Ultra-Orthodox bride Rivka Hannah (Hofman) at her Jerusalem wedding in 2014. / Getty Images
About 20 years ago, when I was a staff writer for JTA, the editor and I were called into Agudath Israel of America for a meeting on the “ultra-Orthodox” issue. Rabbi Avi Shafran and other Agudah representatives were unhappy even then with the term, explaining as Shafran did recently in this forum that they viewed it as a pejorative term. We explained why journalists use the term and discussed using the term Haredi, which is more commonplace today than it was at that time, instead. We concluded by asking them to recommend alternatives with which they might be more comfortable.
It would be nice to have a viable non-Hebrew alternative, though we do not use “ultra-Orthodox” as a reflection of bias or desire to disparage, no matter how subtly. Instead, it is shorthand to distinguish between this part of the Orthodox community and the more modern segment from which Haredi Judaism is, as Shafran is well aware, quite distinct. When a premium is put on economy of language, as it is in journalism, ultra-Orthodox fits the bill.
We all like to think we are centrist and that everyone else is extreme in comparison. But it is disingenuous at best for Shafran to say that there is nothing “ultra” about the way his community elects to live. He protests the notion that his community merits being described as “extreme.” Really? It brings to mind the Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” bit with Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler. Does Shafran really believe that it will ever suffice simply to describe his community as “Orthodox?” Really?
As Shafran acknowledges, the Haredi community wears distinctive clothing, eschews higher education except in specific circumstances for specific reasons, and in his words, “doesn’t invest the State of Israel with political meaning or consider everything it does to be automatically right.” But the last sounds much more like J Street than an accurate description of the virulent anti-Zionism of Neturei Karta and Satmar with which we have become familiar through their demonstrations at the Salute to Israel parade and meetings with Israel’s greatest enemies. That kind of Haredi behavior doesn’t qualify as extreme? Really?
On the hottest summer Saturday afternoons, the Modern Orthodox Jews I know are perfectly happy for men to wear shorts and a t-shirt, women a lightweight skirt without pantyhose. I’ve seen plenty of Haredi men trudging alongside Route 52 in upstate New York, near their bungalow colonies, on those sweltering days. They wear many layers of clothing topped with the long black satin coats and round fur hats worn to distinguish special days like Shabbat. That isn’t an extreme statement when it’s 90 degrees and humid? Really?
Certainly there are ultra-Orthodox individuals and families privately more moderate than the public campaigns of the Agudah and some of its affiliated communities would suggest. There are homes in which any recreational internet use isn’t verboten, and families that permit their youngsters to use the public library or see an appropriate movie.
And I appreciate that the ever-more extreme bulwarks erected in Haredi communities against the threat of encroaching secular culture are mirrors, to some extent, of the extremeness around us. I would be happy to never again see on television anything like Miley Cyrus faux-copulating with a giant foam finger while clad in a costume designed to look nude. Pop culture seems to become ever more extreme in its coarseness.
But still. It isn’t fair or accurate to describe Haredi norms today as extreme? Really?
Filling CitiField with 40,000 Haredi men to rail against the evils of the Internet isn’t extreme in comparison to the way other Orthodox Jews deal with life online? Really? Though not organized by the Agudah, the asifa was produced by many of the Hasidic sects whose interests it represents.
Insisting that contact between the mouth of a mohel and the wound of a newly circumcised baby is religiously required, even when it puts the health and potentially the life of a vulnerable newborn at risk, is not extreme? Even when most Orthodox mohels say it is halachically acceptable to do required suction through a pipette? And appealing a lawsuit the Agudah and others lost against the City of New York in an attempt to bar implementation of an informed consent requirement of those who want to have metzitzah b’peh performed on their son — this is not extreme? Really?
The ball remains in your court, Avi Shafran. Suggest a viable alternative to “ultra-Orthodox” with which you would be comfortable. Or stop kvetching about it.