Just How Orthodox Are They?

Some Call 'Em Ultra- and Some Call 'Em Fervently-

All Adverbs Aren’t Created Equal: Would you describe these men as fervently Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, or would you use an entirely different word?
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All Adverbs Aren’t Created Equal: Would you describe these men as fervently Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, or would you use an entirely different word?

By Philologos

Published February 17, 2013, issue of February 22, 2013.
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For old-time readers of this newspaper, Seth Lipsky needs no introduction: Lipsky was the English Forward’s founder and first publisher back in 1990, and continued to direct it for most of the decade. His voice continues to be heard on the politically conservative side of the ledger, and in a January 20 column in the New York Post, he spoke out on the issue of abortion. Commenting on the high rate of it in New York City, he wrote:

“This was brought into sharp relief two years ago in a press conference by some of the city’s leading clergymen. It featured a rare joint appearance by the archbishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, and the leader of the largest grassroots organization of fervently religious Jews, Rabbi David Zwiebel of the Agudath Israel of America.”

This isn’t going to be a column about abortion. It’s about the phrase “fervently religious Jews,” which — more often in the form of “fervently Orthodox Jews” — has been promoted in recent years as an alternative to “ultra-Orthodox” and “Haredi.” The fact that someone like Lipsky, who is far from religious Orthodoxy himself, has chosen to use it shows that its promotion has met with considerable success.

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?”

Well, they have. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency substituted “fervently Orthodox” for “ultra-Orthodox” as far back as the 1990s, and today one sees it everywhere. “In last week’s column I pondered the yawning gap between the haredim or fervently Orthodox Jews and the rest of us,” Andrew Silow-Carroll wrote in an editorial last year in the New Jersey Jewish News. “Chabad’s Model of Outreach Gains Favor Among Fervently Orthodox,” ran a recent headline in a Jewish Federations of North America newsletter. “In liberal New York City, fervently Orthodox Jews may soon be getting [an electoral] district to call their own,” the Jewish World News proclaims. One encounters the phrase more and more — and it is increasingly being used by non-Haredi writers.


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