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  • Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age by Ayala Fader
  • Schneur Zalman Newfield (bio)
Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age. By Ayala Fader. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. xii + 270 pp.

With the proliferation of cultural representations of people leaving the Hasidic community—such as Netflix's miniseries Unorthodox—and scholarship on the subject, one is left to wonder about the fate of those who are discontented by their Hasidic life but unable or unwilling to leave it. Ayala Fader's fascinating work fills this gap in the literature by introducing the reader to what she calls "double lifers," people whose "life-changing doubt" has caused them to reject some or all of their community's beliefs and values but who nonetheless continue to outwardly conform to Hasidic norms of behavior.

Fader makes clear that life-changing religious doubt is rarely only "theological disagreement or rejection of certain religious texts" but also includes emotional and social disconnects with established community norms, institutions, and leadership hierarchies (124). In addition, there is a continuum of doubt, and men and women, due to their different social responsibilities and engagement with the outside world, have unequal opportunities to participate in online exchanges and in-person activities that give expression to their doubt.

By deftly melding together a plethora of diverse sources—WhatsApp text messages, posts to private Facebook groups, posts from the Orthodox Jewish blogosphere, cartoons from Orthodox community circulars, Orthodox anti-internet children's playing cards, interviews with and participant observations of double lifers, along with public pronouncements by and interviews with ultra-Orthodox rabbis, activists, and therapists—Fader brings to life the milieu and inner turmoil, as well as the humor and playfulness, of the double lifers. This diversity of sources highlights Fader's belief that scholars of religion cannot simply consult the doctrines and publications of leaders but must also analyze the material culture the religious community produces. [End Page 294]

Fader details the phenomenon of the ultra-Orthodox "jblogosphere," which had its heyday from 2002 to 2009 and functioned as a "heretical counterpublic," allowing Hasidic men (and some women) who had religious doubts to connect with similarly-minded others (32). It gave these double lifers a venue to express discontent with their communities, voice their opposition to religious stringencies, mock the pieties of their leaders and neighbors, and debate possible reforms to the "system" in which they were all raised. It also provided a sense of comradery that often remained online but sometimes transferred to in-person interactions and always made these doubters feel "normal" and accepted, allowing them to enact their life-changing doubt while remaining in their communities.

Mostly writing in Yiddish under pseudonyms such as Hasidic Rebel and Shpitzle Shtrimpkind (an allusion to part of married Hasidic women's head coverings), these bloggers rejected the ultra-Orthodox narrative that they were lazy or lustful and instead positioned themselves as critical thinkers saving Orthodox Judaism from extremism. These bloggers consciously modeled themselves on the maskilim, the intellectuals of the Jewish Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Central and Eastern Europe who challenged religious authority figures. Fader notes that the jblogosphere replicated gendered hierarchies in the Hasidic community, including viewing female bloggers as less serious than their male counterparts.

The popularity of the jblogosphere, along with its anonymity and accessibility, was deeply troubling to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership. They responded by denouncing the internet and smartphones as the "nisoyen ha-dor," the challenge of the generation, and sought to outlaw them within the confines of their communities. The ultra-Orthodox leadership claimed smartphones were polluting the innate purity of the Jews, that they were the embodiment of the evil inclination, and that they were an addiction and a disease. Some even took to calling smartphones "shmadphones," playing on the similarity between the name of the device and the Yiddish word for converting to another religion. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis organized massive anti-internet public gatherings, and when that failed to achieve the desired compliance, they appealed to the piety of women to control the internet use of their children and husbands. Ultimately, community schools required that parents install "kosher filters...


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pp. 294-296
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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