I wasn't the first to be expelled from our village, though I'd never known any of the others. I'd only heard talk of them, hushed reminiscences of ancient episodes in the history of our half-century-old village, tales of various subversives who sought to destroy our fragile unity. The group of Belzers who tried to form their own prayer group, the young man rumored to have studied the books of the Breslovers, even the rebbe's own brother-in-law, accused of fomenting sedition against the rebbe.
But I was the first to be expelled for heresy.
The call came on a Sunday evening, while Gitty and I were having dinner with our children.
"Shulem, this is Yechiel Spitzer," a deep male voice said, and then paused. "Can you be at the dayan's office for a meeting at ten?"
Yechiel was a member of both the Education Committee and the Modesty Committee, which were, together, tasked with looking after the behavior of individuals in our village, ensuring that they wore the right clothes and attended the right synagogues and thought the right thoughts.
"What kind of meeting?" I asked.
"The bezdin would like to speak with you," Yechiel said.
The bezdin was our village's rabbinical court, a three-member body that issued regular edicts on urgent religious matters—banning Internet use, or condemning unauthorized prayer groups, or regulating proper head-coverings for women—at the head of which sat the dayan, our village's chief rabbinical judge.
Yechiel waited for my response, and when I said nothing, he said, "You might want to bring someone along. You may not want to be alone."
His tone was oddly flat, which sounded like a deliberate affect, as if to underscore the gravity of his call. I didn't know Yechiel well, but we were friendly enough when we passed on the street, or if we happened to be sitting next to each other at a shiva or a bar mitzvah. Clearly, though, this was not a friendly call.
When I returned to our dinner table, Gitty raised an eyebrow, and I shook my head. Nothing important. She pursed her lips and held my gaze for a moment, and I turned back to my plate of leftover chulent from yesterday's Sabbath lunch. The children seemed happily oblivious. Tziri, our eldest, had her eyes in a book. Hershy and Freidy were giggling into each other's ears. Chaya Suri and Akiva were squabbling because Chaya Suri had looked at Akiva's dinner plate and Akiva said he couldn't eat food that Chaya Suri had looked at.
Gitty continued giving me silent glances, until I looked up at her and sighed. "I'll tell you later."
She rolled her eyes, and then stood up to clear the plates off the table.
I looked at my watch. It was just after six.
I wasn't entirely surprised by the call. I had heard from friends that word was getting around the village: Shulem Deen has become a heretic.
If heresy was a sin in our all-Hasidic village in Rockland County, New York, it was not an ordinary one. Unlike the yeshiva student who ordered a taxicab each night to get away for an hour of karate lessons, or the girl spotted wearing a skirt that didn't fully cover her knees, or the schoolteacher who complained of the rebbe's lengthy Sabbath noon prayers, heresy was a sin our people were unaccustomed to. Heresy was a sin that baffled them. In fact, real heresy, the people in our village believed, did not happen in our time, and certainly not in our village, and so when they heard there was a heretic in their midst, they were not sure what to make of it.
"Doesn't he know that the Rambam already answered all questions?" the rebbe had asked.
The Rambam, also known as Moses Maimonides, was a twelfth-century Jewish scholar and philosopher, perhaps the greatest of all time. His gravestone in the city of Tiberias, Israel, declares: "From Moses to Moses, there has risen no one like Moses." In our study halls, we pored over his legal codes and his famous Commentary on the Mishna. We told tales of his righteousness and his scholarship. We named our children after him.
But we did not study his philosophy.
It was said that the Rambam's most notable philosophical work, the Guide for the Perplexed, was so great and so brilliant that it was meant only for the most learned. For everyone else, to study it was unnecessary. The important thing was to know that it contained all the answers, and so all further questions were pointless.
"Doesn't he know that the Rambam already answered all questions?"
I don't know if the rebbe in fact said that. I had heard it from friends, who heard it from other friends, and rumors in our village weren't always reliable. What I did know was that the rebbe was the village's supreme leader, and nothing of consequence happened without his direct involvement. And so when I was told to appear before the bezdin, I knew that the order had come all the way from the rebbe.
At exactly 10:00 PM, I walked up the dirt path to the side entrance of the dayan's home. The dayan's authority came from his extensive knowledge of Torah, but his office was an extension of the rebbe's. If the rebbe was our chief executive, the dayan and his bezdin were our judiciary and law enforcement.
