Stop Calling Me an ‘Ultra-Orthodox Jew’

By Abbott Katz

Published April 03, 2008, issue of April 11, 2008.
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Stop calling me an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

“Ultra” — the modifier of choice for a press hawking its smudged cartography of Jewish religious life — has enjoyed a long, wearisome, dubious run, and it isn’t recusing itself from the discourse any time soon. The Jewish religious world occupies a bewilderingly disparate space, to be sure, but mapping its turf begs a measure of precision of which the media’s collective instrumentation seems largely incapable — and “ultra,” with its Latinate tinge, redolent of cultic cadres pushing their faith to mysterious extremes, badly misreads the coordinates.

And foments an agenda, besides. After all, if there are ultra-Orthodox Jews, then there are merely Orthodox ones as well, and what makes the recourse to “ultra” so pernicious is its very status as 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, sparse but dangerous.

If you think I protest too much, then ruminate upon Gershom Gorenberg’s recent article in The New York Times, “How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?”, an informative but flawed take on the Israeli rabbinate’s endeavors to ratify the Jewishness of Israelis seeking to marry, an article that soon bobbed to the top of the Times’s “Most Emailed” chart. The rabbis’ efforts to buttress the lineal claims of applicants are perfectly sensible, given the fusillade of intermarriages and doubtful divorces riddling the Jewish world today. And moreover, one should know that this kind of scrutiny is neither unprecedented nor particularly over the top.

The London Beit Din, for example, has for quite some time taken similar pains to affirm the backgrounds of its applicants, but no matter. “Ultra-Orthodox” manages to presume itself into Gorenberg’s treatment rather often, most irritatingly in his citation of the great early 19th-century German-Hungarian Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known universally in the Orthodox world as the Chasam Sofer. It is he whom Gorenberg terms the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy. But what can that mean?

Follow the implied chronology: 3,000 years of Jewish tradition and rabbinic scholarship suddenly mutate in the 19th century, culminating in an ultra-Orthodox strain branded as a new, firebrand alternative to that which preceded it. That is, the Orthodox were there first.

The claim is preposterous, but durable. In fact the Chasam Sofer is very much of a piece with his rabbinic predecessors and successors. Nowhere in the yeshiva world is he credited with striking a stance at any fundamental remove from his forebears.

It is impossible, for example, to understand the equally illustrious Rabbi Akiva Eiger — whose daughter the Chasam Sofer married and who was nearly the same age — in different terms from his son-in-law. But because of his adamancy against the Reform movement and his much-misunderstood assertion, “That which is new is forbidden in the Torah,” the Chasam Sofer is cast as a revolutionary extremist — namely, as ultra-Orthodox.

But in fact, “ultra-Orthodox” is a revisionist coinage, one that skews the dialogue and skewers the segment it means to identify. If “Orthodox” denotes a temperate, sensible, comfortable Judaism, then “ultra-Orthodox” has been made to counterpoise a fierce, immoderate and relatively new take on our faith.

Again, this peculiarly binary view suggests that those rabbinic giants who predated the Chasam Sofer were by definition something less, or other, than “ultra.”

So there’s no misunderstanding, the differences among Orthodox, and non-Orthodox, Jews are substantial and abiding, and call for clear-eyed expounding. But facile, freighted adjectives won’t abet that process.

It’s high time, then, for a rethink. Can’t the stylebook writers think of something else?

Abbott Katz is a writer living in London.

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