An e-mail list to which I belong is debating the value of using the term Orthodox to describe those of us who have traditional beliefs about the God, Torah and Mitzvah observance. One of the more famous statements about this was by Rav Gifter – the great Rosh HaYeshiva of Telshe. He hated the term. He felt that it was thrust upon us unwillingly by the Reform as a pejorative. He therefore never used it. He preferred using terms like observant.
In the course of the discussion on that list someone quoted a passage from the writings of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch that spells out this attitude:
It was not the 'Orthodox' Jews who introduced the word 'orthodoxy' into Jewish discussion. It was the modern 'progressive' Jews who first applied this name to 'old', 'backward' Jews as a derogatory term. This name was at first resented by 'old' Jews. And rightly so. 'Orthodox' Judaism does not know any varieties of Judaism. It conceives Judaism as one and indivisible. It does not know a Mosaic, prophetic and rabbinic Judaism, nor Orthodox and Liberal Judaism. It only knows Judaism and non-Judaism. It does not know Orthodox and Liberal Jews. It does indeed know conscientious and indifferent Jews, good Jews, bad Jews or baptised Jews; all, nevertheless, Jews with a mission which they cannot cast off. They are only distinguished accordingly as they fulfil or reject their mission.
I find Rav Hirsch’s explanation falls short. His premise is that we are defined by a mission that we cannot cast off. Reform might say exactly the same thing. They just define the mission differently. This can in fact be stated by all denominations.
How we define that mission is what denominations are all about.
The word has no pejorative meaning attached to it. Here is Wikipedia's definition:
The word orthodox, from Greek orthos ("right", "true", "straight") + doxa ("opinion" or "belief", related to dokein, "to think"), is generally used to mean the adherence to accepted norms, more specifically to creeds, especially in religion...
Orthodox Jewry is right, true, and straight in its opinions and beliefs; and we adhere to accepted norms. Why fight the term? There is nothing wrong with it!
Some might counter that by calling ourselves Orthodox we lend credence to the idea that there are other legitimate denominations of Judaism. Perhaps one could interpret it that way. But that is not necessarily the case. We refer to other religions by their name too. Does that mean we lend credence to their theologies?
It is useful to refer to groups of people by the names they call themselves. Without identifying them it would be impossible to have intelligent conversations about them. Even if we were to say observant versus non-observant – how would that tell us whether we are talking about Conservative or Reform? Besides Conservative Rabbis would say they are observant. And even Reform Jews might say that in the sense that they mean it.
So with all due respect to Rav Gifter and Rav Hirsch (and as I have said in the past) the definition fits and I wear that label proudly. I don't care who thought up the label 'Orthodox' ...or why.
I'm sure that the Orthodox Union (OU) feels the same way.