In a pandemic that isolates people from each other and their religious communities, digital media has made it possible to gather in ways that approximate face-to-face interactions. Zoom funerals, holiday celebrations, and worship are all par for the course these days. Yet there are all kinds of material properties and affordances that make every communication channel distinctive, and we do not know yet if or how digital practices during the pandemic will affect religious life in the long term. Ethnographers, even restricted as we are now from in-person research, are particularly well suited to studying how religious worlds lived on digital media might be changing in unexpected ways.

My new book, Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age, offers some inspiration for conducting digital anthropology, online ethnography in a wider social context, during the pandemic. For the past decade, ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York have been waging a war against digital media, what they call “internet” or in Yiddish “kaylim” (devices). Even this past spring, during the peak of the pandemic, when everything moved online, ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leaders did not change their restrictive policies, with many opting to meet in person instead of allowing unfiltered internet access in homes. Hidden Heretics analyzes how and why the internet became a flashpoint for wider ultra-Orthodox debates over authority and truth, faith and doubt at a historical moment of economic, generational, and political communal changes.

Though the ultra-Orthodox case is, of course, particular, it calls attention to how digital media may affect religious communities during the pandemic and our methods for studying them. I explore these possibilities here through three interlinked themes: the formation of publics and counterpublics, digital language and communication, and changing ideas about a new medium.

Digital media and gendered counterpublics

What are the affordances of a medium and how do those affordances create possibilities for the formation of gendered publics and counterpublics?

In the mid-2000s ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership began blaming digital media for what many called a “crisis of emuna (faith)”: the fear that despite robust demographic growth, there were too many with life-changing doubt, the doubt that refused to stay inside individuals and disrupted religious practice. This doubt rejects the truth of divine revelation at Sinai, which undermines the validity of Jewish law (halakha), the commandments that govern every aspect of ultra-Orthodox life. Life-changing doubt caused some to leave their communities while others, the subjects in Hidden Heretics, lived what they called “double lives,” continuing to practice publicly to protect their loved ones, while they secretly explored other ways of being in the world, online and in-person.

For many living double lives, the Jewish blogosphere and then social media, especially Facebook and WhatsApp, facilitated anonymous, yet intimate, interaction with fellow travelers, who provided evidence to each other and themselves that they were not, as so many rabbis and some religious therapists claimed, “crazy” or “mentally ill.” Double lifers’ digital practices created a heretical counterpublic—what Michael Warner defines as a marginalized group’s assertion of a parallel public that critiques the dominant public sphere. Those living double lives experimented with expressing their changing beliefs using new media, new genres (e.g., autobiography, parody), and languages (e.g., standard English with its links to secular literature). In effect, they wrote and read their changing interior selves into being with like-minded others, while they protected their public, religiously practicing selves.

Any new medium is interpreted through a wider media ecology, with its own temporalities. Rabbinic leaders and hidden heretics both rejected modernity’s narrative of progress, instead sharing the belief in generational decline (yerides ha-doyres) that came with growing distance from divine revelation. In a bid for intellectual legitimacy, many male hidden heretics called themselves maskilim, adopting the term for eighteenth and nineteenth century Jewish Enlighteners in Central and Eastern Europe. Rabbinic leaders responded that today’s maskilim were not even at the same level as heretics past, denying that there might be intellectual reasons for life-changing doubt. Maskilim in Europe were almost exclusively male, as were the majority of hidden heretics. The contemporary heretical counterpublic was a predominantly male digital space too, just as the ultra-Orthodox religious public sphere was, though women hidden heretics were silent readers and more actively involved in smaller online and in-person get-togethers.

Digital media and language

How might digital media use during the pandemic affect varieties of language? And how do what Webb Keane calls semiotic ideologies, cultural beliefs about signs, shape communication more broadly?

The materiality of a new technology or medium can have larger implications for how communication itself might be changing, but language use on a new medium is equally important. In the heretical counterpublic, digital reading and writing created the possibility for new varieties of language use that took on life in other contexts and created alternative reading publics with their own authority. Hasidic men living double lives, for example, who had grown up using Yiddish as a spoken vernacular and reading primarily for religious study, began to write in new ways in Yiddish in forums, such as Kave Shitbl or on WhatsApp groups. There they expressed “enlightened” ideas, drawing on forbidden bodies of knowledge and experimenting with new desires and aesthetics of language. Hidden heretics wrote long Yiddish posts arguing over the meaning of life, wrote poetry, and debated the merits of movies, secular books, and language itself.

