In Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in The Digital Age, Ayala Fader, a professor of anthropology at Fordham University, offers a digital and anthropological analysis of those who have broken from Hasidism’s ideological underpinnings but have not left its physical community. Fader’s volume is part of Princeton University’s Studies in Culture and Technology series.
Fader follows the religious journeys of a few such individuals, and summarizes sociological and religious factors in loss of religious belief over the past two hundred years. Fader offers a respectful view of those struggling to lead “double lives” as they experience “life-changing doubt” about their Ultra-Orthodox religious beliefs. As documented in the book, the past two decades, in contrast to previous historical eras, have allowed for those who otherwise would be alone in their religious struggles to build what Fader deems “secret worlds;” initially they came together through blogging, and now they use social media and WhatsApp groups as they express anxiety, tell self-deprecating jokes, criticize authority figures, and offer comfort to fellow-doubters.
Fader weaves together anthropological theory with in-person observations. She built a network of “double lifers” who allowed her to observe their gatherings, partake in their otherwise closed WhatsApp chats and Facebook groups, and even attend their weddings.
While much coverage and even award-recognition has followed those who have left the Hasidic fold — such as Shulem Deen, a 2015 National Jewish Book Award winner who blurbed Fader’s book — Fader’s account offers a continuum of doubters, and their dynamics with friends, spouses, lovers, therapists, and rabbis. Readers are given insights into the minds of those navigating tensions between modernity and mesorah (tradition), from Yiddish blogging to sidelocks hidden under baseball caps. Fader’s examinations of individuals wrestling with their individual autonomy, marital moral quandaries, strength of their friendships, and parenting dilemmas as they attempt to find their way in a world both within and beyond the Hasidic community are at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.