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.
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.