Seeking a Way Out

It's different for men and women

Leah, an articulate, outspoken, professional 40-yearold woman, left her Hasidic family and community at the age of 19. While her brothers had received a very intensive, serious education, Leah, like other girls in her community, went to a school where she was taught ‘”Judaism lite.’ We just learned the Torah over and over and over again. There was no Talmud at all. And, they taught us only their particular interpretation of the Torah and did not expose us to the entire real thing. I think when I finally read the story of Tamar [who, in Genesis 38, disguises herself as a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law] I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this!”

When Leah was seven or eight, she was told that she could no longer go with her father to the little shtieblach, the small, intimate synagogues, often located in homes, which she had so enjoyed. “Once I could no longer go with my father, I did not go at all. My mother would make me set the table or just do stuff around the house and it was boring and stupid. At that point, my participation in religion ended.” As Leah grew into adolescence, the attention she received in her household diminished. “My mother felt that the boys were more important. She was more proud to have them. When I was younger, I sat next to my father on Shabbos—1 was the eldest—but when my brothers were getting bigger, they sat next to him. And all of a sudden, the focus became getting them to shul on time, their davening [praying], their education. Although I did well in school, it just did not matter.”

By the time her brothers became bar mitzvah, the excitement over their lives revealed the ordinariness of hers as a girl: “I felt alone, and could not find my place at that time… I’m a young woman, but I don’t want to do the women’s role. I don’t want to be like my mother and not go to shul so I can stay home and cook….There was just no place for me in the religious world!” Tills response was reinforced when, as a high school student, she discovered Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” “I had found my book!”

During her teenage years, “I was talking, you know, liberation. They wanted girls to just shut up, look pretty and get married. And I was saying stuff like, ‘But why? Why should we do the dishes?’ And this talk became disturbing to everybody and 1 just felt compelled; I could not stop my feelings, though my life would have been simpler if I could have It just became claustrophobic .Eventually I stopped observing Shabbos altogether.” Within a few years she married a man who was also rebelling, and together they moved out and began to live secular lives.

Chaim, an intense and intellectual man, left the Lubavitch Hasidic world of his upbringing in his early twenties. “I was an autodidact. I taught myself to read English at the age of five. I would sneak away to the library; I learned about the world though books. Philosophy and science were my ultimate passions and interests. I suppose in Morristown [the location of his all-male Lubavitch yeshiva], when I skipped class to go read what I liked, I had something of an experience of rationality. So at age 17 I reached a certain point where I could not reconcile what I was reading in the library with what I was studying in the yeshiva I saw that there really is no absolute truth. It was like I ascended the ladder of reason.”

Like many other men who left the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, Chaim also spoke about trying to reconcile his natural adolescent impulses for sexual self-exploration with the rabbi’s exhortations about Judaism’s stringent prohibitions against masturbation. “I’m supposed to feel guilty about all of this… that I had my body, I had my natural urges, and they were telling me that this is wrong. This self-abnegation in the doctrines of the Lubavitch made me feel terrible about myself and reinforced my sense that this world was a mental and physical ghetto whose boundaries I had to escape.”

Girls and women have a different experience. Unlike Chaim, Leah and the other women I interviewed did not describe feeling guilty because they wanted to masturbate and were explicitly forbidden to do so. As Leah expostulated: “…from the sexuality point of view, you are just repressed. There’s just nothing happening. O.K. I mean, you’re not.. .your vagina’s never given a name. Like nothing… you’re just like you don’t have anything. O.K., or they have something, and that’s it. They don’t even tell you don’t have anything. Their ideas about women’s modesty and their failure to talk to us at all made me so just so shy and embarrassed!”

Leah’s and Chaim’s stories reflect themes that came up repeatedly in interviews. The Haredi community’s very distinct roles and expectations for women and men created obvious gender differences in the ways people exited from the Haredi worlds. Chaim had, as a male, been encouraged to excel as a scholar, and he applied these skills to secular knowledge; ironically, the emphasis on male immersion in text study precipitated his exit. Leah, in contrast, angrily described her growing realization that she was denied all the highly valued opportunities for learning and public ritual behavior that were available to men. The emphasis on modesty produced women who experienced not an adolescence of sexual frustration, but rather one of ignorance about their bodies. And, consistent with the emphasis on marriage as the central goal of a young woman’s life, Leah found a similarly disenchanted man who became her segue into the secular world. For both men and women, the communities’ emphasis on gender role expectations ironically provided the leavers with their pathways out of the community.

Lynn Davidman, a Professor of Judaic Studies and American Studies at Brown University is currently working on a book titled On Leaving Orthodoxy, about women and men in Israel and the U.S. who have left Haredi and modern Orthodox communities.