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A hasid by any other name
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A hasid by any other name

In January a Chabad-trained rabbi in California won his first-ever bout as a mixed martial arts fighter. According to the scorecard, Yossi Eilfort is 22, stands 5' 10″, and fights (I love this) “orthodox.” That means he’s a righty who stands with his left foot forward.

That’s orthodox according to the dictionary: traditional, commonplace, routine. That’s not “Orthodox” as we understand it in the Jewish community: observant, pious, traditionalist.

Of course, there are some people who insist on both meanings — i.e., the Orthodox way of being Jewish is the orthodox way of being Jewish. Such people might consider all the other ways of being Jewish — Reform, Conservative, cultural, “just Jewish” — as unorthodox, or deviations from the normative.

You’d think this would lead to a lot of arguments, if not fisticuffs, and you’re right. But it’s not just a fight between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Even within Orthodox Judaism, there’s a fierce disagreement over nomenclature. There’s Modern Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, hasidic, and Open Orthodox, to name a few, all jostling to claim they are the control in this experiment we call Judaism.

Last week, Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, wrote an essay for the Forward complaining about the use of “ultra-Orthodox” to describe his branch of Judaism. He’s got a point: “Ultra” implies “over the top,” he writes. “Okay, I know, we are different. I don’t mean to challenge that sociological truism. But our differentness reflects only our fealty to the Judaism of the ages. That makes us Orthodox, not ‘ultra’ anything.”

But you see what he did there? He essentially defined Jews like him — known as “haredim” in Hebrew — as the norm or the paragon of Orthodoxy. That wasn’t going to sit well with people who consider themselves Orthodox, but “Modern” — that is, more willing than the haredim to seek a secular higher education, to partake of popular culture, and to embrace Zionism, and less distinctive in their dress and less insulated in their communities and workplaces.

And sure enough, sociologist Samuel Heilman responded days later, rejecting the idea that haredim like Shafran represent the “true guardians of the tradition.” “[A]nyone who has studied the Orthodox as I have,” writes Heilman, knows that the haredim “simply choose to believe that they somehow are truer in their beliefs and practices than others.”

At this point you might be thinking this is a fight of only academic interest. But it does have some real-world implications. Newspapers like ours struggle with what to call the haredim without offending them or confusing the reader. “Haredim” (meaning those who “tremble” before God) is better than “ultra,” although not quite a household word. This newspaper uses “fervently Orthodox,” which is also better than “ultra” but still suggests that Modern Orthodox Jews are less enthusiastic about their observance.

But distinctions do matter. A Chabad rabbi once asked me why we referred to Jews according to their denominations. Why not just call them “Jews”? That’s a lovely sentiment, I remember thinking, but intellectual honesty demands that we recognize not just what makes us similar, but in what ways we differ.

And there are important differences among the Orthodox, and not just the black hats, the dark suits and long-sleeved dresses, and the beards or headscarves. Haredim “tend to shun higher secular education,” Shafran acknowledges, “partly because our intellectual ideal lies in Talmud study rather than in the humanities or sciences, and partly because university life is far from consonant with our moral values.”

There is an academic word for this worldview, but I don’t think Shafran or any other haredi Jews would like it: “pre-modern,” or perhaps pre-Enlightenment. I’ve seen pre-modern defined as a worldview based on “revealed knowledge from authoritative sources,” and the belief that ultimate truth can be known through direct revelation from God or a god. Pre-moderns isolate themselves in an effort, according to philosopher Nicholas F. Gier, “to escape the meaningless momentariness of history.”

“Escape the meaningless momentariness of history” would make a great haredi T-shirt, if haredim wore T-shirts. (Or “generally” wore T-shirts; Shafran reminds us that haredim are “a variegated bunch.”) From the haredi perspective, “pre-modern” implies their form of Judaism pre-dates all the other innovations, and suggests, as many haredi Jews are wont to do, that modernity — especially the humanities or sciences — undermines Torah values.

And therein lies the political dimension to the argument over nomenclature. Modern Orthodox Jews resent the implication that they are betraying Torah by, say, getting a secular education or taking jobs in the economic mainstream. Haredi Jews, meanwhile, resent being portrayed as “fanatics” or backwards. And each side ridicules the other: Haredim say Modern Orthodox innovations border on heresy; many Modern Orthodox consider the haredi lifestyle a retreat from daily life and responsibility, especially in Israel.

I’d like to find a term for the haredim that respects Shafran and folks like him, and pre-modern doesn’t cut it. Neo-Traditionalist Orthodoxy? Romantic Orthodoxy? Most of all, I’d like to see more debates like the one started by Shafran, which at least has created a dialogue among types of Jews who rarely talk to one another.

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