Should ultra-Orthodox Jews be able to decide what they’re called?

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Ultra-orthodox Jews cross the street in Brooklyn.

Photo courtesy of Anna i Adria via Wikimedia Commons

Ultra-orthodox Jews cross the street in Brooklyn.

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(RNS) Who would want to be called "ultra" anything? Some Jews known as the "ultra-Orthodox" have come up with a new name, but will it stick?

  • 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.

  • David Weisel

    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?

  • Reuvain Stein

    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

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  • PaulD

    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).

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  • Larry

    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”. 🙂

  • PaulD

    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.”

  • Larry

    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.

  • PaulD

    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.

  • Akiva

    “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”.

  • Michael

    Hassidim are ultra-orthodox, that’s the point. They are a subgroup, like the Mitnagdim/Lithuanians, and the Shassnikim, and other subgroups, mostly found in Israel.

  • Larry

    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.

  • RJ

    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.

  • RJ

    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.

  • RJ

    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.

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