But the power or threat of what I call “Hasidic Enlightened Yiddish” was that it inverted an ultra-Orthodox semiotic ideology: that Jewish content and form could uplift any medium. New technologies and media had long been made “kosher” in this way by the ultra-Orthodox. Hidden heretics, however, took an innately Jewish medium, Yiddish, and used it to express heretical, enlightened ideas, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Some told me that reading enlightened ideas in a “haymish” (familiarly ultra-Orthodox) Yiddish, was shocking: how could someone just like them, a community insider, express such heretical ideas in their “holy” vernacular? As one hidden heretic said, “It really made me think.” Eventually, some hidden heretics began publishing a print Yiddish journal, Der Veker (the Awoken), which had such enlightened ideas that it had to be delivered to homes in a brown paper cover, since ultra-Orthodox stores refused to carry it.

When the medium becomes the message (H/T Marshall McLuhan)

When does a medium become a political public concern, a proxy for wider struggles over authoritative truth? And what does following the twists and turns of a new digital medium over time tell us about broader notions of the person, ethics, and gendered authority?

Answering these questions requires ethnographically tracing shifting anxieties and debates over a new medium. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinic leadership’s explanations for the danger of the internet changed over time, from a focus on content to blaming the medium itself, though both the content and medium endangered pure Jewish souls. Controlling the medium was a way to protect ultra-Orthodox religious authority, institutions, and narratives.

At first, ultra-Orthodox rabbis warned against online content and unsupervised computer use, specifically the easy access to shmutz or porn, which led to the sin of masturbation. However, as they grew digitally savvier, some began to rail against inappropriate interactions online—between men and women and among those with heretical or enlightened ideas. As a speaker at the Citifield Asifa (rally) warned in 2012, “The internet is changing who we are!” Eventually, some ultra-Orthodox leaders decided the medium disrupted a Jew’s innate capacity for individualized ethical struggle. When Orthodox Jews have a sinful thought, Rabbi Cohen told an assembled group, and they go online, they find unethical others who validate the sinful thought, rather than struggle individually with their inclination for evil (yeyster hore) as God intended.

Despite new rules gradually imposed by rabbinic leadership and enforced by their private ultra-Orthodox schools, many men refused to give up their smartphones or just added a “kosher phone” and kept their smartphones secretly. At that point, some rabbinic leaders turned to women, deputizing them as authorities at home. Some held huge rallies for women and girls, where rabbis wept and lectured, begging all assembled to protect the sanctity of their homes and the next generation even if their husbands did not have the strength to do so. This gave women unwelcome religious authority at home, since men were expected to be the spiritual (rukhnius) authorities of their households. Many women at the rallies were, indeed, moved, and later traded in their smartphones for kosher flip phones. Most recently, rabbis focused their attention on school-aged children. Boys and girls learned in school assemblies that smartphones could pollute or corrupt them, just through touch or even proximity, almost like second-hand smoke. This led, however, to an unintended disruption in parental religious authority, since parents pass on Jewish tradition (mesora) to their children. How could respectful ultra-Orthodox children fulfill the commandment of honoring their parents when that parent had a smartphone, even a filtered one?

Moving forward in the pandemic

Central to my research methodology was following hidden heretics wherever they went, to account for how life-changing doubt was lived on different media. Between 2013-2019, I followed networks of double lifers in New York, from their posts on Facebook and WhatsApp to meet-ups in bars, and at late-night parties, restaurants, and concerts. In interviews, those living double lives told me about keeping secrets from children and still-religious spouses, which I then observed by participating in family events, like weddings, where hidden heretics lived with competing ethics. The ultra-Orthodox crisis of authority was fought over bodies, languages, and material culture, on digital media of many kinds and in-person.

But that was a different time. As social life, including religion, has moved online, ethnographic methods will need to follow suit. Tom Boellstorff suggests that “virtual anthropology” is not that different from ethnography in-person. There is some truth to that. Public, easily accessible online events, such as rituals, institutional websites, and programming offer scholars one way in as we document lived religion during the pandemic. Another way in, I have suggested here, is to follow debates about digital media and religious authority in the context of cultural and religious temporalities, gendered publicity, and gendered language and communication. The more explicit we can be about the affordances of different media and their methodological challenges now, the better equipped we will be to follow religious worlds as we all move into an unimaginable future.

Note of acknowledgement: Thanks to Mona Oraby and Orit Avishai.