Ultra Orthodox or fervently religious Jews?

Ultra Orthodox or fervently religious Jews? February 20, 2013

The Jewish Daily Forward has a fascinating discussion of terms used to describe Haredi. It begins by noting that newspaper legend Seth Lipsky recently referred to “the leader of the largest grassroots organization of fervently religious Jews, Rabbi David Zwiebel of the Agudath Israel of America.”

The Forward notes that the term “fervently Orthodox Jews” has been promoted in recent years as an alternative to “ultra-Orthodox” and “Haredi.”

It’s certainly possible to understand the motives behind this. In an op-ed published in the Forward several years ago under the title “Stop Calling Me an Ultra-Orthodox Jew,” a Haredi named Abbott Katz complained that “ultra,” with its “Latinate tinge,” is “redolent of cultic cadres pushing their faith to mysterious extremes.”

What makes “ultra” so pernicious, Katz wrote, is “its very status as a prefix, a descriptive tack-on to a more primeval, integral Judaism of truer provenance. Orthodox Jews seem to be seen as marking the spiritual baseline, while the ‘ultras’ are typed as a kind of fanatic insurgency.” And he ended with an appeal: “Can’t the stylebook writers think of something else?”

They have, the Forward says — substituting “fervently Orthodox” as far back as the 1990s. But not everyone is happy about it. The writer of the piece argues that describing some as fervent and others as “mere” Orthodox implies that one is more enthusiastically dedicated to something than the other.

I would no more want to have to refer to ultra-Orthodox Jews as “fervent” than I would want to have to refer to them as “strident” or “compulsive”; such judgments should not enter the everyday term for them. And if I were a “merely” Orthodox Jew, I surely might resent the implication that I’m not as fervent about my religion as an ultra-Orthodox Jew is.

What distinguishes ultra-Orthodoxy from “mere” Orthodoxy, after all, is not necessarily its fervor, which varies from one individual to another, but its style of life, its scale of values and the rigor with which it practices certain ritual commandments.

We live in an age in which it is frowned upon to call groups by names they don’t like, and this is not in itself a bad habit. This doesn’t mean, though, that we have to call them by names that flatter them just because they do like them. If “ultra-Orthodox” is going to be a no-no, let’s not make “fervently Orthodox” a yes-yes. That leaves us stuck with the Hebrew “Haredi.” It’s a word that Jews can’t even agree how to pronounce, but at least no one gets upset by it.

Well that was a nice, tidy solution (and one that, at this point in my thinking, at least, works).

But this issue goes far beyond Orthodox Jews and into every single religious division out there.

It should go without saying that all religious adherents adhere for a reason — they believe that what they believe is right. Many of the terms we use, even before we get to the adjectives, infer that one group holds to something (catholicity, Islam, orthodoxy, etc.) more than another. Sometimes this is appropriate and long-held. Sometimes, though, we’re making value judgments we can’t back up.

If we have the words to describe actual differences in belief and practices, that helps. But whether it’s the first mention of a group or a word limit that constrains us, these are challenging issues for reporters.

What do you think?

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11 responses to “Ultra Orthodox or fervently religious Jews?”

  1. The difference between Haredi and other Orthodox is not how seriously they pursue their faith (which is basically what both “ultra-” and “fervent” imply); rather, it’s how strict they believe are the rules that their faith requires them to follow. For this reason, “strict” might be the best choice if one insists on using a common English word.

    However, I agree with Mollie that it would be better to simply educate the public to accept the word “Haredi”, because what we really have are not simply gradations on a continuum but different denominations, each with its own theology and history (and, one might wish, name). The current (former, we can hope?) regime is almost as if we called mainliners “Christians” and evangelicals “ultra-Christians.”

