Wednesday, April 25, 2007


When I was a child, I knew of only two divisions in Judaism: frum and not frum. From a Yiddish word meaning "pious," this is the Orthodox Jewish way of designating observant Jews. The word "Orthodox" itself seemed fairly alien to me, used mostly as a formality. Later, I became aware of a distinct sub-group called "Modern Orthodox," which I first conceptualized as frum Jews who ignore strictures against mixed dancing. Later still, I began hearing the term "ultra-Orthodox," which my friends and family perceived as a vague slur applied by ignorant outsiders to any Orthodox Jews they considered too extreme. We were irritated, and a bit perplexed, by the media's increasing use of the term as though it were an objective, neutral description of a distinct group.

By now, the term "ultra-Orthodox" has become so standard in the media that people use it without blinking an eye. I'm torn on the subject, wondering if I should still fight the trend, or just give in. There are two primary issues here. The first is whether the term is inherently pejorative. The second is whether such a group as "ultra-Orthodox" really exists.

To answer the first question, we need only look at the history of the prefix ultra. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term originally meant "beyond" (as in ultraviolet) but came to mean "extremist" when applied to political movements.1 The connotation is that such movements are "beyond the pale," which is obviously a value judgment applied by outsiders, not a term people would normally apply to themselves. Occasionally you will find people today who proudly identify as ultraconservative or ultraliberal, but there's no question that those terms were originally intended as insults. It's like when some blacks call themselves by the N-word.

One blogger told me that he doesn't mind being called ultra-Orthodox, just as he wouldn't mind being called ultra-beautiful or ultra-smart. That's an interesting argument, but I think it proves my very point: people rarely use phrases like "ultra-beautiful," because the prefix ultra is generally reserved for insults, which is almost certainly what was originally intended by the term "ultra-Orthodox."

As an experiment, I googled the phrase "ultra-Orthodox." Of the first ten hits, two are Wikipedia articles, two are allegedly neutral news articles, one site complains about the term, and the remaining five are sites bashing ultra-Orthodox Jews. You may consider this result too small a sample to draw a conclusion, but I invite anyone to try the experiment on a larger scale. You will likely find what many of us have sensed all along, which is that "ultra-Orthodox" is widely used as an insulting term, and almost never used in a complimentary sense.

Of course, it is possible to take a pejorative expression and wear it defiantly, as a badge of pride. But so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews have made no collective attempts to do so. Those rare few who self-identify by the term are, I suspect, surrendering themselves to a trend they feel powerless against, rather than eagerly embracing the term.

Because the secular press regularly treats the term as a neutral expression, and because the term simultaneously exists as an insult, the people who use the term insultingly have gained a significant rhetorical advantage. It has become one of those words like fundamentalist where you can pretend to be neutral when you're actually invoking a stereotype. I'm reminded of an article by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in which he describes religious fundamentalism as immoral and destructive.2 He never bothers to provide a precise definition of "fundamentalism," and he seems unaware that the standard definition would apply to his own religious practice. He unblinkingly defines the term according to popular negative stereotypes associated with the term. Once you start incorporating stereotypes about a group into the very definition of that group, you've won the argument before you've even started. The term "ultra-Orthodox" has that same two-faced quality.

That brings me to the second question. Does "ultra-Orthodox," insulting or not, refer to an actual group? It is supposedly the English equivalent of Haredi. There are certainly many Jews who self-identify as Haredi. Though there are also people who bash Haredim, nobody considers the term in itself to be insulting. It is fairly neutral, neither positive nor negative. (Repeating the Google experiment with "Haredi," I found three web definitions, one actual Haredi site, one site bashing the non-mainstream Neturei Karta sect rather than Haredim in general, and five neutral articles. The articles, I should mention, are on the whole more respectful than the ones I found in the "ultra-Orthodox" search.) There probably ought to be a campaign to have the secular press adopt the term, but for now it is rather obscure, known only to Orthodox Jews and occasional outsiders.

The problem, which few people acknowledge, is that Haredi is vague and imprecise. It presupposes that Orthodoxy can be neatly divided into two groups, those who reject the outside world and those who embrace it. The former are Haredi or "ultra-Orthodox," the latter are Modern Orthodox. This classification has been widely reported in the media, but it would raise the eyebrows of most Jews in my native Baltimore. Baltimore's Orthodox community is very largely "yeshivish" or "black hat," two insider terms referring to non-Hasidic Jews who are stricter in their observance than Modern Orthodoxy. By the two-pole classification, that would constitute Haredi. But most Baltimore frummies do not fit the standard definition of Haredim. Most people here have a strong work ethic, for example, and there has been no community ban on using the Internet in one's home. Anti-secular attitudes exist here but do not generally prevail.

Modern Orthodox, for that matter, covers a wide range of attitudes and practices. Some people have attempted to recognize a third group, "centrist," represented most prominently by the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva University. This would cover Jews who are strict in their observance but who embrace the outside world. In fact, it is pretty common to hear Orthodox Jews using phrases like "left-of-center," "right-of-center," "far left," etc., as though Orthodoxy resembled the left-right political spectrum in the secular world. While still a simplification, this outlook is a vast improvement over those who conceptualize Orthodoxy as two distinct "camps."

Thus, it's important to understand that when Orthodox Jews use a term like "Haredi," they usually recognize how blurry the dividing line is. But what about people outside the Orthodox community, especially those with little knowledge of Orthodoxy? Those people are likely to be considerably less understanding--and they're also more likely to use a term like "ultra-Orthodox" instead of "Haredi." It's no wonder, therefore, that most people who use the term "ultra-Orthodox" use it thoughtlessly, without a clear picture of what they're referring to. For many people, it's just a code word for "Jewish religious nut." Hence, it's not uncommon to see the term applied ignorantly to Religious Zionists, even though that group is usually distinct from the Haredim, at least in Israel.

If we were to run a successful campaign and the media were to stop saying "ultra-Orthodox" and to start saying "Haredi" instead, it wouldn't solve everything. Outsiders would continue to oversimplify the dynamics of the Orthodox community. But it would be a start. A few people might think twice before applying such an exotic term with such a broad brush to people they don't know.

Works Cited
1 The Online Etymology Dictionary. "ultra-""
2 Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. "How Religion Leads to Fundamentalism."