Time to trash ‘ultra’

After all, the haredi community is becoming the Orthodox mainstream.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man is seen through a damaged car window after a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the southern city of Ashdod, November 16, 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man is seen through a damaged car window after a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the southern city of Ashdod, November 16, 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I don’t know if US President Barack Obama has ever referred to “ultra-Orthodox Jews.” But a bill he signed recently has some pertinence to the phrase.
The legislation, which easily passed both the House and Senate, charges federal lawmakers to, when writing laws, shun outdated terms for minority groups, like “Negro” or “Oriental,” and use “African American” and “Asian American” instead.
“Ultra-Orthodox” is another name whose time has passed. In fact, it – unlike “Negro” or “Oriental” – is inherently pejorative.
What, after all, does “ultra” bring to mind in, say, politics? In the US, Pat Buchanan is often described as “ultra-conservative.” In Israel, the “hilltop youth” are “ultra-nationalist.”
And there’s a reason the prefix is used that way: it is Latin for “beyond” or “extreme.”
Jews who believe that the Torah is the Creator’s word, that Halacha is binding and that elder Torah scholars are the best arbiters of Jewish law may seem extreme to Jews who, say, see Judaism as a mere ethnicity, but what makes the latter less extreme, less “ultra,” than the former? Yes, those of us who self-identify as haredi, which is often translated as “ultra-Orthodox,” tend to stress Torah study as a vocation, shun elements of contemporary culture, may not invest the State of Israel with religious significance and have our own manner of dress. But even those identifiers demand nuance.
There are myriad haredi doctors, lawyers, business people, scientists, techies – even a smattering of academics.
We are not Amish. Or even, at least most of us, even insular residents of isolated townships.
Haredim, moreover, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, are among the dedicated defenders of Israel against its enemies. And, while the clothing of Hassidim, a subset of the haredi world, clearly sets them apart, non-hassidic haredim wear Western, if conservative, clothes.
Two years ago, in an opinion piece for the newspaper the Forward, I suggested that the periodical stop labeling haredim as radical for living like all Jews once did, and should replace “ultra-Orthodox” with (now, here’s a radical idea) plain old “Orthodox.”
After all, the haredi community is becoming the Orthodox mainstream.
It is the fastest growing part of the Jewish world. Every year, here in America, says sociologist Steven Cohen, “the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” while “the non-Orthodox population has been losing 10,000 Jews.” And, within Orthodoxy, haredim are the fastest growing Jewish population.
Is an adjective (not to mention a blatantly judgmental one) really necessary? In a subsequent editorial, the paper’s editor, Jane Eisner, rebuffed my suggestion.
She asserted, based on her own upbringing, that haredi life is “not normative Judaism... or even normative Orthodoxy.” And, she contended, “ultra” isn’t really negative at all, citing its use in the phrase “ultra thin,” used to advertise condoms, for example.
I was and remain, to understate the fact, unmoved.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether anyone perceives haredi life as normative. What matters is one thing only: we don’t like being called “ultra.”
The Forward is a famously “progressive” periodical. It regularly champions liberal values and minority rights. No doubt it looks with favor upon the bill Obama recently signed. It would never refer to homosexuals as “homosexuals,” even though the word has no negative connotation at all. Since homosexuals prefer to be known as “gay” (a word whose simple meaning may describe some, but hardly all, homosexuals), the paper eagerly bends to their wishes. It also favors using the names and “gender identities” that people choose for themselves, whatever the biological realities.
Why? Because it is civil (or, as a Yiddish speaker might put it, menschlich) to call people or groups of people what they want to be called.
Steven Petrow, The Washington Post columnist who often writes about issues of etiquette and has been called “Mr. Manners,” put it well: “Language evolves all the time, and a change that allows individuals and groups to claim their own identity increases civility, which costs the rest of us nothing.”
I’m not at all sure that calling biological men women really costs the rest of us nothing. I fear it does society, and young people in particular, a terrible disservice. (I don’t expect anyone to call me a six-foot-ten point guard, much as I might wish to be perceived as one.) A social liberal cannot insist that he be called a social conservative, or a group that “changes” halacha at whim “Orthodox.” But my particular hesitations aside, it’s safe to assume that the Forward would smile on Mr. Petrow’s advice.
And so the question verily shouts itself, to the Forward and to all media: why would ostensibly objective and civility-minded news organizations deny one, and only one, population the right to be called what it wishes to be called, opting instead for (with all due respect to Eisner’s “ultra-thin” argument) a negative identification? Call us Orthodox. Or, if you insist on an adjective, traditional Orthodox.
Or if you must, haredim. But please don’t call us what we object to being called.
Because doing so is insensitive.
Maybe even ultra-insensitive.
The author writes widely for Jewish media, blogs at rabbiavishafran.com and also serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.