Undoing un/belief: an orthodox Jewish perspective

In this blog, Ruth Sheldon shares some reflections emerging from her work, Jewish unbelief in contemporary Britain, which explores the meanings of ‘unbelief’, within minority British contexts.

In May 2017, I paid a visit to Rachel, a Haredi woman, who had invited me for a meal. Rachel lived in the grey zone between two adjacent London neighbourhoods that were the focus of my research: liberal, cosmopolitan Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, notoriously home to the largest strictly Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish population in Europe. Upon my arrival, Rachel opened the door and smiled warmly at me. A slight woman, in her early sixties, she wore a long skirt in accordance with Orthodox laws of modesty, though her loose long-sleeved cotton shirt subtly diverged from the conventional style of her Haredi neighbours, and her sheitel wig (worn by most strictly Orthodox women) hung a little off her face as if the secular and Haredi parts of herself were not quite integrated. We chatted as Rachel finished making a chick-pea stew, and then she invited me to join her in the ritual washing of hands before eating. Seated at the table, she began to narrate a little of her story. Rachel and her husband were ‘baal teshuva’, ‘secular’ Jews who had ‘returned’ to strictly Orthodox Judaism. Her parents were Czech Jewish communists, who had come as refugees to Britain. Rachel described her mother as ‘very anti-religion’, while her father was ‘atheist but more sympathetic to religion at least’; for many years they kept a Christmas tree at home. As we talked, I began to sense Rachel’s continued appreciation of what she referred to as the ‘secular’ world while observing Jewish law in her everyday practices, moving between these seemingly incommensurable spheres with a kind of ambivalence that also manifested in our encounter. Talking about the similarities in our assimilated upbringings, I recoiled as she gently encouraged me to try keeping just one of the mitzvoth (Jewish laws that govern everyday life). And yet when I mentioned my interest in a biblical text, she confessed to having little patience for Torah study, preferring to read ‘secular’ novels and non-fiction.

We had been discussing Israel, when Rachel turned to the question of God: ‘I don’t know whether I believe in God as such – but I do believe that Jewish people were made to feel uncomfortable, that it is in our nature, God intended it, however you put it. We will always feel like outsiders.’ And then, barely missing a beat, she continued her subtly esoteric observance of Jewish laws, preparing tea in her strictly kosher yet atypically vegetarian kitchen to conclude the meal.

A puzzle: orthodox agnosticism in ‘pious Stamford Hill’

I begin here because, in the course of my recent research into Jewish unbelief, I have found myself repeatedly puzzling over this scene.[1] In this blog post, I want to share some reflections emerging from my forthcoming article, which dwells on this case in order to raise some questions about the meanings of ‘unbelief’, within minority British contexts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my wider research has found articulations of non-belief in God to be extremely common amongst Liberal and non-affiliated Jews – findings that resonate with the well-established point that it is possible to be a ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’ Jew, and that non-belief in God is compatible with participation in non-Orthodox Jewish rituals and congregations. In contrast, Orthodox Judaism is widely assumed to depend upon belief in God, with unquestioning belief in the divine (as opposed to human) authorship of the Torah (Hebrew bible) constituting the key theological principle differentiating Orthodoxy from its non-Orthodox counterparts. Furthermore, academic research with increasingly visible strictly Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish populations in Europe and North America, has highlighted the centrality of embodied faith (in Hebrew: emune) in God within Haredi lifeworlds. And it was in this context that my exchange with Rachel stood out as extremely surprising: how was it possible that a strictly Orthodox woman, an active adherent to what is widely taken to be an extremely pious, even ‘fundamentalist’ form of Judaism, could openly express uncertainty about God’s existence?

Seeking resolution: faith-as-doubt or inauthentic orthodoxy?

In seeking to address the puzzle presented by Rachel, we can, I suggest, turn to the above-mentioned studies with contemporary Haredim, which offer us (at least) two potential resolutions. A first approach entails unpacking the notion of Orthodox Jewish ‘faith’. For example, writing about strictly Orthodox Jews in New York, Ayala Fader[2] has discussed how the experience of doubt and uncertainty is in fact internal to the Hebrew concept of emune. In contrast, she explains, to a Protestant ideal of faith as interiorized sincerity, the model of emune is one in which external, embodied practice – keeping the commandments – mediates the experience of doubt. In other words, submitting to the law is understood to be prior to (not an expression of) interior belief in God – and the performance of these practices is framed as part of a struggle oriented towards the goal of achieving interior, affective trust in God. So, given this account of Orthodox Jewish subjectivity, it might be argued that Rachel’s agnosticism could be disregarded – that, after all, it was her keeping of Jewish law that mattered. However, somehow in Rachel’s case, the link between external practice and internal affect did not fit this model of ‘authentic’ Orthodox Jewish faith. For, in contrast to the image of the devout Orthodox Jew engaging in an intense struggle with doubt in order to redeem sacred meaning, Rachel’s light-hearted tone suggested that she was not so much striving to transcend her agnosticism but, rather, accepting of the experience of uncertainty.

