Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Language observant

In 2000, Larry King asked Joe Lieberman which denomination of Judaism he followed: Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. Lieberman replied, "I like to think of myself as an observant Jew, because it is broader and it's inclusive." This rather mild and good-natured remark sparked a torrent of criticism, providing fuel for those who felt Lieberman was selling out in his bid for the vice presidency. Binyamin Jolkovsky of The Jerusalem Post complained that Lieberman in this interview "changed his long-time self-description from 'Orthodox' to 'observant.'"

Jolkovsky's complaint ignored a couple of facts. Lieberman described himself as observant in his book In Praise of Public Life, released several months before the Larry King interview. What's more, in a separate interview just three days later, Lieberman began a sentence with the words "The fact that I'm Orthodox...." Nowhere did he change his self-description. He simply expressed a preference for one label over another.

Jolkovsky seemed to assume that adopting the term "observant" was tantamount to denying being Orthodox. I would expect non-Jews to be scratching their heads when listening to this squabble over terminology. Why would Orthodox Jews of all people be offended by the term "observant"? And why did Lieberman prefer the term?

Understanding what's going on here requires some historical background. The division of Judaism into its Orthodox and Reform branches occurred in the nineteenth century. As a new movement, Reform Judaism enacted changes to traditional Jewish practice. Jews who rejected the reforms and maintained the traditional ways came to be called Orthodox Jews.

In common parlance, Orthodox Judaism isn't really a single movement but rather an umbrella term for several Jewish groups that remained relatively traditional amidst the emergence of Reform Judaism. Sephardic Jews, who never even encountered the original Reform movement, are usually classed with the Orthodox today. But not everyone accepts this blanket use of the term Orthodox. There are those who restrict the term to the movement that arose as a direct reaction against Reform Judaism.

I tend to think of Orthodox Judaism as a retronym, or a new term for an old concept. Retronyms happen when a new version of something comes along, causing the old version to require a new name. For example, after microwave ovens were invented, older-style ovens came to be called "conventional ovens." (For those who think I'm implying that new is automatically better, I have two words: New Coke.)

In any case, it was Reform Jews who came up with the term Orthodox. Early Orthodox opponents of Reform, like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, resisted the term. (The opposite is true of Christianity: The Eastern Orthodox Church gave itself the term orthodox, meaning "correct belief." But by the nineteenth century the word had acquired some negative connotations.)

Among Orthodox Jews themselves, the popular term is frum (pronounced with the vowel sound in wood). This Yiddish word literally means "pious," occasionally carrying negative overtones but most of the time used by Orthodox Jews as a respectful, informal alternative to "Orthodox."

The English word "observant" is not quite as popular. The problem is that many non-Orthodox Jews call themselves observant, and there's a perception that they use the word much more often than Orthodox Jews do. Because Orthodox Judaism tends to consider itself the only legitimate expression of Judaism, some people interpret a Jew's refusal to specify a denomination as contrary to the spirit of Orthodoxy.

As an Orthodox Jew myself, I have never accepted this reasoning. I like to do away with labels as much as I can. When I first set up an account with the dating site Frumster, I was required to describe what type of Orthodox Jew I was. I couldn't just say I was Orthodox; the site made me choose from the following subcategories: "Modern Orthodox liberal," "Modern Orthodox machmir," "Yeshivish Black Hat," "Hasidic," and "Carlebachian." I didn't feel comfortable with any of those, but I settled on "Modern Orthodox machmir," which seemed the least problematic to me.

Eventually, the site expanded its categories. Conservative and Reform Jews could now join the site, and everyone was given a wide range of choices for self-identification. I selected a new category called "Shomer Mitzvot," which literally means "watchful of the commandments"--in other words, observant. It was exactly the type of generic self-description I had been searching for all along.

A friend of mine recently told me that his daughter thinks one should never select that category. He did not remember why she felt this way, but I had little trouble guessing. She probably believes that someone who identifies as "Shomer Mitzvot" is in effect not calling himself Orthodox. Or, at least, she thinks that people might perceive it that way, and so it's best to avoid it if you want to increase your chances of finding a prospective match in the Orthodox community.

You know what? I don't care. I feel comfortable calling myself "Shomer Mitzvot," and that's all that matters. The last thing I'm going to do is bend to someone else's standards. I'm not that desperate. Besides, it all adds up in the end. If a woman assumes I'm not suited to her simply because I call myself "Shomer Mitzvot," then she's probably right.


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