Don't Call Us 'Ultra-Orthodox'

Why Is It Extreme To Live According to Laws of Torah?

getty images

By Avi Shafran

Published February 24, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

My religious group is routinely referred to by a pejorative.

That the name we are called is negative in only an indirect way doesn’t alter the fact that it is disparaging. It telegraphs a subconscious bias (and may well spawn from the same). I’m not quite Howard Beale-mad about the subtle slur, but I’m peeved all the same by its persistence.

I’m an “ultra-Orthodox” Jew.

Think about the word before the hyphen. “Ultra” might seem innocent enough, but what does it bring to mind in, say, domestic politics? Who, in other words, is an “ultra-conservative”? Pat Buchanan, I’d guess. Or maybe David Duke. And “ultra-liberal”? Well, to ultra-conservatives, President Obama probably fits the bill. To saner folks, though, well, the term wouldn’t fit anyone this side of socialism.

And there’s a good reason the prefix is used that way: It’s Latin for “beyond” or “extreme.” And that’s the problem. Are we you-know-whos really over-the-Jewish-top? Yes, we strive to observe the laws of the Torah, as mediated by the codes of Jewish law. And we eat only kosher food and do our best to observe the myriad religious laws of the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays. Orthodox modesty strictures, moreover, do set us (especially the women among us) apart from contemporary styles and norms. Those things, though, are part of every Orthodox Jew’s life. What makes us “ultra”?

To be sure, we “Haredim” (a less offensive term, from a Hebrew word that literally means “trembling” but implies meticulous care in practice and worship) are somewhat more insular than our “modern” (now there’s a silly identifier) or “open” (a downright insulting one — are the rest of us “closed”?) Orthodox brothers and sisters. We don’t generally own televisions, and we shun much of what passes for popular culture these days. But we’re hardly homogeneous, humorless or Luddites. Most of us are quite technology conversant, interact swimmingly with our non-Jewish co-workers and neighbors, and live peaceful, normal lives. And most of us speak fairly proper English, though Yiddishisms may occasionally sneak in. (But they do on television shows, too, I’m told.)

We tend to shun higher secular education, true, partly because our intellectual ideal lies in Talmud study rather than in the humanities or sciences, and partly because university life is far from consonant with our moral values. But we have our fair share of college grads, doctors, lawyers and scientists, not to mention tech wizards and academics.

The Hasidim among us dress in unusual garb — the famed long black coats and fur hats (at least on the Sabbath) that the “U-phrase” brings to many minds. But we are a variegated bunch. Many, if not most, of us dress in a manner that doesn’t stand out terribly starkly at all. And anyway, Americans of all sorts of religious and ethnic stripes dress individualistically. Do they get an “ultra” label, too?

Yes, while we are committed to Israel’s security, we don’t invest the political state with deep religious significance as some Orthodox Jews do, or consider everything its government does to be automatically right. Most non-Orthodox American Jews, though, last I checked, feel similarly.

Okay, I know, we are different. I don’t mean to challenge that sociological truism. But our differentness reflects only our fealty to the Judaism of the ages. That makes us Orthodox, not “ultra” anything.

What, then, to use in its place? Well, “Haredi” is now used by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the longstanding Jewish news service. That’s fine, although it’s still a puzzling word to many readers.

I have another suggestion. Considering that other Orthodox groups have self-identified with prefixes like “modern” or “open,” why can’t we Haredim just be, simply, “Orthodox”? Our beliefs and practices, after all, are those that most resemble those of our grandparents.

But, whatever alternative is adopted, “ultra” deserves to be jettisoned from media and discourse.

We Haredim aren’t looking for special treatment, or to be called by some name we just happen to prefer. We’re only seeking the mothballing of a pejorative.

We’re not asking anyone to be ultra-fair. Just fair will do.

Avi Shafran blogs at rabbiavishafran.com and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.