(RNS) Much of the world calls them the “ultra-Orthodox.”

Ultra-orthodox Jews cross the street in Brooklyn.

“Ultra-orthodox” Jews cross the street in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo courtesy of diluvi.com Anna i Adria via Wikimedia Commons

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But a growing number within the community of strictly observant Jews are asking journalists and others to reject the term.

Some feel it suggests extremism. Groups should get to choose their own names, they argue, and what community would choose to call itself “ultra” anything?

“The term should be removed from journalistic writing because the people that it refers to find it pejorative,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Brooklyn-based Chabad, one of the largest of the groups commonly referred to as “ultra-Orthodox.”

It’s not just a question for observant Jews. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would like its members to be called “Latter-day Saints” but they’ve accepted the better-known “Mormon.” Some Native Americans say the Washington Redskins name is offensive and shouldn’t be used, but owner Dan Snyder isn’t swayed. Some gays and lesbians prefer the term “queer,” while some blacks prefer “African-American” and reject the once-acceptable “Negro.”

“The word has come to mean ‘beyond the norm’ and we consider ourselves the norm,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the leading umbrella organization of these fervently Orthodox Jews.

“Ultra-Orthodox” is inaccurate, he said. “We are traditional Jews who hew to the practices and attitudes that our grandfathers and grandmothers and their grandfathers and grandmothers hewed to.” He and Seligson suggest a different term: “traditional Orthodox.”

But to outsiders, Jewish or not, these Jews seem far beyond traditional.

In some sects, the men wear tall black or fur-trimmed hats, black suits and sidelocks. Women are covered in long skirts and long-sleeved tops no matter the weather, and hide their hair under wigs or scarves. Marriages are often arranged. They often do not watch television, or read secular books, and contact with the outside world is often limited. Families with seven or more children are not unusual.

And though they are sometimes referred to as the “devoutly Orthodox,” or by the Hebrew term “Haredi,” or the more slang “black hats,” the “ultra-Orthodox” label prevails.

It has served a practical purpose, said Ari Goldman, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and former religion reporter for The New York Times. “It’s a term that distinguishes part of the Orthodox community from the rest of the Orthodox community.”

Judaism divides itself into three main branches: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. The Orthodox make up the smallest branch in the U.S. — 10 percent of the 6.7 million American Jews, according to a recent Pew Research Center study – and are those who most closely follow the letter of Jewish law. Among the Orthodox, the fast-growing “ultra-Orthodox” are the most likely to live in tight-knit communities that insulate themselves from the larger world.

Goldman doesn’t see “ultra-Orthodox” as a pejorative word, though. “Ultra,” he points out, doesn’t have to be negative:  “ultra-pasteurized,” for example. But he also calls for “sensitivity” to Haredi groups — or “Haredim” — who request an alternative name for themselves.

“If it bothers them, then I think it’s worth examining,” he said. In longer pieces, he suggests, a writer could use a term they prefer, and then explain that it describes those commonly called “ultra-Orthodox,” noting that it is a label they dislike.

But in shorter pieces that require no more than a quick reference to the group, it’s harder to get around the shorthand, widely recognized “ultra-Orthodox,” Goldman added. “I would fall back on the formula because it’s something readers know.”

The New York Times, like most American news organizations, uses the word “ultra-Orthodox,” though it will also refer to “Haredi” groups and “Hasidic” communities, a subset of the Haredim. The New York-based Jewish Daily Forward, one of the foremost Jewish news organizations, also uses these terms.

Many of the Haredim do not care what others call them.

They are in insulated communities focused on their spiritual lives, or they don’t think they can ever get a fair hearing from outsiders who publish stories that depict them as strange, or, in recent years, reluctant to confront the sexual offenders among them.

“The Haredi world doesn’t expect much from the world around it,” Shafran said.

But he and other Haredim accustomed to dealing with non-Haredim say it’s worth trying to replace “ultra-Orthodox,” and would like to see English speakers adopt “traditional Orthodox.”

That would distinguish them from the Orthodox who blend more into the secular world and who commonly refer to themselves as “modern Orthodox” (think former Sen. Joe Lieberman) or “centrist Orthodox.” New York’s Yeshiva University, for example, where the students tend to look like college students everywhere, except for the omnipresent yarmulkes, is inspired by a modern Orthodox philosophy.

Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at New York’s Queens College who has written extensively about the Haredim but himself falls into the modern Orthodox category, said “traditional Orthodox” poorly describes the Haredim.

“Number one, they’re not traditional.” Many customs of the Haredim developed relatively recently in the history of Judaism, he said. “They’ve invented traditions.”

