orthodox (the latter actually do have at least one organization to help them). However leaving the only community one knows (including possibly leaving spouse and children) and with skills that might not be that useful outside that community is difficult.

  • Richard Wade

    Even when there is strife and discord, do not minimize the anguish and pain involved in leaving forever the arms, the eyes, and the smiles of one’s family. We may like to fancy ourselves as tough and emotionally independent, but very few of us could really, with placid repose, accept the loss of all who loved us, all we loved, and all who gave us our sense of self, sense of place and sense of belonging. Heart-rending is not an exaggeration.

    Yes, we must build sanctuaries and refuges for people in this situation. How exactly I do not know, but I’d be very willing to contribute to it.

  • rolad

    Side note tho, “Marranos” in Spanish means “Pigs”. quite interesting that their are reusing the term from the 14/15th century in Spain.

  • stephanie

    I think the Society for Humanistic Judaism might be a good stepping stone:

  • muggle

    I’m sorry but I have to concur with chicago dyke here. You do what you have to do.

    I’ve news for you, Richard. It’s even tough when they’re freaking abusive as all get out. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Sometimes you have to be a grownup and bravely live life on your terms.

    As soon as I became an adult, before I even left religion behind, I left my abusive parents behind (siblings took longer and were even harder). There’s no support for this in society. I was told constantly if you don’t make your peace with them, you’ll be sorry when they’re dead. Well, uh uh, not so. My parents are both dead now and all I feel about that is glad. I don’t ever have to worry about them ever again. I don’t have the nagging fear in the back of my head that they’re going to show up as an intrusion in my life again.

    Yeah, it’s damned hard to forsake family and live life alone and, for all I know, I could only do it because I’m extremely strong mentally but, strong or weak, we’ve all eventually got to choose our course of action. No one can do it for you. While a safe house or whatever can help make that transition, it’s ultimately up to you.

    But, bottom line, being an independent adult means standing your own two feet. If you can’t or won’t do that for whatever reason, your fault or not, there’s really not much anyone else can do for you.

  • Hannah

    As someone who finds myself in a similar situation, this article hit me pretty hard. My family isn’t Hasidic, but they are Orthodox Jews and the repercussions of leaving are just as devastating. I told my family a few months ago that I was an atheist, though I gave up on Judaism a few years before that. While they haven’t disowned me yet,it seems like I will eventually have to make a choice between my family and my beliefs.

    My situation is a lonely one – if there was anyone out there like me, I would have no way of knowing. I don’t blame those who keep their feelings about religion hidden, but I just couldn’t lie to my family anymore. Hopefully, some day soon, others who find themselves in a situation like mine will realize that they are not alone and will find enough strength to live an honest and fulfilling life.

  • I think one problem is that leaving ultra-Orthodox Judaism really isn’t like leaving most conservative Christian denominations. It would be much more akin to leaving the Amish, in that Hasidism is a complete and total lifestyle and a very insular society. From what I’ve read, another problem stems from the fact that if a parent disassociates from the movement, it renders their children “damaged goods” and ensures that they are considered unmarriageable to any respectable family. Thus, most parents are reluctant to divorce their still-believing spouses and consign their children to that fate. There are also many stories of divorced parents having difficulty retaining custody or being granted visitation with children who are still in the movement.

  • Justme

    I am one of those Haredi who is forced to live a lie. I am not sure I can embrace atheism but I am sure that most of what passes for religion (liberal, conservative, or otherwise) is a crock. I have seen first-hand the hypocrisy and self-righteousness the acceptance of any evil as long as it doesn’t threaten the status quo or cost the leadership financially or politically.

    If I were to openly break with the community though, I would not only lose my wife, my kids, and probably my job (I work in government but the leaders have considerable pull and I am pretty sure I would be toast). So, I go along, I go through the motions but I don’t really buy it.

    If these people actually followed the morals they preach – and I try – I could live with my own doubts but they don’t. In fact, many of them are pretty worthless morally. I realize this is true of most humans but when you get all holier-than-thou and still act like a skunk it’s pretty bad.

    I don’t consider myself a Marrano, but I am not sure where I fit in anymore.

  • Formerly Frum

    I grew up in a Chasidic family and left religion a few years back, and I have to disagree with Chicago Dyke. Unlike any other group (aside from the Amish), Ultra-orthodox Judaism is insanely insular, with members living every aspect of their entire lives inside the bubble of the community. Leaving means pressing the re-start button on their lives, with absolutely no organized support.

    When someone comes out of the closet as being gay, there are gay communities all over the world where s/he can find support. Gay communities have resources to help people find jobs, homes, social circles, etc. There is no recognized ex-orthodox Jewish community. Imagine taking the clothes on your back and moving to Columbia without any friends or speaking a word of Spanish. The closest thing to a supporting organization is Footsteps, and, due to the extremely insular lifestyle of the Ultra-orthodox, most of it’s target audience have never heard of their existence.

    Personally, I avoided most of the heart-break most other people in my situation go through. I moved out of state without telling most of my friends about my religious beliefs. It’s really none of their business, and I’m not looking to convince them that their lives are based on lies. My parents know, but my many siblings and extended family do not. They had a very hard time coming to terms with it, and we’ve unofficially agreed to a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy with regard to my day-to-day life. Whenever I visit I walk the walk and talk the talk. I may feel like an idiot for a day or two at a time, but I do respect that they have the right to raise the rest of their children in accordance with their beliefs.

    Most aren’t as lucky as I was, and I do sympathize with those currently in the closet. Unfortunately, many do see suicide as the only way out. All I can say to them is Si Duh An Andereh Veg.

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