Louis Frankenthaler Dissonance, Dialogue and Learning in Young Haredi Men's Deconversion The 6th Annual Rabin Graduate

Conference in Political Science, International Relations and Public Policy – Hebrew University 15-16 December 2010 Panel 12: Construction of Political and Social Space
- Paper/Discussion Review Introduction: I am exploring the life stories of young ultra Orthodox Jewish (Haredi) men as they narrate their position in the Haredi (‘fundamentalist’ Judaism, discussed below) world and eventually religiously, physically, emotionally, intellectually and socially abandon it. My assumption is that the young Haredi man in the very strict and demanding Haredi Yeshiva (all male religious seminary) reaches a dissonant position as he participates in the Haredi learning community that aims to impose upon him a life he sees as oppressive. He realizes that demands of Haredi life are irreconcilable with his understanding of what is his correct position in the world. Initial research in this topic gives rise to the claim that leaving is a learning process and a struggle to find meaning in a world that impedes open channels for dialogue. I will use the term “deconversion” for leaving Haredi Judaism because it represents a process of coming to self understanding in the face of living within a totalistic, greedy and demanding (belief) system that has ceased to inform the individual in his daily life (see Barbour, 1994 and Streib & Keller, 2004). The assumption of this research is that learning/unlearning/counter learning, agency and identity, and the concept of the self in dialogue are the basic elements of deconversion. The goal of this research is to test this assumption by listening to young men who have left Haredi Judaism. Masculinity My research focuses on men because the experience of being a Haredi Jew and of deconverting is different for men and for women. The male experience permeates the Yeshiva. It starts in preschool and pursues a Haredi male well into his adult life. Arguably both systems seek to form the proper Haredi man or woman yet the Yeshiva system is a confined and monitored space in which the boy is supposed to be formed and emerge as a proper Haredi man. As the research progresses I hope to contribute to the growing research endeavors that look at masculinity and Haredi Judaism. The Haredi world places significant expectations on men to be engrossed in Jewish study on a full time basis and to, at the same time, marry and create a (usually large) family. These expectations are difficult to avoid and adhering to them is required. Hakak (2009a, b) discusses the significance of these burdens, which are monitored by authority figures such as rabbis, teachers, parents and fellow students. The proper Haredi male can and should be in control of himself, his desires and focus his energies on his studies. Hakak refers to authoritative masculinity of the Yeshiva establishment in which the core idea is “restraint, control and self- denial required of their students” (Hakak 2009b, 109, See also Stadler, 2005, Boyarin, 1997 on masculinity and Haredi Judaism). The ideal Haredi male is difficult enough to maintain for a committed member of the society but much more so when one is alienated. Deconversion I use the concept of deconversion to treat defection from Haredi Judaism, which I began to examine in previous research (Frankenthaler, 2004). Here I establish a link between deconversion and the literature on learning, agency and the “dialogical self/ ideological becoming,”1 (Tappan 1999, 2000, and 2005). That is, the individual produces meaning and learns to engage his life progressively and agentically through recognizing the dissonance as being irreconcilable with leading an acceptable life. In the case of former Haredi Jewish men this facilitates their disengagement from active Haredi life in favor of life within, though not necessarily as a part of, the wider non-Haredi society in Israel. Leaving is a complex process involving an exchange of ideas between the individual and his social setting. He dialogues between an authoritative voice, which represents the certainty of Haredi life, and his own voice,
"...‘ideological becoming’ whereby one appropriates the words, language and forms of discourse of others with whom one is in dialogue, and, in so doing, struggles to strike a balance between ‘authoritative’ and ‘internally persuasive’ forms of discourse."
