Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ultra Orthodox Does Not Mean Extremist

Photo credit: The Forward
I hate labels. Especially when it comes to Judaism. That may sound strange coming from someone who uses them constantly in this context. But it’s true. I do hate them. On the other hand it shouldn’t really sound all that strange when one reads my many posts on Achdus. I would love to get rid of all labels. No more Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox. No more RWMO, LWMO… No more Misnagdim, No more Chasidim.  No more Ashkenazim. No more Sephardim. Just one label: The Jewish people!  Some more religious, some less.

Unfortunately it is no longer possible to do that. We have become a divided people in so many different ways it’s hard to count them. And some segments even within Orthodoxy are so radically different from each other that one would be hard pressed to see them as the same religion. I cannot for example think of two more radically different segments of Orthodoxy than Satmar and LWMO. And yet what unites them is probably still more than what divides them... the observance of Halacha. Both communities observe the Mitzvos and both believe in the fundamentals of the faith.

Why do we need labels? Because indeed we are so divided. And it is helpful to know why. It is helpful in order to explain patterns of behavior, both good and bad, that are distinctive to any given segment.  This is how we learn. This is how we can improve.

Which brings me to an article in the Forward by Rabbi Avi Shafran wherein he complains about the term Ultra Orthodox. He considers it a pejorative.  Samuel Heilman has written a response. Here is mine.

I do not agree with Rabbi Shafran at all. Although I use the word Charedi instead of Ultra Orthodox most of the time - I do not now think or ever have thought ‘ultra’ is a pejorative. Not any more than when it is used in connection with the word bright in a brand of toothpaste.

The truth is that I wasn’t aware that ultra can mean ‘extreme’ in Latin as Rabbi Shafran points out. But I don’t think that is it how it is commonly thought of. I don’t see an ultra Orthodox Jew as an extremist.

For me ultra Orthodoxy was simply a segment describing the right wing of Orthodox Jewry. These are Jews who go to extra lengths to fulfill the Mitzvos of  the Torah, especially in areas of Jewish ritual - going beyond the letter of the law in their fulfillment of them. So that one will for example pay extra attention to (among other things) Chalav Yisroel, Mehadrin Kosher products, Talmud study, prayer, modesty in female dress and uniformity in male dress, interaction between the sexes (i.e. avoiding it as much as possible). They will also avoid as much of contemporary society as possible. I wouldn’t call this extreme. But I would call it ultra.

They are in effect ultra Orthodox in the same way that Ultra bright is toothpaste that makes your teeth brighter (supposedly). In other words they go beyond the minimum and try to do the maximum ritually. While protecting themselves as much as possible from outside influences. And the truth is that many of us in Modern Orthodoxy incorporate one or more of these behaviors into our own lives.

There are however segments of ultra Orthodox Jews that are extreme. But not necessarily in a violent way.  This is illustrated in the picture above. It is of a bride and groom during the Chasidic custom called the Mitzvah Tanz. If the custom of bride covering her face for purposes of Tznius (modesty)during the Mitzvah Tanz is not an extreme custom, I don’t know what is.

Now there are extremists in Ultra Orthodoxy that are violent - just like in any other segment of Judaism. And they usually deserve that pejorative.  But leaving out the extremists, being Ultra Orthodox is just as legitimate as being modern Orthodox.  

I therefore believe that Rabbi Shafran’s umbrage is misplaced.  

In fact I’m not even sure he qualifies as Ultra Orthodox himself. Having attended Ner Israel and considering himself a follower of the Hirschian philosophy of Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) as he once told me, I would put him more into a category of moderate Charedi. Here is how he describes his community: 
We strive to observe the laws of the Torah, as mediated by the codes of Jewish law. And we eat only kosher food and do our best to observe the myriad religious laws of the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays. Orthodox modesty strictures, moreover, do set us (especially the women among us) apart from contemporary styles and norms. Those things, though, are part of every Orthodox Jew’s life. 
(W)e “Haredim are somewhat more insular than our “modern” …Orthodox brothers and sisters. We don’t generally own televisions, and we shun much of what passes for popular culture these days. But we’re hardly homogeneous, humorless or Luddites. Most of us are quite technology conversant, interact swimmingly with our non-Jewish co-workers and neighbors, and live peaceful, normal lives. And most of us speak fairly proper English, though Yiddishisms may occasionally sneak in.  
This is not ultra anything. As I said - this is what I have called moderate Charedi.

He then suggests that since others use modifiers like ‘Modern’ and ‘Open’, that the word Orthodox be left to describe his segment. I could not disagree more

We are all Orthodox. That term ought to be defined once and for all. Orthodox means observant of Halacha and the belief in the13 Maimonidean principles of faith. If those two conditions are satisfied, you are Orthodox.  Making ‘Orthodoxy’ the exclusive property of the right would mean that I can no longer classify myself as Orthodox. As a Centrist or Right Wing Modern Orthodox (RWMO) Jew I would be left out of Orthodoxy.

I reject the notion that I am not Orthodox. And I reject the notion that it ought only be used by the right wing. The bottom line is that Ultra Orthodox and Modern Orthodox are all Orthodox and pejoratives should not be associated with those prefixes. We are all Orthodox. And we all ought to respect each other that way.