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I left because I wanted to be closer to God, and to holiness, nature, humanity and beauty. I did not believe that this closeness would be “easier” in secular non-ultra-Orthodox society, but I did realize that if I remained enclosed within the way I had been living, I would only reach a dead end.
It is a mistake to think that the world outside the ultra-Orthodox community is only secular; it really offers all kinds of options. My “leaving with a question” allowed me to enter a dialogue with secular people, but also with deeply religious Muslims and Christians. And that is not all. Needless to say, inside the ultra-Orthodox world I would never have engaged in genuine dialogue with gay men and lesbians, nor with women (as equals), nor with Palestinians.
To characterize Questers as simply “trying to be secular” is not only wrong, but also dangerous, because it denies spiritual validity to our journey, and paints us as the enemies of religion. The truth is, we simply cannot continue to be ultra-Orthodox; this should not make us outcasts. Some of us will join secular Jewish society, some will join other communities; some Questers, truthfully, will never find their place in any social context. But all of us are seeking.
Defenders of ultra-Orthodoxy do not want to see Questers be successful in embracing another way, because then more people will decide to leave. However, all Jews should understand the sacred principle of pikuah nefesh. Ultra-Orthodox Jews should be made to understand that for yotzim bishe’elah it is a matter of life or death. To force Questers to stay against their will is to impose on them a kind of death sentence.
Heidegger argued that while the atheist has abandoned the possibility of faith, Nietzsche’s “madman” still seeks God, since he cries out for Him. This figure represents any person who has the spiritual passion to continue to seek the unknown. Crying, grieving and wordless, he expresses the inability to talk to God or about God. At the same time, crying and weeping express a deep attitude of caring, and a passion for the possibility of the existence of the transcendent. This is the passion of the Quester.
The tragic suicide of yotzim bishe’elah should move us beyond religious cynicism, and open our ears to the cry of people in deep spiritual need. Is their need not our own? It is essential that ultra-Orthodox communities train a group of rabbis to work with yotzim bishe’elah in a pastoral and enlightened way. Together we can find the balance point of engagement, a way that will allow ultra-Orthodox society to maintain its values, while at the same time stopping the psychological and physical violence directed against those Questers who desire and need to leave.
Yakir Englander is a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Northwestern University.