The gravity of his office notwithstanding, the dayan was a kind and gentle scholar. Back when I was a yeshiva student, more than a decade earlier, I had spent hours with him in talmudic discussion. During the years following, I had walked this very path hundreds of times for various personal and familial matters, bringing palm fronds to be inspected before the Sukkos holiday, undergarments to be inspected for menstrual blood, chickens with discolored flesh to be inspected for signs of injury.
Now, once again I walked up the familiar flight of stairs onto the weather-beaten wooden porch and knocked on the door. Through a window I could see the light on, and from inside came voices, vehement ones, argumentative, disturbed. I waited a few moments and knocked again, and the door was opened by Yechiel Spitzer, who gestured to a small room off to the side.
"Wait there," he said curtly, and disappeared into the dayan's office across the hall. I sat in an old chair near a small table and listened to the hum of voices coming from the next room. After a few minutes, Berish Greenblatt joined me. Berish and I had been close for years, ever since he had been my teacher at a Brooklyn school when I was a teenager and he'd invited me to his home for the Sabbath when my father was ill and in the hospital. Now, years later, we had grown apart—he, still the pious scholarly type and I the rumored heretic. Still, his presence was comforting, even though neither of us knew what to expect.
Soon we were summoned into the dayan's office. The dayan sat at the center of a small table strewn with religious texts, surrounded by two other rabbis of the bezdin and four other men, leading members of the community.
The dayan smiled warmly, almost beatifically, his face framed in his sprawling gray beard.
"Sit, sit," he said, and pointed to an empty chair facing him across the table.
I sat and looked around, while Berish took a seat behind me. The men facing me were pressed tightly together, nervously fingering the books on the table, stroking their beards and tugging at their mustaches. A few exchanged whispered remarks, and soon one of the men began to speak. His name was Mendel Breuer, a man known for both shrewdness and piety. It was said that he was as comfortable negotiating a voting bloc for an elected official as he was delivering a Talmud lecture to a group of businessmen each morning.
"We have heard rumors," Mendel began. "We have heard rumors and we don't know if they're true, but you understand, rumors alone are bad."
He paused and looked at me, as if expecting me to show agreement of some sort.
"People say you're an apikorus. People say you don't believe in God." He raised his shoulders to his ears, spread his palms, and opened his eyes wide. "How does one not believe in God? I don't know." He said this as if he were genuinely curious. Mendel was an intelligent man, and here was a question that, given the time and inclination, one might seek to discuss. But now was not the time, and so he went on to tell me more about what people were saying.
I was speaking ill of the rebbe.
I was no longer praying.
I disparaged the Torah and the teachings of our sages.
I was corrupting other people. Young people. Innocent people.
In fact, people were saying that I had corrupted a yeshiva boy just last week. Corrupted him so badly that the boy left his parents' home, and—Mendel didn't know if this was true, but so people were saying—went to live with goyim in Brooklyn. It was rumored that the boy planned to attend college.
People were saying, Mendel further informed me, that something must be done. People were very concerned, and people were saying that the bezdin must act.
"If people are saying that the bezdin must act, you understand, we can't very well do nothing."
Yechiel Spitzer, sitting at the very end of the table, twirled a few hairs beneath his lower lip and absentmindedly placed one hair between his front teeth. The three rabbis sat with their eyes downcast.
"You understand," Mendel went on, "that this is not about causing pain to you or your family."
Here he paused and looked at the dayan, before putting his palms flat on the table and looking at me directly.
"We have come to the conclusion that you must leave the village."
I was being expelled, though in those moments, I wasn't sure how to feel about it. My initial thought was to defend myself, to declare it all lies, hateful gossipmongering. But the truth was, I no longer belonged here. This was a community of the faithful, and I was no longer one of them.
And yet, to be expelled was different from leaving voluntarily. To be expelled is to be rejected, and to be rejected is to be disgraced. There were also Gitty and the children to think about. This village was the place Gitty and I had called home for the twelve years of our marriage. It was where our five children were born and where they had dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, all within a ten-minute walk from any point in the village. This was our hometown. Only two years earlier, we'd purchased a four-bedroom semi-attached townhouse, imagining we'd be living there for a good portion of the rest of our lives. It was not a luxurious home, but it was spacious and sunny and fresh—we bought it new, the smell of paint and polyurethane still in the air the day we moved in—and we had grown fond of it. We'd planted a tree in the front yard. We'd gotten a good price on the house and an excellent rate on the mortgage.
And so I told the rabbis that it wasn't at all a straightforward matter.
"I am happy to go home and discuss it with my wife. And then, if we agree to leave, I would have to find a buyer for my home."
