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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Count me out. “Fervently Orthodox” strikes me as far worse than “ultra-Orthodox.” “Ultra-Orthodox” may sound pejorative to some people, but I very much doubt that it was coined with such an intention in mind. (Although I haven’t succeeded in tracing the term’s origins, it first came into use in English, I believe, in the 1950s, after Haredi survivors of the Holocaust began arriving in America — where, until then, their form of Judaism had not been significantly represented.)

It’s true that in words like “ultra-ambitious” or “ultra-confident,” “ultra” has the negative sense of “overly,” but this isn’t the case with all “ultra” words. Think, for example, of “ultramodern” or “ultralight”; there, if anything, the prefix suggests a measure of improvement on something less perfect. My own sense of the term “ultra-Orthodox” in American Jewish discourse is that, on the whole, it has been used neutrally, with no overtone of either denigration or praise.

“Fervently Orthodox,” on the other hand, is not neutral. There are Jews, it implies, who are “merely” Orthodox, and there are others who are “fervently” so — and who would question that it is better to be fervent than mere? If one thinks of typical ways in which the word “fervent” is used — “She’s a fervent marathon runner”; “He’s a fervent art connoisseur”; “The French are fervent about truffles”; etc. — the connotation is almost always positive. Not only does the word carry no hint of excess, it also signifies an enthusiastic dedication to a deserving cause or activity.

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.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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