“Double-lifers” influencing ultra-Orthodox communities

    Source: Jennifer Lisa | Flickr.

On the margins of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, an underground community made up of exiters and “double-lifers,” those secretly distancing themselves from the religious community, is contributing to changes within ultra-Orthodoxy, writes Jessica Roda (Georgetown University) in an article in French published in the Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions (April–June). The author stresses that while there is a tendency in the media to portray people as being either inside or outside, field observations on this underground suggest a more complex approach in how people deal with religious norms. The expression “off the derech” (the Hebrew word derech meaning “path”) describes former Orthodox Jews who have embraced another way of life. But there is also an apparently significant population of double-lifers who transgress their religion’s norms more or less secretly and explore life in the outside world. Some of Roda’s informants completely rejected ultra-Orthodox religious practices while others kept some of them and rejected others. These double-lifers are “inside dissidents,” and some of them interact first online and then in person. This should be put into the context of internal diversity, increasing relations with the secular society, and changes within ultra-Orthodox communities.

The internet, especially social media, plays a major role for the underground community by offering a kind of public space protecting anonymity and allowing free expression. While internet access is needed by the ultra-Orthodox community for economic reasons, it also threatens the enclave. Thus, religious authorities have attempted to regulate and control its uses (with filters, etc.), which has led to the development of practices for bypassing control. It is not uncommon for young ultra-Orthodox Jews to have both a filtered smartphone and another unfiltered one. Moreover, some people are participants in the underground while also interacting with the religious mainstream, thus being able to influence behaviors or challenge religious authorities on specific issues. Roda shows how an underground figure was able to do so in Washington, DC, in discussions about how to cope with the pandemic in March 2020. She argues that the underground community should not be seen as strictly separate but rather as a part of the ultra-Orthodox community, with double-lifers navigating between two worlds and some rabbis showing a willingness to push limits and adjust some practices.

(Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, https://journals.openedition.org/assr/)