I knew the rabbis wouldn't be pleased with my response, but unlike those who had been expelled in the past, I was bolder. I was more informed. This was America in the twenty-first century. You couldn't force people from their homes unless you were the government, and the bezdin wasn't the government.
The men looked at one another gravely. Even the dayan—who had been nodding along throughout Mendel's little speech, occasionally glancing my way with a faint smile, his expression empathic, as if to say, I'm sorry, my friend, sorry it has come to this—now looked perturbed.
Mendel looked at one of the other rabbis, who seemed to think for a moment and then said, "Nu." Mendel withdrew a folded white sheet of paper from the breast pocket of his coat. "This," Mendel said, pushing the document across the table, "is what we will have to publicize if you don't comply. You may read it."
The document took the form of an open letter, the kind that could be published in newspapers, hung on synagogue doorways, and stuck to the walls above synagogue sinks. It was written in florid rabbinical Hebrew, heavy with biblical and talmudic wordplay.
To our brethren, the children of Israel, in all their places of residence:
This is to inform you that the man Shulem Aryeh Deen has been found to hold heretical views. He has engaged in the manner of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, sinning and causing others to sin, an inciter and an agitator, who has openly and flagrantly violated the laws of God and His Torah, has denied the tenets of our sacred religion, has mocked our faith in God and in the law of Moses, and continues to encourage others to follow in his wicked path.
The document went on to call on all God-fearing Jews to dissociate from me in all matters. I was not to be hired as an employee or allowed residence in their homes. I was to be excluded from their prayer quorums and denied entry to their synagogues. My children were to be denied admission to their schools.
My hands trembled as I finished reading the document and laid it back on the table.
"We're not sending this out yet," Mendel said, as he placed the document back in his coat pocket. "Comply with our orders, and we'll keep this to ourselves. Otherwise, you understand, we'll have no choice."
I looked around at the rabbis. The dayan looked at me with sad eyes, while the other rabbis looked away.
"That is all," Mendel said.
I waited for the rabbis to rise. But they just sat there, and so I sat there, too, vaguely stunned.
One of the rabbis looked up at me. "I hope you'll come back to visit," he said.
The dayan nodded along: "Yes, yes, come back to visit."
"You can stay at my place, your whole family," the other rabbi said, and for a moment I thought, how kind of him, this rabbi who hadn't said a word through the whole meeting and with whom I'd never spoken before. But I didn't yet know how to feel about this, and I didn't yet know how to feel about this rabbi or the bezdin. But mostly, I was thinking about how I would tell Gitty and the children. There would be tears. There would be cries of shame. There would be pleas to ask the bezdin to reconsider.
But it was just as well. I no longer belonged here, in this village, in this community, among these people. It would not be easy, but this was bound to happen. It was time to go.
I have an image in my mind of the moment I realized that I was a nonbeliever. I don't remember the day, or the month, or even the exact year, but only where I was and what I was doing. It was morning. I had woken late and was rushing through my morning routine. I was no longer praying at the shul, but I still prayed, alone at home, choosing only the important passages—the first and last sections of the Verses of Song, the Shema, the Shmoneh Esreh—and skipping the rest. I no longer found prayer meaningful but still kept up the routine, partly out of habit but also out of fear of displeasing Gitty. If she knew that I no longer prayed, there was no telling how she would react.
I remember that I was in the dining room, and through the thin walls I could hear Gitty busy in the kitchen: "Akiva, finish your toast," "Freidy, stop bothering the baby and get dressed," "Tziri, brush your hair and get your backpack." The sounds all blended together. One by one, each of the children recited the morning blessings, groaned about unfinished homework assignments, lost shoes, misplaced hair accessories. I swung my prayer shawl over my shoulders, whipped up my sleeve, and wrapped the leather straps of my tefillin around my arm. And as I stood there, the black leather cube on my left arm bulging against the sleeve of my starched white shirt, my body enveloped in the large, white, black-striped shawl, the thought came to me:
I no longer believe in any of this.
I am a heretic. An apikorus.
For a long time, I had tried to deny it. A mere sinner has hope: An Israelite, although he has sinned, is still an Israelite, the Talmud says. But a heretic is lost forever. All who go do not return. The Torah scroll he writes is to be burned. He is no longer counted in a prayer quorum, his food is not considered kosher, his lost objects are not returned to him, he is unfit to testify in court. An outcast, he wanders alone forever, belonging neither to his own people nor to any other.