Thursday, February 20, 2020

Of Labels and Ultra-Orthodoxy

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2014 (NYT)
I’ve said this before. I hate labels. I really do. Labels divide. Without them we would have a far better chance of achieving some semblance of unity.

This might be surprising to people that read this blog. I might justifiably be accused of using labels a lot in my rantings – I mean writings. How can I hate a concept that I so frequently make use of? That’s because it is useful to identify a group that has common characteristics as a way of trying to determine the reasons for certain types of behavior. Separating one group from another is a way of saying that the behavior of one group does not necessarily apply to the behavior of another group.

I don’t think there is any doubt by anyone about the need for some labels. Even to those people that hate labels more than I do. Why - for example - identify Jews and Christians? Why not just call us all human beings? The answer is obvious. We need to know who we are in contradistinction to others. We each have our own way of life that demands we we know to which group we belong. We Jews are the chosen of God and have an obligation to Him that make us unique and different. 

OK. Well then way not at least refer to all Jews as simply Jews? Why use denominational identifiers? There ought not be Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. Let us just call each other Jews! 

That was in fact the case before the Reform movement came along and  separated from the rest of Jewry. (I am of course speaking of the modern era. Not the era of the Mishnah and Talmud that existed 2000 years ago where there were denominational breakaways that included the long gone Essenes and Sadducees.)

It is the Reform Movement which was the first breakaway. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the rest of us. Before Reform came along, we were all indeed just one Jewish people. Some more observant. Some less. Some not at all.

To the Reform founders we became ‘the other’ and labeled Orthodox. Meant as kind of a pejorative - seeing us as clinging to an outdated rigid set of  religious laws and customs – most of which no longer apply in the modern era. A label we Orthodox Jews now carry with pride. 

Is it important to identify these groups?

I absolutely think it is. By way of illustration - Orthodox Jews need to know if a fellow Jew keeps Kosher so that he may eat food prepared by him. Knowing one’s fellow is Orthodox assumes that he keeps Kosher. Knowing one’s fellow is Reform tells you that he very likely does not. I realize of course that knowledge of denomination is not required to find that out. But it does tell you those facts without having to check further. There are exceptions of course. But that is the rule.

What about labels within a denomination? As it applies to Orthodoxy, I think it is fair to say that there are almost as many labels as there are people.

OK. I am exaggerating.  A lot. The point is that there is quite a a bit of labeling going on in Orthodoxy. Is that really necessary? I wish it weren’t. But I think it is. It’s important to know what the values of each segment of Orthodoxy is. Labels tell you that.  It gives Orthodox Jews with shared values - a sense of community. 

This doesn’t mean that we can’t live together and interact freely in common cause and camaraderie. It just means that we take pride in our own Hashkafos and the particular values they generate while respecting the Hashkafos of others and the particular values they generate. 

Labels can help identify why one community has specific problems while the other does not.

For example there are probably a lot more OTD young people in Modern Orthodoxy then there are in Ultra-Orthodoxy (Charedim). That might be because of a Hashkafa that is more integrated into the general culture. 

And... that there might be more government fraud in the some of the more isolated Chasidic communities might have something to do with their tendency to isolate themselves from the general culture.

Not saying that is necessarily the case. That there are more problems in one community does not mean they don’t exist in the other. But surely it helps to know the Hashkafos and values of each group and examine which of those values contribute to those problems.

Which brings me to Rabbi Avi Shafran’s lament in the NewYork Times. He objects to the use of the prefix ‘ultra’ when attached to Orthodox. He considers it a pejorative and says that Charedim are ‘tarred’ as extremists with that label. Here’s why: 
What does “ultra” bring to mind in, say, politics? Does “ultraconservative” conjure images of Ambassador Nikki Haley and John McCain, or Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon? What do we mean when we call an investment “ultra-risky”? Or a race an “ultra-marathon”? We mean something that is extreme, beyond normal or beyond the mainstream. 
Well… yes. It does mean extreme or out of the ordinary. But not always in a negative connotation. Does ultra fine wool make a suit extreme?  Or does it make it more valuable?

That said, I understand why he feels that way. Because sometimes (not always) when ultra Orthodox Jews are mentioned in the media - it is in a negative context.

This does not God forbid mean that they are inherently bad people. Quite the opposite. They are inherently good people that take their obligations to God seriously. But as I always say, when an identifiably religious Jew does something wrong - it is a ‘man bites dog’ story. And far more likely to be published. 

So when a bearded man with long Peyos, wearing large black Kipa, a long black coat with his Tzitzis hanging out gets arrested - that is news. That the vast majority of people that look like that are law abiding citizens is not news. The problem of course is only the bad gets published. So that the typical reader might conclude that ultra Orthodox Jew are by nature criminals.

It is therefore understandable why Rabbi Shafran is upset at the use of the word ultra.

It also depends to whom the word ‘ultra’ is applied. Are all Orthodox Jews ‘ultra’?  There are some journalists and columnists that apply that word to any Jew that wears a Kipa. On the other hand some apply it only to Chasidim. Who are generally the most radically different in appearance than the rest of Orthodox Jewry. Some might include the suit wearing black fedora wearing Lithuanian Yeshiva type Jew as ultra-Orthodox. Not everyone uses that word in the same way.

That the word may have taken on a negative connotation is more of a function about why those Jews have been in the media.

I do not consider myself ultra anything. I am a centrist in every sense of the word. But if someone said I was ultra orthodox, would I be insulted? Not at all. I might even consider it a compliment to be thought of as someone that is more finely attuned to the will of God than most people. 

On the other hand now that ultra Orthodox Jews keep appearing in the media in negative ways, I might actually have a problem with that. Not because of the word ‘ultra’. But because of the reality of the ‘man bites dog’ phenomenon or reporting the bad rather than the good which then attaches that word unfairly to bad behavior.

It would help if all of Orthodox Jews avoided bad behavior entirely. So that any time the media gets the urge to publish something about ultra-Orthodox Jews who look so different from everyone else - they will only find good things to say about them.  At that point being ultra Orthodox will be considered a compliment rather than a pejorative.