  2. I think that using the word Orthodox and nothing else to describe adherence who hold to all the doctrines of their respective faith is acceptible. I think when journalists throw in words like altra or hyper or even fervent it is a judgement that the believer is taking things too far. The german word uber for over also comes to mind. I feel as though the journalist is saying that the believer should tone down thair practice of beliefs and that is just wrong. It brings to mind thoughts of an anthropological nature which has been brought up here before. It’s also inaccurate in some cases to use the word altra orthodox to describe some groups. The SSPX for example could be described as altra orthodox by some reporters and according to the Church, they are not orthodox let alone altra. The adjectives used also, I feel, make the reporting on the religious practices and beliefs of a particular group simplistic and I think aspects of a story can be overlooked when that happens. Groups which are labeled, whether they be altra orthodox or altra liberal or anything like that, can be dismissed, because the mind automatically attempts to squeeze them into a camp. Even I do it. Words mean something, whether people acknowledge it or not.

    • It’s important to remember that, while uncapitalized “orthodox” is an adjective meaning “conforming to established doctrine, especially in religion” (per M-W), capitalized “Orthodox” is a denominational label for Orthodox Jews or Orthodox Christians. Tacking a modifier onto the capitalized “Orthodox” conflates the two meanings. But it’s ultimately as meaningless as “ultra-Presbyterian,” because both the mainline and evangelical wings would contend that they are being most true to the movement’s core qualities.

  3. We live in an age in which it is frowned upon to call groups by names they don’t like, and this is not in itself a bad habit. This doesn’t mean, though, that we have to call them by names that flatter them just because they do like them.

    That raises an interesting point. More than once here, bloggers have opined that groups should be referred to by the names they themselves use. But this is a counter-example because a name a group uses for itself could be very misleading. An example where that applies would be the “Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests” 🙂

  4. This is a serious problem that journalists should work out. It is also a problem when describing individuals.
    Describing somebody as a “pious” Catholic or a “fervent” Mormon often gives the impression the reporter thinks this person is taking their religion too seriously – in a country which is starting to think religion should stay in church or synagogue or mosque. It’s really offensive. If a reporter thinks a person is going way beyond what the person’s religion requires he/she should say why that is the case, not just label the person with adjectives that may not mean what the reporter thinks the term means.

  5. Ugh. The correct term was once Hasidim, which means “Pious Ones”, those who do more than is required by the halakhah, but that name became permanently associated with the followers of the mystic, Baal Shem Tov. The current term is Haredi (pl: Haredim), and that’s what should be used.

    I think it’s difficult for those outside the Jewish community to understand the distinctions made between different levels of observance, because there seems to be no equivalent in Christianity. To be Orthodox is to accept responsibility for compliance with Jewish Law as written in the Torah (Written Law) and interpreted when necessary by competent rabbis (the Oral Law: Talmud, Shulchan Oruch, etc.). To be Orthodox is to accept that the Halakhah addresses every aspect of life. It is understood that one will keep kosher, keep the Sabbath, keep the all the commandments as they have been kept over the millenia and to accept the rabbis as the ultimate arbiters of Halakhah–the covenant made between G-d and the Jewish People at Sinai which continues ’til the present day.

    One is Ultra-Orthodox (the most accurate descriptor), when one takes extra precautions, is extra-scrupulous in one’s observance of the mitzvot (commandments). This may reflect in even more modest dress (long sleeves vs. three quarter sleeves for women), greater care taken with food (glatt meat–now standard, separate kitchens or fridges), separation from mainstream culture (refrain from movies, TV, certain books and venues), and so on. It’s not that the more and less scrupulous Orthodox disagree on the basics; it’s that one group creates more fences to prevent even unintentional non-compliance with the mitzvot.

    The problem with extrapolating this article to the mainstream press is that the Forvertz addresses a Jewish audience. This article makes perfect sense to insiders and very little to non-Jews, most of whom associate Ultra-Orthodox with black hats and coats, and have absolutely no understanding of what Orthodox (or Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, post-denominational) Judaism means. I’d explore the finer lines with Mishpachah (family), which is what the writer has done, but I think Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi would be the appropriate terms for the general public.

  6. Haredi – it isn’t hard to say. We add ‘new’ vocabulary words to English all the time. This is just another ‘borrowed word’. Maybe we should push ‘Dati’ also while we’re at it.