Ask Unorthodox: What Should I Call Really Religious Jews?

Just don’t say ‘ultra’…

June 22, 2018

Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to [email protected].

Names matter a whole lot in Judaism: Just ask Abram what happened once God added that extra H to his name and commanded him to leave his country and go in search of the promised land. And so, this week, we’d like to take up a question that several listeners have brought up over the years: What to call really religious Jews.

In some, maybe even most, secular publications, you’ll hear these folks, the ones with the black hats and the long skirts, referred to as ultra-Orthodox. But the term, said Avi Shafran, director of public relations for Agudath Israel of America and among Unorthodox’s most Orthodox guests, is offensive.

“When one refers to an ‘ultra-conservative’ in American politics,” Rabbi Shafran said, “one isn’t referring to William F. Buckley Jr. but someone like Pat Buchanan, or even worse. Likewise, ‘ultra-liberal’ doesn’t conjure Ted Kennedy but Bernie Sanders (or maybe Michael Moore). ‘Ultra’ bespeaks ‘beyond the norm.’ We haredim, who seek to live observant lives as our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents (and those of most Jews) did, don’t consider ourselves abnormal. And American social discourse considers ethnic and religious groups to choose what they are called. Native Americans, not Indians. Blacks, not Negroes. Only we ‘ultras,’ what I call the ‘Jews’ Jews,’ are denied that right to self-terminology.”

What, then, about haredim? The Hebrew word is lifted from Isaiah, chapter 66: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word.” The haredim, then, are those who tremble. In Israel, the word is mainly used by secular Jews to describe their more observant neighbors. It’s not always meant kindly, although the community itself seems to have adopted it, naming one of its leading news sites Behadrei Haredim, or in the rooms of the haredim.

So is that word OK?

Not really, Shafran replied. “I’m not fond of the word,” he said. “Firstly, it implies that non-haredim are less observant, which isn’t necessarily true. And secondly, while we may shuckle when we daven, we don’t generally tremble (unless the IRS is auditing us).”

What word, then? What term to use?

“Personally,” said Shafran, “I prefer ‘Orthodox.’ Let prefixes be used by others: centrist, modern, ultra-modern. We’re the original, in no need of a prefix.”

Amen to that. And to all our friends, Orthodox and unorthodox alike, Shabbat Shalom.

Whatever the extent of your faith and your practice, we want to hear your question, about anything. Write to us at [email protected]. To get the Unorthodox podcast, visit iTunes here, or use your favorite app.

Unorthodox is a smart, fresh, fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture hosted by Mark Oppenheimer, Stephanie Butnick, and Liel Leibovitz. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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