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1967 Travisano. intellectual doubt. Agency is expressed in the way that the young man harnesses the resources that he develops for himself over his time in the Yeshiva in order to form the capacity to critique and subsequently leave. Third. Fundamentalism. Given the above explanation of deconversion it is helpful to understand deconversion as illustrating a hermeneutic dialogue. emotional suffering and disaffiliation from a community” (Barbour 1994. on Counter Learning and Brookfield 2001. 2010. and his discussion on coming out). there is an official Haredi discourse. is not about a particular religion or religious expression. I will make an effort to “secularize” (politicize (?)) the concept while relying on an examination of former members of a fundamentalist religious community. ideological or intellectual reasons. Berger and Luckmann. where religion no longer enlightens his life. determining not only when religious beliefs or practices are deemed to be harmful or hypocritical but when cognitive uncertainties or doubts become compelling grounds for deconversion" (1994. It is important to understand deconversion as an expression of an individual living in a controlling (ideological and/or religious2) community feeling ill at ease or out of place therein. See also Streib and Keller 2004. Deconversion. Snow and Machalek. questioning that system and making a clear and conscious effort to leave. moral criticism. writes Barbour. 2. guilt. it is important to point out. That is. 4). Deconversion encompasses. 191). 2000.Louis Frankenthaler. Agency and Learning This study understands that young men actually lose faith (including but not limited to a theological loss of faith) in Yeshiva Judaism and take action to leave that space behind and actually seek out a new social (political) space. especially such feelings of grief. & Skonovd. "Deconversion involves doubt or denial of the truth of a system of beliefs. the deconversion is about a person’s learning to interpret. Fundamentalism To be more specific. uncertainty is seen in the Haredi world as an existential threat. "I see ethical considerations as primary. according to Nagata (2001) demands stability of belief and thought: “Central to the quest for certainty is the kind of mind-set that refuses to dialogue. Research Proposal constructed in dissonance. Finally a person's deconversion is usually marked by the rejection of the community to which he or she belonged. 2 . (1970). deconversion is characterized by moral criticism of not only particular actions or practices but an entire way of life. Deconversion involves learning and agency development in the form of an evolving consciousness of “resistance. (1983)) In deconversion the religious or communal connection remains at certain levels yet theologically it is not necessarily relevant to the leaver. 2005 on ideology critique). The most compelling discussion of deconversion is John Barbour’s 1994 study of Christian adult autobiographies of abandonment of religious lives. the loss of faith brings emotional upheaval. Barbour's work on deconversion is one of the primary treatments of the subject. T. This represents the move to uncertainty and ambiguity where dialogue is ongoing. which the young man. reflect and act on his doubts and to recognize the need for transformation.” Similarly it is a specific kind of learning that takes place – counter learning and ideology critique. (On conversion see. As opposed to conversion in which a person makes major faith acceptance change. contemptuous of the Haredi world. (See also Wilkerson. 1981. Agency 2 To me there are little differences. (See for example Kucukaydin 2008. deconversion indicates a removal of a specific element of belief. loneliness and despair. or is ‘antihermeneutic’ in Marty and Appleby's terms…” (494). which thrives in uncertainty and as a critical reaction to the fundamentalist religious life in which the young man was raised and to which he was taught to adhere. Streib and colleagues (Streib et al. Meeting this challenge in his daily life necessitates a combination of agentic development and learning that is embedded in a process of dialogue. Deconversion in this regards helps us to understand it as part of a process that a person may undertake when dissonance is joined to personal ethics: "Among the reasons for which people reject a faith". Therefore. R. I view religion as an ideological expression. then. 2009 and Streib and Keller 2004) followed Barbour in their more traditional social science study of individuals who left very demanding religious communities. Lofland. religious belief without a necessary move into secularization. In other words. Similarly. must challenge. Second. The study of Haredi life and narratives of those who leave it describe it as a place where doubt and asking questions are discouraged (Frankenthaler 2004). challenging and critical. my research examines young men who leave a ‘fundamentalist’ religious community for moral.

will eventually leave. therefore. My claim is that although most young men begin the process in their mid to late teens. Emirbayer and Mische (1998). is that the person going through deconversion engages in an agentic learning exercise that involves identifying and challenging the reason for the dissonance and. (2001) and Hermans & Dimaggio. help to connect deconversion with the learning process.Louis Frankenthaler. in which ideologies are any system of ideas. Biesta and James (2008) and Kucukaydin (2008. the adult learning model remains applicable particularly to young people going through adult like situations. such as deconversion. (2007). McNay and Mahmood. navigate and improvise their way in and through socially problematic or complex situations and to utilize these experiences to facilitate change at a personal. (2005) provide important introductions to the ideas associated with dialogical self and ideological becoming and the association with the Russian literary critic M. Hermans. in which ideologies” serve the oppressor (70. with Freire’s ideas about liberation from false consciousness. Brookfield (2001. it is important to understand deconversion as a response taken by a social actor who is in a repressive situation that requires an understanding of the elemental parts that agency. agency. the rabbis know that this person is of "weak faith. and Hodkinson. As one young man put it. Bakhtin. It is an identity struggle and invokes the Bakhtinian process of authoring (Holland et al. The ability to challenge an imposed identity or belief structure. theoretically. the Haredi world. 4 On agency Sewell (1992). combining Bakhtin’s ideas about ideological becoming. For a good survey of literature on agency see Ahearn (2001)). 3 3 . n. The problem of agency is important in this research yet too vast to go into. Holland et al (1998). These conceptual components of deconversion. 2005). The ideological underpinnings of that place. and Tappan. learning and dialogical development play in the process. we raise the inherent question(s) of the ‘individual’ or ‘the self’ and the complexity of subjectivity. which demands much from the person in terms of belief and behavior. or strengthen [an existing] a dialogical process in which "what strikes us as the normal order of things is suddenly revealed through ideology critique as a constructed reality that protects the interests of the powerful" (Brookfield 2001.4 which help to extend the concept of deconversion beyond religious studies and theology. essential self? (This debate is inherent in the on going conversation between Foucault. That is. The understanding. Former Haredi Jews have pointed out that the dearth of open channels for dialogue in the Haredi world. is an expression of an individual social actor in a dissonant relationship with the figured world (see Holland et al 1998. if there is no ‘self’ is there agency? If there is agency must there be a Cartesian. in detail. 1998 p. is an agentic act. Butler. to describe it within the conceptual framework I am outlining. That is to say the idea of learning is non-formal and consists of learning in practice. such as a very orthodox and religious one. 2010). 41-42) in which he lives. Another point that this research seeks to explain and further develop in the scope of the notion of deconversion concerns how leaving the Haredi world appears to present a challenge to the discursive regime under which one lives. Deciding to leave requires the individual to challenge the single acceptable voice present in Haredi society and introduce new voices that are constructed in the course of realizing that there is no room for growth in the Haredi Yeshiva. durable.3 For Tappan (2005) however place of ideology is not so black and white. In my talk I will attempt to uncover this in greater detail. 13). lose their force and the individual must then enter. My preference is for the treatment that Holland et al offers and that of Emirbayer and Mische. Suffice it to say that when we talk about the person. often rejected or ignored. Young Men Underground: The stories of many young men who leave reveal that the agentic practice of deconversion remains underground. and ideological becoming have many interlocutors.M. learning.2005) McNay (2000). picking up on things as one goes Brookfield's treatment of ideology critique is based in adult learning theory. even when they reach out to ask questions. we understand that they were and are part of an unidentified community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991) where even in their solitude they acquire material and resources from others who may have gone through the process. 173) which is the way in which people answer their worlds. Research Proposal in this research draws on Holland et al (1998) and the ability of social actors to negotiate. here. particularly by those in authority. 16). Deconversion. In other words. “It also entails. micro and at a systematic level. Mahmood (2001. Their exit is not a process entered into lightly." But in indentifying similarities in their stories and when they come together in a social situation. unified. if finding it irreconcilable.

