How does Judaism deal with apostasy?

When an Orthodox turns away from God and becomes a secret atheist

If a devout Jew loses his faith, he usually also loses the whole social environment. The story of a man who leads a double life to save his family.

Week after week, Chajm Melzer puts on his kippah, goes to the synagogue and pretends to be a devout Jew. But it is not. Chaim Melzer has fallen away from the faith. But nobody in his community is allowed to know. Because his children and his wife are still believers. They are afraid of becoming outsiders if it becomes known that the father and husband are an apostate, an apostate. Chajm Melzer is therefore a pseudonym. And the biographical key points are deliberately kept blurred.

For a long time in his life there is nothing to indicate that Melzer would ever break away from God and lead a double life. He grew up in a modern Orthodox milieu. In Israel it would be called national religious. The clothes are modern, even as a child he didn't have sidelocks. But the practice of faith is strict. The family eats kosher, the areas for meat and dairy dishes in the kitchen are strictly separated. Almost every day Chajm goes to the synagogue with his father and receives regular religious lessons. It is not completely cut off from the secular world, as is partly the case with the ultra-orthodox. But almost all of his friends are as devout as he is.

Life without God is pointless

After graduating from high school, Chajm attended a religious school, the yeshiva, where he studied the Torah and Talmud intensively. He then does an apprenticeship as a businessman. In his mid-twenties, he is seized by curiosity: He wants to know what it's like on the “other” side. For a couple of weeks he tries a non-religious life. He doesn't like it. “I was too indoctrinated and convinced of the idea that there was a purpose in life,” Melzer remembers today. "A life without God seemed pointless to me."

After four months, he ends his secular experiment. Later religious friends introduce him to his future wife. She also comes from a modern Orthodox family. The arrangement works, after a few weeks they are engaged, and the wedding will follow soon. He and his wife move to the Swiss city where they live today. Both soon find a job and the couple start a family.

After a few years, Melzer met an Israeli who went to the synagogue regularly, but was an atheist. This challenges him with critical questions about religion. "I thought I had to strengthen my faith further in order to be able to answer - but the opposite happened." Melzer comes to the conclusion that science, such as the theory of evolution, provides much more satisfactory explanations for him than religion. “There are so many problematic places in the Bible. And the biblical criticism had better answers to my questions than the apologetic works. "

What's true?

Melzer's personal emancipation process takes a long time. He must first acquire the spiritual instruments to think scientifically and rationally. “Of course I was intellectually stimulated in the yeshiva. But it was never about the fundamental question of what is true and what is not - this was simply presupposed by faith. "

Years passed before Melzer dared to confess to his wife that he no longer believed in God. He's afraid that she might part with him. “But my wife reacted much better than I expected. She was sad, but in time she was able to accept it. " She advises him to see a psychotherapist. There he learns something that is completely new to him: "Everyone can find their own way in life - that was not intended for me."

There is more than one way: That is also the message that Melzer and a former Orthodox comrade are spreading on Kleber in a neighborhood where many devout Jews live. «Derachim», is written on the stickers, in Hebrew for «ways». This is a bit of a provocation, because the word Derech in the singular does not simply mean "way" for Orthodox, but also the "right way".

Much is at stake

The stickers were a message to other doubting Jews that they had like-minded people out there. But hardly anyone got in touch. There are good reasons why few people leave the religious milieu. That few dare to do what the New Yorker Deborah Feldman dared and later described in her bestseller “Unorthodox” - also filmed by Netflix. For ultra-orthodox people in particular, there is an enormous amount at stake: A break with one's faith often also means a break with the family and the whole social environment. In addition, many devout believers received a purely religious education and would have poor chances on the secular job market. Apostasy is therefore hardly an option, especially when there are still many children to be fed.

The situation is different for the group of Modern Orthodox, which has become more heterogeneous in terms of religious practice in recent decades. Like Chajm Melzer, they usually have jobs in a non-Jewish environment and are therefore constantly confronted with the modern world. “A lot is in flux in this milieu,” says the scientist Michel Bollag, who until recently was an assistant rabbi at the Israelite Cultus Community in Zurich. "People grapple with statements of faith and do not blindly accept them, as is more likely the case in an ultra-orthodox environment." In questions of religious practice, too, there is a wide range in terms of the severity with which one obeys the commandments.

The fact that hardly anyone renounces Judaism, according to Bollag, has little to do with an unconditional belief in God - such a belief became more complicated for many after the Shoah - but with culture and fate: “Many generations before us have the chain of Judaism do not let it break off, despite all doubts. Now you don't want to be the one to break with tradition. You feel that you belong to the community, take part in church services and celebrate religious festivals with the community. " But Bollag also admits that those wishing to leave the community rightly feared exclusion phenomena.

It is in this field of tension that Chajm Melzer moves. "It is not always easy for my wife to remain a believer, but we are working on having a future as a family." And what about the kids? Melzer quotes the religious critic Richard Dawkins: There are just as few "Jewish" or "Christian" children as there are politically "right" or "left" children - that is ultimately just indoctrination by their parents. He still fails in his attempt to encourage scientific thinking in children, says Melzer and laughs. “They don't really care. The majority of their friends are religious and they feel comfortable in this environment. "

The value of the doubt

But the mere fact that they see how father and mother have different views on many points will shape the worldview of his children, believes Melzer. If they decide to live a modern Orthodox life as an adult, he has no problem with that, he emphasizes. It would be different if they chose an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. "Then there would be serious discussions with me!" He doesn't want his children not to learn a real profession and have to live in a “suffocating”, ultra-patriarchal environment.

Melzer is burdened by the fact that he has to pretend to be someone he no longer is. The high Jewish holidays such as the upcoming New Year festival Rosh Hashanah, during which he has to sit for hours in the synagogue, are a difficult time for him. Melzer would love to be coming out. But out of consideration for his wife and children, he will probably wait a long time and continue his double life.

After all, he doesn't have to pretend to be everywhere: his closest friends and work colleagues know everything. And he confessed his apostasy to his parents too. He feared an emotional reaction, says Melzer. But there was no uproar, as shown in the hit movie "Wolkenbruch". «My parents already suspected something like that. My mother just said: 'You are my son, it is enough for me if you are a good person.'