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?
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes can usually count on the firm support of the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America.
While Hynes has been lambasted over the years by child abuse survivors and their advocates for his handling of sex abuse cases, Agudath has generally backed what it sees as his sensitive handling of abuse cases in the community.
Not this week.
The Forward asked Agudath what it made of the D.A.’s blanket refusal to name 85 Orthodox Jews charged with sex crimes.
The D.A.’s office denied the Forward’s Freedom of Information Law request by claiming that all Orthodox Jewish sex abuse suspects should have their identities protected because of the community’s “tight-knit and insular” nature.
Rabbi David Zwiebel, Agudath’s executive vice president and a legal expert, defended the D.A.’s right to evaluate whether to release the names of offenders on a case-by-case basis, according to Agudath spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran.
Such an evaluation could take into account whether naming the suspect might allow the victim to be identified. But a blanket policy of withholding names of perpetrators should not be “across the board” in any community, he said.
Two very important articles in Haaretz this week that shed light on the violent extremism emerging from the two main streams of Israeli Orthodoxy.
One, a feature article in today’s weekend section by senior correspondent Yair Ettinger, focuses on the growing furor over Haredi extremism, assaults on women’s rights and the violence in the Haredi sections of Bet Shemesh. He cites a open letter published this week by the top leader of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic Haredi) wing, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, urging Haredim to resist vocational education, military service and other efforts to integrate them into general society. Ettinger’s main point, though, is that Elyashiv’s letter, and the violent extremism of a few hundred fanatics, reflect the desperation of the losing side as pragmatism and economics drive more Haredim toward integration in the job market and the army.
Equally important is this news article from Wednesday’s paper, reporting that police have “discovered” the right-wing militants who attacked the Ephraim army base on the West Bank December 12 were mostly students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, brought up to the base by chartered bus following careful surveillance of the base by activist leaders. This punches a big hole in all the hand-wringing and whining by settler leaders and their apologists (see here, here and here) about the rioters being a rabble of alienated, out-of-control hilltop youth and “violent youth gangs” beyond the reach of the rabbis and responsible Religious Zionist leadership. Mercaz Harav is the Harvard of Religious Zionism and the birthplace of the settler movement. What happens there isn’t outside the mainstream. It is the mainstream.