‘Double lifers’ have hidden impact on ultra-Orthodox Judaism

The growth and networking of “double lifers,” those ultra-Orthodox Jews who doubt and often secretly live lives in conflict with their religious communities, is having a liberalizing impact on Orthodox Judaism, writes Michal Leibowitz in the Jewish Review of Books (Summer, 2020). In reviewing the recent book Hidden Heretics; Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age, Leibowitz notes that the phenomenon of double lifers first became visible in 2002, when disillusioned ultra-Orthodox Jews “seized on the anonymity of blogs to share their opinions on subjects that they couldn’t speak about openly in their communities: crises of faith, reactions to rabbinic sexual abuse scandals, reflections on banned books, criticisms of the ultra-Orthodox leadership, and the like.” These bloggers came from across the Orthodox spectrum, with the majority being men. The book, authored by Ayala Fader, argues that the phenomenon took on sociological dimensions since these blogs increasingly link to one another, with their writers and readers engaging each other in the comments sections, and sometimes meeting up, creating what she calls a “counterpublic.”

The growth of this increasingly visible network was alarming enough for ultra-Orthodox leaders to shift their discourse about the Internet. Where they had previously warned against immoral activity online, especially pornography, from about 2009 onward, the rabbinic discourse increasingly focused on the dangers of exposure to literature, media, and social contacts that would cast doubt on religious orthodoxy. The concern was strong enough to draw 40,000 Orthodox men to an anti-Internet rally in New York in 2012. But leaders have seen how their community is increasingly fragile to such outside influence and has cracked down on such doubters and double lifers since then. Fader finds that the community that double lifers have created may have kept them from leaving ultra-Orthodox Judaism. But in the process, they have liberalized this branch of Judaism, especially through family dynamics. Double-life parents tend to teach their children fluency in the English language and American culture to increase career options and subtly encouraged their children to question authority. Some have “changed their partners’ minds, “influencing them to become more flexible on issues of Jewish law or even flipping them entirely,” Leibowitz adds.

(Jewish Review of Books, https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/8053/double-lifers/)