He sees the initiative to change the name as driven by Chabad, which distinguishes itself among the Haredim by inviting Jews around the world to ritual meals and holiday celebrations regardless of their level of observance. That outreach was a teaching of Chabad’s beloved leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who died 20 years ago. Heilman’s award-winning biography of Schneerson, “The Rebbe,” has angered many in Chabad who criticize its scholarship and consider it disrespectful to a leader who some believe is the Messiah.

“Ultra-Orthodoxy has a bad reputation in the non-Orthodox world,” a world in which Chabad is deeply embedded, said Heilman.  The word “ultra-Orthodox,” he continued, “is certainly not a good trademark for an outreach organization. They have a strong interest in getting that word out of the lexicon.”

The New York-based Jewish Telegraphic Agency is one media outlet that is willing to oblige. At the 97-year-old wire service, JTA editors have asked reporters to stop using “ultra-Orthodox” in their copy. Instead, they use “Haredi” or “Haredi Orthodox.”

“I do not accept the premise that ‘ultra’ is an inherently negative word, or that the use of the term ‘ultra-Orthodox’ has contributed to any negative impressions that some people may have about segments of the Orthodox community,” said Ami Eden, JTA’s editor-in-chief.

“That said, we believe that whenever possible we should refer to communities the way that they refer to themselves and would like to be identified by the wider world.”



  1. So much of the information contained in this piece is inaccurate.

    The people and groups described as ultra-orthodox by the media, as well as those in the photo, are in fact Hassidic. The word ultra-orthodox is really meaningless in any kind of religious or cultural context.

    Hassidism is a form of Jewish practice and belief that started in 17th century Europe. Yes the many sects of Hassidism (Lubavitch, Satmar, Belz, Bobov, Ger, Pupa and dozens of others) are orthodox, but their strict adherence to the Torah and the commandments are not the only things that distinguish them from the so-called modern orthodox. There is another philosophical construct that exists alongside.

    Although Hasidim do wear black hats (and the fur-trimmed shtreimel on holidays), the term black-hat does not refer to Hasidim, but to very observant non-Hasidic Jews.

    • So are you saying that the group this article is referring to as “Ultra-Orthodox”, is what someone like me, who is not Jewish but grew up in Brooklyn, has simply referred to as Hassidic, all the years? As in the Crown Heights region? I’m sure none of this is really my business since I’m not Jewish, but I’d rather not go around, ignorantly calling a people by a name that is offensive to them. I guess in that way, I might be supporting their cause. Although, I would think other Jews would be justified in having some concern in a name that might give a reflection to their group as a whole also.

      Now I’m REALLY sure my opinion on this matter might be even less important to almost any Orthodox Jew considering that I am gay – but in many ways, this is a very similar experience for me personally. Maybe since so many consider it to be a sin; so I apologize if anyone is offended by my comparison. However I know some who really hate certain terms which the majority of the gay world does not mind, like “queer” (which frankly sounds like I’m being told off), or even “homosexual”(which contrary to popular opinion, and may even sound ridiculous, but I think it makes being gay sound like it’s all about sex. I don’t think it is) and MOST especially “LGBT” – I mean, enough; how many letters will be in there by the time this is through? And I never understood what needing a sex change had to do with falling in love with your own gender. Isn’t that just the opposite?? Sounds to me more like a medical issue… So, in short (lol), I understand… you can raise your objections, but ppl are going to call you what they will sometimes.

  2. Haredi is a fairer, non-pejorative, objective term. It’s a foreign language, but so are words like evangelical (a term which itself means something entirely different in Europe than it does the US). “Traditional Orthodox” just invites confusion because it begs the question: what tradition? You can find hundreds of Modern or Centrist Orthodox, as well as Conservative, synagogues and individuals calling themselves “traditional.” It’s no better than the term “Torah Judaism,” reversely pejorative to everyone else: do we not follow the Torah?

  3. Using Professor Heilman as an expert on the “ultra Orthodox” is like using Rush Limbo as as an authority on President Obama. He is a long time critic of the Haridie and Chassidic community. . His most recent book on Chabad was heavily criticized as agenda driven scholarship.
    More at http://www.amazon.com/The-Afterlife-Scholarship-Critical-Menachem/dp/0615538975/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391729079&sr=8-1&keywords=rebbe+rapoport

  4. This is such an important question, and I think the answer — in the United States, anyway — must be a resounding No! Freedom of speech requires that I not be required to call a homosexual “gay” or a Mormon “Latter-Day Saint”. I personally prefer the label (for myself) of “conservative Evangelical”. When called a “fundamentalist” I get lumped in with people who kill those who believe differently than they do. But that’s what happens when people have freedom of speech.

