Should ultra-Orthodox Jews be able to decide what they’re called?

(RNS) Much of the world calls them the “ultra-Orthodox.”

Ultra-orthodox Jews cross the street in Brooklyn.

“Ultra-orthodox” Jews cross the street in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo courtesy of diluvi.com Anna i Adria via Wikimedia Commons


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But a growing number within the community of strictly observant Jews are asking journalists and others to reject the term.

Some feel it suggests extremism. Groups should get to choose their own names, they argue, and what community would choose to call itself “ultra” anything?

“The term should be removed from journalistic writing because the people that it refers to find it pejorative,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Brooklyn-based Chabad, one of the largest of the groups commonly referred to as “ultra-Orthodox.”

It’s not just a question for observant Jews. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would like its members to be called “Latter-day Saints” but they’ve accepted the better-known “Mormon.” Some Native Americans say the Washington Redskins name is offensive and shouldn’t be used, but owner Dan Snyder isn’t swayed. Some gays and lesbians prefer the term “queer,” while some blacks prefer “African-American” and reject the once-acceptable “Negro.”

“The word has come to mean ‘beyond the norm’ and we consider ourselves the norm,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the leading umbrella organization of these fervently Orthodox Jews.

“Ultra-Orthodox” is inaccurate, he said. “We are traditional Jews who hew to the practices and attitudes that our grandfathers and grandmothers and their grandfathers and grandmothers hewed to.” He and Seligson suggest a different term: “traditional Orthodox.”

But to outsiders, Jewish or not, these Jews seem far beyond traditional.

In some sects, the men wear tall black or fur-trimmed hats, black suits and sidelocks. Women are covered in long skirts and long-sleeved tops no matter the weather, and hide their hair under wigs or scarves. Marriages are often arranged. They often do not watch television, or read secular books, and contact with the outside world is often limited. Families with seven or more children are not unusual.

And though they are sometimes referred to as the “devoutly Orthodox,” or by the Hebrew term “Haredi,” or the more slang “black hats,” the “ultra-Orthodox” label prevails.

It has served a practical purpose, said Ari Goldman, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and former religion reporter for The New York Times. “It’s a term that distinguishes part of the Orthodox community from the rest of the Orthodox community.”

Judaism divides itself into three main branches: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. The Orthodox make up the smallest branch in the U.S. — 10 percent of the 6.7 million American Jews, according to a recent Pew Research Center study – and are those who most closely follow the letter of Jewish law. Among the Orthodox, the fast-growing “ultra-Orthodox” are the most likely to live in tight-knit communities that insulate themselves from the larger world.

Goldman doesn’t see “ultra-Orthodox” as a pejorative word, though. “Ultra,” he points out, doesn’t have to be negative:  “ultra-pasteurized,” for example. But he also calls for “sensitivity” to Haredi groups — or “Haredim” — who request an alternative name for themselves.

“If it bothers them, then I think it’s worth examining,” he said. In longer pieces, he suggests, a writer could use a term they prefer, and then explain that it describes those commonly called “ultra-Orthodox,” noting that it is a label they dislike.

But in shorter pieces that require no more than a quick reference to the group, it’s harder to get around the shorthand, widely recognized “ultra-Orthodox,” Goldman added. “I would fall back on the formula because it’s something readers know.”

The New York Times, like most American news organizations, uses the word “ultra-Orthodox,” though it will also refer to “Haredi” groups and “Hasidic” communities, a subset of the Haredim. The New York-based Jewish Daily Forward, one of the foremost Jewish news organizations, also uses these terms.

Many of the Haredim do not care what others call them.

They are in insulated communities focused on their spiritual lives, or they don’t think they can ever get a fair hearing from outsiders who publish stories that depict them as strange, or, in recent years, reluctant to confront the sexual offenders among them.

“The Haredi world doesn’t expect much from the world around it,” Shafran said.

But he and other Haredim accustomed to dealing with non-Haredim say it’s worth trying to replace “ultra-Orthodox,” and would like to see English speakers adopt “traditional Orthodox.”

That would distinguish them from the Orthodox who blend more into the secular world and who commonly refer to themselves as “modern Orthodox” (think former Sen. Joe Lieberman) or “centrist Orthodox.” New York’s Yeshiva University, for example, where the students tend to look like college students everywhere, except for the omnipresent yarmulkes, is inspired by a modern Orthodox philosophy.

Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at New York’s Queens College who has written extensively about the Haredim but himself falls into the modern Orthodox category, said “traditional Orthodox” poorly describes the Haredim.

“Number one, they’re not traditional.” Many customs of the Haredim developed relatively recently in the history of Judaism, he said. “They’ve invented traditions.”

He sees the initiative to change the name as driven by Chabad, which distinguishes itself among the Haredim by inviting Jews around the world to ritual meals and holiday celebrations regardless of their level of observance. That outreach was a teaching of Chabad’s beloved leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who died 20 years ago. Heilman’s award-winning biography of Schneerson, “The Rebbe,” has angered many in Chabad who criticize its scholarship and consider it disrespectful to a leader who some believe is the Messiah.

“Ultra-Orthodoxy has a bad reputation in the non-Orthodox world,” a world in which Chabad is deeply embedded, said Heilman.  The word “ultra-Orthodox,” he continued, “is certainly not a good trademark for an outreach organization. They have a strong interest in getting that word out of the lexicon.”

The New York-based Jewish Telegraphic Agency is one media outlet that is willing to oblige. At the 97-year-old wire service, JTA editors have asked reporters to stop using “ultra-Orthodox” in their copy. Instead, they use “Haredi” or “Haredi Orthodox.”

“I do not accept the premise that ‘ultra’ is an inherently negative word, or that the use of the term ‘ultra-Orthodox’ has contributed to any negative impressions that some people may have about segments of the Orthodox community,” said Ami Eden, JTA’s editor-in-chief.

“That said, we believe that whenever possible we should refer to communities the way that they refer to themselves and would like to be identified by the wider world.”

KRE/AMB END MARKOE

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