A young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman once contacted me with a serious question: ”Should I leave the ultra-Orthodox community?” My reply to her was, “Since you have asked, ‘Should I?’ — then the answer is, ‘No!’”
Leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish fold is called in Hebrew yetzia bishe’elah — literally, “leaving with a question.” It is a difficult and often traumatizing process that has recently come into focus with the suicide in Israel of two ex-ultra-Orthodox men in their 20s.
My advice to that young woman was to make her decision only when she could say, “I must leave.” Only when she had no other choice. Only when the Jewish principle of pikuah nefesh, saving a life, applied. Only when — literally — her soul’s very life depended on it.
The biblical principle of pikuah nefesh dictates that the saving of a human life trumps all other divine commands; the Hebrew words actually mean “danger to a soul.” My advice was (and is) simply this: “Do not leave your community unless you know for certain that your soul can no longer continue to exist in your ultra-Orthodox body; unless you know that to stay there is spiritual suicide.”
In the course of my volunteer work counseling ex-ultra-Orthodox people in Jerusalem, I have met dozens of such courageous yotzim bishe’elah. The “question” they leave with is, first of all, their own question — about their Jewish identity. There is another “question” evoked here as well: the question their decision raises in us, about what our own attitudes and actions should be toward those whose spiritual journey is divergent from the norm. And what is “leaving with a question,” if not the very definition of a spiritual quest? In English, then, to call these people “Questers” seems very apt.
Jewish Questers certainly cannot be lumped into any one category. They differ in their reasons for leaving, in their personal stories and in the various ways they cope with their many difficulties. And yet, most of them left their community for the sake of pikuah nefesh, and so did I.
I have no desire to critique the ultra-Orthodox. I was raised in a modern Hasidic family, the wonderful values of which I deeply appreciate. The reason I left my community was certainly not that I felt that its values are less worthy than the values of any secular or Western society. Of course the ultra-Orthodox society has more than a few problematic characteristics; but problems abound in non-ultra-Orthodox society, too.