Similarly. 2001 p. rejects the Cartesian approach and places the person in the context of his learning. like it is in Haredi Judaism. For Moshe the agentic moment(s) were in taking his non-accepted thinking a step beyond the mind. identities. then supports the claim that deconversion is not necessarily a function of religiosity or de-religiosity. I was not able to expand on this here but it does describe a process of awareness. is less persuasive. Subsequently the alternative voices he has been able to accumulate and listen to in the process of his own “authoring” become his chief guide in the process of his ideological becoming (Holland et al. he hid alternative reading material under his assigned and accepted texts and spent significant time in public libraries exploring critical literature. he includes his own voice.d 2005). it also generates “meaninggiving perceptions” (Hodkinson. Biesta and James. habitus not only generates meaningful practices.Louis Frankenthaler. Research Proposal along (see Freeman. however. of which the Haredi/non Haredi friction is a part.” Like other interviewees. and therefore important for understanding the implications of deconversion and the abandonment of the "space that is protected from external influences and resilient to change" (Hakak. 1997. how the young men learn (or counter learn) within the Yeshiva world to leave. and refusing participation in practices that position self and other” (Holland & Lave. appropriating. for example. 40). As we learn from Tappan (1999. and is preparing to leave goes through a process of active rejection and questioning. struggle and change. as well as how leaving is part of what has become ideological becoming in other circumstances of changing perceptions of self (see Tappan 1999. Therefore. We learn not only by doing but also by reflecting upon what we do and by consciously monitoring our actions. through the integrated processes of participation and their ongoing (re) construction of their own habitus. improvising. 2005). Conclusion There is limited but significant previous research on leaving Haredi Judaism. 2009a. This concept of learning is social. From here it becomes possible to better understand the motivations and implications of broad political struggle(s). A recently interviewed participant. Moreover. 2008 p. because it cannot accept alternatives to its own very specific forms of speech. I see deconversion in the context of localized struggle of individuals as they negotiate complexity and uncertainty in the context of ideological situation that are incompatible with what they consider to be the good life. 29).5 In these processes. 4 . for example. Shaffir (1991) found that leaving Haredi Judaism involves “intense internal debate and reflection” and motivated feelings and experiences of “intense discomfort with Haredi society… a common theme revolves around the confining nature of Haredi life-style” (ibid. had spent much of his life in the Haredi world as an “undercover infidel. 1998). Shaffir. the claim is that “within any situation. In the case of deconversion. therefore. 208) to explain the manner in which the individual who leaves. Heresy is a problem in Coser's greedy institution. It is not exclusively in the mind. that learning is more than the subconscious transformation of our dispositions.). an individual may learn. 223) The examination of leaving Haredi Judaism is a matter of ongoing academic interest. According to Bourdieu. the social actor is engaged in an intensive process of discourse that takes place in a social setting. 41). where he must negotiate his coming to realize that the authoritative voice of the rabbis. “Subjectivities and their more objectified components. are formed in practice through the often collective work of evoking. deconversion narratives shed light on the ways in which agency is manifested. influenced by his dispute with the authoritative voice. 5 “Bourdieu’s notion of habitus thus helps to understand the extent to which learning happens as a result of our embodied engagement in cultural practices. p. It is important to see. Rather it is about change. to action. and like in the discussion of dialogical/ideological becoming. His analysis draws on Lewis Coser (Shaffir. that which is learned can be modified as it becomes part of the person” (Hodkinson. Holland and Lave (2001) write: “Persons-as-agents thus are always forming themselves in collective terms as they respond to the social situations they encounter locally and in their imaginations” (30). The understanding of deconversion that will emerge from this study should provide another approach to the claim that there is a natural Haredi male identity. Moshe. 2007). Biesta and James 2008.

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