Tag Archives: religion

Crossing the Ultra-Orthodox Boundary

When modern Jews cross the boundary to other spiritual paths, there is often little resistance from family and friends. There are exceptions. Of the fourteen I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary, three had families with strong objections who made attempts to intervene. Psychiatrists were hired and in one case a deprogrammer, to change the direction of the spiritual seeker. Generally, the more Orthodox the family, the more resistance. When it comes to boundaries, the Orthodox have strong ones, and the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredi or Hasidic,* have ultra-strong ones.

I just finished reading the memoir of Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return.*  Deen tells the chilling story of life in the ultra-Orthodox community of New Square, NY, where the Skverer Jews make their home. He goes on to share his slow but steady awakening to the completely alien world of modern America and his growing doubts about the rules and beliefs of his people. The children of New Square are raised in the most insular of the insular, where even the practices and choices of the ultra-Orthodox neighboring areas are frowned upon. The schools barely teach English, let alone any skills that might enable employment outside their community. Connections to the wider society, computers, TV, etc. are taboo. As with cults in general, those outside the group are viewed with suspicion and believed to “hate us.”

He describes with clarity and honesty his feelings and inner thought processes as a child giving vivid testimony to what happens to the natural questioning mind when the prime directive is, “Obey.” Obey the commandments; obey the rabbi’s interpretation of the commandments; obey the rules and codes of the community. And he shares what happens to those who don’t, including ostracism, harassment, violence and excommunication. Yet, year after year, his questions grew and his doubts mounted to where he no longer believed any of it, not even the fundamental belief of Judaism: that there is a God.

Deen ultimately crossed the boundary to secular American life. His experiences in the Haredi world led him to be an unbeliever, a heretic, an apostate, and yet it took a great deal of courage to leave the familiar world in which he grew up and face the uncertainty of life outside the protective physical and psychic walls of the Skverer community. The price he paid was to lose his family and almost his mind. It’s a powerful story and very well told. Like the stories in Crossing the Boundary, it has relevance to all of us, Jews and non-Jews, religious, spiritual or secular.

While the boundaries of the ultra-Orthodox are extremely intense, they are also quite clear. Most of us deal with boundaries that are more difficult to see and therefore are often more hidden from awareness. We may scoff at those with extremely rigid religious beliefs, but still be unable to hear or open to understandings and experiences of reality that challenge our own. It’s always struck me as ironic that the so-called “new atheists” have such a strong belief in the denial of any reported experiences that might point beyond a strict materialist view of the universe. While some religious people deny empirical science that contradicts a literal reading of their scriptures, these atheists will discount all reports of esp phenomena, near-death and out-of-body experiences, energy healing, etc. because those observations contradict the theory that consciousness arises from matter, human brain matter.

At the end of his book, Shulem tells us that he is still on his journey of discovery. I wish him the best in opening to the many threads of human wisdom, including the spiritual lineages, for their gifts. He will find that this can be done freely, without having to buy into the patriarchal and coercive group pressures of the hierarchical institutions that make claim to these teachings and distort them.

Notes: The terms ultra-Orthodox and Haredi are non-judgmental terms used to describe Orthodox Jews who dress and seek to maintain the very strict ways of religious Jews from the specific areas of Europe from which they emigrated. Chasidic (or Hasidic) Jews are one branch of the Haredi. The Skverer are as well. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haredi_Judaism

All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir, by Shulem Deen, Graywolf Press, Minn. 2015

Published in the New Yorker!

OK, the subject line is an attention getter. But it’s true, my recent blog post, “A Jew at Maundy Thursday” was published in the Episcopal New Yorker, the official news publication of the Episcopal Diocese of New York in their recent “Love vs. Tolerance Issue.” (See it here: http://www.evergreeneditions.com/publication/?i=266826),

IMG_0638        More exciting is the fact that I now have a final proof copy of Crossing the Boundary – Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths in my hands. It looks great and having read it through one more time I am convinced that it is a valuable contribution to the awakening of spiritual awareness and the role of group identity in human evolution. As well, of course, another view of the several millennial journey of the Jewish people.

Those of you who contributed to my Kickstarter campaign should be receiving your signed copy of the book very shortly. At that time, I will officially “launch” the book and hope you will help me by forwarding the announcement to your friends and colleagues. I’ll be sending that message as soon as books are available for order.

In the meantime, below are a few more statements from folks I’ve asked to read and comment on the book.


“In Crossing the Boundary Alan Levin has assembled a group of spiritual teachers who show us that the deepest way to become authentically ourselves is to build connections with the variety of spiritual and religious traditions that we previously thought of as ‘other.’ A boundary crosser himself, Levin has much to teach all of us who seek to deepen our own spiritual lives.”
–Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor Tikkun and chair, the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Author of Jewish Renewal and Healing Israel/Palestine.

“In Crossing the Boundary, Alan Levin presents and demonstrates the restless spiritual curiosity and courage that distinguishes Jewish people everywhere. The ‘God Wrestlers’ interviewed here are not content with simply repeating prayers of the past but are part of the on-going struggle to discover the deepest highest truth alive today and imagine a sustainable tomorrow. Each unique personality, following their heart, discovered divinity that both altered and affirmed their original faith. Although meant as a study of identity, Crossing the Boundary is an affirmation of spiritual intelligence, resistance to easy answers, and universal love that renews the world.”

–Alex Grey, Artist, Author, Co-Founder CoSM, Chapel of Sacred Mirrors

“Alan Levin has written a thoroughly absorbing account of his interviews with fourteen spiritual teachers in a variety of traditions and how they have connected with as well as separated from their ancestral Jewishness. In our contemporary world men and women of Jewish family origin and religious upbringing have become not just practitioners but also teachers of Catholic, Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, Shamanic, Taoist and Sikh spiritual doctrines and practices. These individuals have not rejected their Jewish tradition but built on it and integrated its essence into their chosen life-way. Surely this is a 20th century phenomenon: from the often gruesome persecution history of European Jewry has emerged a synergistic rainbow of spiritual teachings that honors the ancestral wisdom and devotion embedded in traditional Jewish religious life. This book offers rich and moving testimony to this unique historic process.”
–Ralph Metzner, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology, Emeritus,California Institute of Integral Studies Author, The Unfolding Self, and The Well of Remembrance.