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Religious disaffiliation and the transformation of bodily practices

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  1. Introduction.
    1. The numerous ways religion is inscribed on the body.
    2. Sociologists and anthropologists of religion.
  2. The body, identity and religious ritual.
    1. The relationship between body and self-perception.
    2. Individuals converting into a new religious community.
    3. Changing bodily practices in the process of disaffiliation.
  3. Methods.
    1. Interview of individuals who identified themselves as having left Orthodox Judaism.
    2. The variance in narrative.
  4. Dis-inscribing haredi bodily practices.
    1. Covering the body.
    2. Food norms and taboos.
    3. Hair.
    4. After the Initial dis-embodiment.
  5. Conclusion.

Students of religion, from a variety of disciplines, have recognized the numerous ways religion is inscribed on the body. Most religious rituals are embodied and they, in turn, embody the sacred. These bodily practices including dress, diet, hairstyle, facial hair, and body modification are physical actions with underlying religious significance that are performed or avoided by group members to establish, demonstrate and maintain their belonging in the group. Through them, collective beliefs and meanings are embedded within, and accomplished by, the material bodies of members of religious communities. Embodiment practices serve the critical purpose of forging tight bonds between the individual and the community (Warner 1997) while also establishing strong boundaries between members and outsiders. Particular social groups set themselves apart from others by developing distinctive forms of bodily culture (Bartkowski 2004: 11). As agents of religious practice, the bodies of the faithful actively participate in the production and reproduction of religious culture, the fashioning of religious identities, and the preservation of religious individual and group identities. (Bartkowski 2004:13). Sociologists and anthropologists of religion have established the role of bodily practices in encouraging commitment among a religious group's new converts. They have not, however, looked at how religious disaffiliation necessarily involves dis-inscribing {that there is no word for these practices is telling!} the religion from the body. These transformations are especially dramatic when the religious community a person leaves involves numerous detailed physical rituals that continually, throughout the day, inscribe the religion on members' bodies.
This paper analyzes the disaffiliation narratives of former Haredi (Ultraorthodox) Jews in order to examine the process of religious ?dis-inscription? and identity reconstruction.

[...] CONCLUSION Ritualized bodily practices inculcate religious beliefs and mark the religion on the bodies of its members. Theories of bodily practices define them as the quotidian activities, accomplishments, and interactions of social actors (Connell, Davis, and Bartkowski). Analyses of bodily practices reveal how bodies act and are acted upon, along with how cultural meanings are reinforced, resisted, and subverted by such actions. Bodily practices not only reveal group membership but create and maintain it. By ceasing to observe these practices demanded by the group, and substituting them with practices from the secular world, members not only change their internal identification but they actively create a new self with which to interact with the world. [...]


[...] Menachem's comments underscore how shaving?removing the mark of the community from his face?is a bodily practice that helped to effect and make visible his changed status in the Haredi community. Because his peyot was ?something that was really my symbol of being Orthodox,? his removal of that bodily symbol publicly manifested his desire to separate himself from the community and to fashion an identity separate from that community. It was helpful that he married a woman who was also interested in distancing herself from their Haredi sect. [...]


[...] When a person changes her or his eating patterns and begins to eat unkosher food, this is a different kind of change in bodily practice than changing clothes: food literally becomes part of the body and so in some ways cannot just be removed the ways outfits can be changed in different contexts. But it might also be a more private process, and one not so readily visible to the outside world. Some interviewees spoke of their transition to non-kosher eating as taking place in increments. [...]

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