If Rachel then did not fit that picture of Orthodox doubt-as-faith, a second explanation suggested by the literature might be that she was leading a ‘double life’ as an agnostic. As Fader has discussed, in recent years, Hasidic leaders in New York have highlighted what they frame as a ‘crisis of faith’, growing numbers of Jews whose doubt is no longer mediated by their observance of law, and who are, as a consequence, inauthentic in their Orthodoxy– publicly observing Jewish law for the sake of their families, but no longer adhering in private. Now, in some ways, Rachel’s experience did resonate with this account. As she described to me, she had herself grown up in a non-religious home before being accepted into a relatively insular Hasidic group, with the consequence that her children were now stricter in their observance than she was. Furthermore, she was still very much attached to aspects of her secular life – as manifested for example in her reading habits. And yet, in contrast to the women that Fader discusses, Rachel did keep mitzvoth even in the private space of her home (where she lived alone) – even subtly encouraging me to do the same – suggesting that she, in some way, found meaning in her ongoing observance.

Ambivalent orthodoxy: undoing (un)belief

Despite these two possibilities for explaining Rachel’s contradictory presence, she therefore eluded my continual attempts to categorise her articulation of Orthodox (un)belief. The liminality she carried in her body – her modest /secular clothes, not-quite-fitting sheitel, and her subtly esoteric practices – her vegetarian cooking and passion for secular non-fiction, matched the radical undecidability of her cryptic words, simultaneously invoking and doubting the existence of God. Yet rather than dismiss Rachel as a strange outlier within an Orthodox Jewish context, which has been widely imagined as constituted by a fundamentalist impulse towards certainty and security, I want to suggest that we might draw some significant insights from her example. First, Rachel carried a complex history of assimilation by secular-Christianity, shaping her simultaneous desire for, yet distance from, ‘coherent’, unequivocal belief or meaning. And as Jonathan Boyarin[3], amongst others, has discussed, the ongoing effects of Christian assimilation and supersessionism[4] are far from marginal but rather have powerfully shaped contemporary articulations of European Judaism. Perhaps taking Rachel’s Jewish (un)belief seriously, as expressive of, rather than an outlier to, ‘authentic’ (i.e. ‘pious’) Orthodox Judaism, might help us acknowledge how such histories continue to matter for Jewish lives within Protestant-secular Europe?

Second, it seems to me that Rachel’s articulation of what it means to be authentically Jewish – to be defined by an experience of sustaining discomfort – might in some way speak back to scholars of religion and nonreligion, who like to imagine themselves ‘agnostic’. In his distinctive contribution to the study of lived religion, Robert Orsi[5] highlighted how the desire to fit ‘religious’ others into established categories in many ways mirrors the fundamentalist impulse towards certainty, produced by conditions of secular modernity. Meanwhile, the liminal status of the diasporic Jew has, as Bryan Cheyette[6] observes, long been a source of proteophobia: the anxiety caused by those who do not fit into established categories. In this context, it is worth considering how recent attempts – academic and political – to categorise Orthodox Judaism as a pietist religious movement oriented towards absolute faith in God – might rearticulate a long-standing mode of Jewish othering in terms of the belief / unbelief dichotomy. Given these troubling resonances, is it possible that Rachel’s uncomfortable embodied undecidability might model a methodological alternative from which researchers can learn? For perhaps if we follow her in undoing our reified categories of belief and unbelief, dogmatism and scepticism, researchers might make a little room for those rendered invisible by our own disciplinary orthodoxies?

[1] This exchange originally occurred within the context of fieldwork conducted for a different purpose as part of a study of diverse Jewish communities, ranging from Liberal / Reform to strictly Orthodox, in Hackney, London.  The original project was funded by Dangoor Education as part of wider programme of work on ‘Psychosocial Components of Ethical Monotheism’, while this secondary analysis has been funded by the John Templeton Foundation as part of the Understanding Unbelief Programme.

[2] See Fader, A., (2017). Ultra-Orthodox Jewish interiority, the Internet, and the crisis of faith. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory7(1), pp.185-206 and Fader, A., (2009). Mitzvah girls: Bringing up the next generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Princeton University Press.

[3] Boyarin, J. (1996). Thinking in Jewish.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] The theological notion that Judaism has been supplanted by Christianity can be traced in nominally secular portrayals of Orthodox Judaism as an anachronistic, unchanging tradition with Western modernity.

[5] Orsi, R.A. (2013) Between heaven and earth: The religious worlds people make and the scholars who study them. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[6] Cheyette, B. (2013) Diasporas of the mind: Jewish and postcolonial writing and the nightmare of history. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dr Ruth Sheldon is a Lecturer in Religion and Social Science at King’s College London. Her research is broadly concerned with exploring encounters across difference within institutional and everyday contexts, and she is the author of Tragic Encounters and Ordinary Ethics: Palestine-Israel in British Universities (Manchester University Press, 2016). She has an abiding interest in ethnography as a practice implicated with the question of what it means to ‘know’ the religious other within secular modern contexts.


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