Is “Ultra-Orthodox” Out?
by Sala Levin
A quiet but steady change has been afoot for some years: the rising use of an unfamiliar word to describe a centuries-old tradition. Now, with the term in the pages of The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets, it’s hard not to ask: Is “ultra-Orthodox” out, and haredi in?
The term haredi comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to tremble” (hared) and a verse in Isaiah, in which God says, “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my word.” “Haredi really means those who are in awe, or who tremble or quake,” says Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and author of Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry. The same biblical verse has served as inspiration for others. “Quakers and Shakers had already been taken by other groups, so that left haredi for the Jews,” says Heilman.
In the 16th century, kabbalist Elazar Azikri wrote a book called Sefer Haredim, which became a cornerstone of ethical and kabbalistic study. Later, the term found its way into rabbinical literature and popular usage in the fledgling Jewish state. “It started off in modern Hebrew press and literature to refer to the ultra-Orthodox or black hatters,” says Heilman. It was not the only Hebrew word denoting those who were strictly observant of Jewish law. The preferred descriptor was dati, a word of Persian origin meaning religious, notes Heilman, which was a catch-all for many stripes of Israeli Orthodoxy; haredi has emerged to describe a more specific stream of the Orthodox movement.
In English, “ultra-Orthodox” was the nom de rigueur. Over the past several decades, however, some members of that community raised objections to this phrasing. “Their idea is that they are correct-practicing Jews, so to say that they’re ‘ultra’ suggests that their practice isn’t the norm,” says Nora Rubel, professor of religion at the University of Rochester and author of Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination. “They believe that their practice is what Jewish practice should be.” Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, finds “ultra-Orthodox” pejorative: “The reason some of us bristle at the use of ‘ultra’ is because in other contexts that prefix refers to ‘beyond the pale’ (as in ‘ultra-conservative’ or ‘ultra-liberal’) and we haredim see ourselves as essentially a continuation of what Jews were for most of Jewish history.”
Haredi is seen as more neutral. “It’s a shorthand term to avoid the controversy surrounding all the other words that have been used for them,” says Heilman. Adds Rubel: “Throw a foreign word in italics and it just seems easier to accept at face value.”
The increasing usage in English has another source. As the word has grown in popularity in Hebrew, American Jews have adopted it, says Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and author of Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism. She suggests that the incorporation of modern Hebrew words into the American-Jewish dialect—think saba and safta instead of zayde and bubbe—reflects an “increasing connection to Israeli society: American Jews spending more time in Israel, reading Israeli periodicals more and maintaining connections with Israelis.”
But the deeper reason for the switch to haredi, says Shafran, is a matter of principle: the right to self-identify. “There’s a rightful respect in many circles for calling groups of people what they want to be called. (No one calls Muslims ‘Mohammedans’ anymore.) And so since we increasingly have used the word haredi to refer to ourselves, others have, to their credit, followed suit.”
Few of the 1.5 or so million Jews (most live in New York and Israel) who would be called haredi use the term to describe themselves. They are a tremendously varied lot, including Hasidic Jews (a remarkably diverse group in and of itself) and Lithuanian-yeshivish Jews—devout Ashkenazi but not Hasidic. Many are Yiddish speakers, and use that language to name themselves. “More commonly, they simply refer to themselves as yidden, or Jews, as if to say ‘We’re the only Jews, everyone else is otherwise,’” says Heilman. Frum, the Yiddish word for “devout” or “pious,” also remains a popular choice for self-identification, as does “black hat,” referring to the men’s typical sartorial styles.
The linguistic debate has played out largely in Jewish publications. Earlier this year, The Jewish Daily Forward published an op-ed by Shafran in which he spoke out on the term’s behalf, adding that most people like him are “quite technology conversant, interact swimmingly with our non-Jewish co-workers and neighbors, and live peaceful, normal lives.” Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, responded in an editorial titled, “Why We Use the ‘U-Word’ to Describe Very Observant Orthodox,” in which she explained the newspaper’s decision to continue using “ultra-Orthodox”: “It is the refusal to engage in the modern, secular world, to partake of its culture, acknowledge its obligations and respect its differences that set apart the ultra-Orthodox…it is not normative Judaism. Or even normative Orthodoxy.”