Ultra Orthodox or fervently religious Jews?

The Jewish Daily Forward has a fascinating discussion of terms used to describe Haredi. It begins by noting that newspaper legend Seth Lipsky recently referred to "the leader of the largest grassroots organization of fervently religious Jews, Rabbi David Zwiebel of the Agudath Israel of America." The Forward notes that the term "fervently Orthodox Jews" has been promoted in recent years as an alternative to "ultra-Orthodox" and "Haredi."

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?”

They have, the Forward says -- substituting "fervently Orthodox" as far back as the 1990s. But not everyone is happy about it. The writer of the piece argues that describing some as fervent and others as "mere" Orthodox implies that one is more enthusiastically dedicated to something than the other.

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.

Well that was a nice, tidy solution (and one that, at this point in my thinking, at least, works).

But this issue goes far beyond Orthodox Jews and into every single religious division out there.

It should go without saying that all religious adherents adhere for a reason -- they believe that what they believe is right. Many of the terms we use, even before we get to the adjectives, infer that one group holds to something (catholicity, Islam, orthodoxy, etc.) more than another. Sometimes this is appropriate and long-held. Sometimes, though, we're making value judgments we can't back up.

If we have the words to describe actual differences in belief and practices, that helps. But whether it's the first mention of a group or a word limit that constrains us, these are challenging issues for reporters.

What do you think?

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