    Having said that, I generally would adopt whatever label people prefer, so long as it is understood that I am doing so voluntarily (and perhaps) only in their presence or for the duration of a specific article (if I were a journallst).

    • The way it works is that if you don’t come up with your own acceptable terms to describe your group, people will do it for you. When people do it for you, it is never going to be pretty.

      This is the reason why Black or African-American is considered socially acceptable, but negro or colored is not. Why “atheist: is acceptable but “godless devil inspired heathen is not”. :)

      • Yes, and it is amazing, in the history of such things, how often the seemingly misguided label foisted on a group by outsiders has stuck — and even been accepted by those within the group. “Quaker” was originally a term of derision for the Society of Friends, but I think it has been accepted by most Quakers. And I recently read that most Native Americans in the US actually prefer to be called Indians! I have even read that the term “Christian” started off as a pejorative term mocking Jesus’s followers as “little Christs.”

        • Not exactly. You are still talking about labels from those outside the group. When a group wants control of such things they promote their own labels.

          Latter Day Saints instead of Mormon. Roma, instead of Gypsy. Inuit instead of Eskimo. Not using the term the group uses for themselves generally will invite offense. If one is not willing to take control of such things, they run the risk of derogatory terms becoming the norm.

          • Well, I go back to my original statement: that where there is a right to freedom of speech, you don’t have the right to control what people call you. And even if you think you are controlling what people say about you, you really aren’t.

          • I am not talking about rights and freedom of speech. I am talking about social convention and how groups will perceive offensive.

            You can call a group anything you want. But ones which find offense to a widely used label will go out of their way to come up with their own. When they do, they let it be known that the old one gives offense.

            Its not a matter of freedom or controlling speech. Its just being polite.

    • I share your view here in many ways… I think the real answer would be found in a reasonable, balanced approach – which in the United States, is more than a problem these days! I mean seriously, it seems like “black” people come up with new names, while getting mad at the “old” names more often than, well, more often than P. Diddy. I personally think being called “white” does a tremendous disservice, since putting my Italian-American heritage in the same historical context as the Anglo-Saxon, or even the Slavic group is extremely misleading. While compared to my preference to be called “born again” instead of “Evangelical” is more about understanding who I am, why I am, more than about being offended… Even still, I almost hate the word “homosexual” as opposed to simply being called “gay”, to the point where it’s actually offensive to me. Although, I certainly wouldn’t hold the person calling me homosexual responsible for my being offended, since in most cases, given the other options, they’re most likely trying NOT to offend me. Also, for the most part, I seem to be in the minority of the minority on that one.

      In any of these cases, I would never think someone should be legally forced to call me anything. That’s just absurd and I agree with you… but if I’m going to be ostracized from main stream society for not using the “correct” terminology in regards to some of these other examples I gave above, well than they should makes sure they are adhering to the same standard that I am being asked to.

  5. “Traditional Orthodox” is a terribly poor choice, for two reasons.

    First many of those communal norms that define the group are not “traditional” in any meaningful sense. for instance, dressing like a 17th century European nobleman – the basis for the robes and fur hats – obviously had no place in “tradition” until the 17th century, which is relatively recent in the framework of Jewish history. Mass kollel attendance is another recent innovation.

    Second, the name “traditional orthodox” implies that other Orthodox jews are deviating from tradition, which both simply isn’t so as a matter of fact, and is at the very least at the heart of disputes between some Hareidim and most Orthodox jews. Frankly, “Chareidi” or “Chassidic” are fine terms if they really feel upset with “ultra-Orthodox”.

    • Lol, a couple worthy points in that comment that I was also thinking. It’s almost a bit like saying “we’re offended by that label – how about you just call us the REAL JEWS”… But I truly see this from both sides.

  1. […] Should ultra-Orthodox Jews be able to decide what they're called? But a growing number within the community of strictly observant Jews are asking journalists and others to reject the term. Some feel it suggests extremism. Groups should get to choose their own names, they argue, and what community would choose to call … Read more on Religion News Service […]

  2. […] Should ultra-Orthodox Jews be able to decide what they're called? But a growing number within the community of strictly observant Jews are asking journalists and others to reject the term. Some feel it suggests extremism. Groups should get to choose their own names, they argue, and what community would choose to call … Read more on Religion News Service […]

  3. […] Should ultra-Orthodox Jews be able to decide what they're called? But a growing number within the community of strictly observant Jews are asking journalists and others to reject the term. Some feel it suggests extremism. Groups should get to choose their own names, they argue, and what community would choose to call … Read more on Religion News Service […]

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