Swearing off the “U” Word

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The word “ultra,” one dictionary informs me, is Latin for “the far side.” Well, there are certainly days when I feel I have wandered into a Gary Larson cartoon. But most of the time, my life, like the lives of most “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews, is pretty unremarkable,

So, isn’t it time the media, which seem so often to focus on traditionally observant Jews, substituted another term like “haredi”—a nonjudgmental word denoting devotion—for the one they currently favor, which other lexicons define as “excessive,” “immoderate” or “extremist”?

Okay, we do dress a little strangely by contemporary standards. Our men and boys wear hats or yarmulkes; our married women keep their hair covered (no veils, though!). Our clothing is modest in a way that tends to stand out, especially in the summer. Our men tend to favor black. But, hey, so do many chic dressers.

And we’re fundamentalists too, I suppose, at least in the sense that we hold some strong fundamental beliefs: That there is a Creator with a plan for mankind; that He revealed Himself at Sinai, communicating the Torah’s text and the keys to interpreting its meaning; and that ultimate reward and punishment await all human beings—although we tend to dwell less on the details of heaven and hell than on those of good and bad. (Not that all of us are always good. We may be haredim but we’re still human.)

And yes, from the moment we wake up until we go to bed, our lives are governed (or should be) by the directives of Jewish religious law, or halacha. We pray, eat only kosher food, observe the laws of the Sabbath and holidays. And I’m pretty sure if the media knew what we pay for certain fruits and branches before Sukkot or for hard flatbread before Pesach, they might indeed consider us on the “far side”

Most reactionary of all, we tend to shun what passes for music, entertainment and popular culture these days. We even have the chutzpah to buck the contemporary assumption that witnessing thousands of enacted murders and other immorality on screens is benign.

But most haredim are familiar, some even conversant, with the larger society around them, not to mention technologically adept. Haredim are gainfully employed in high-tech fields and in the business world. Nor do we lack for doctors or lawyers, plumbers or electricians.

To be sure, many of our young men opt for full-time Torah study after marriage and most Orthodox men in the business and professional worlds devote at least part of their days to studying Torah. And all of us sacrifice much in the way of financial security for the sake of the Torah education of our sons and daughters.

But does that affirmation of the Jewish religious heritage, that following in the footsteps of Jews over the millennia, make us “extremist”? Considering the other candidates for that word today?

It’s time we began registering our chagrin with public editors and ombudsmen of periodicals we come across that insist on our “Ultra-ness,” and ask them to put the “U-word” out with the cat. The pejorative prefix not only unfairly marginalizes us but sends a subtle message: That way—the way of dedication to the Judaism of the ages—lies madness.

Any open-minded person of good will who has ever interacted with haredim knows otherwise. Our community is warm and caring, well-evidenced not only in the lives of countless of its individual members but by the sheer number of haredi community services and organizations that cater to the needs of the sick, bereaved, and destitute.

The haredi ideal—absorbed continuously through our Torah-study and encouraged regularly by our religious leaders—is to strive for perfection, with regard to our relationships both with the Creator and with His other creations.

There is, of course, that small matter of our holy war. But ours aims to vanquish only the inclinations that lead us to be selfish, snide and sinful. And our weapons are Torah, prayer and introspection.

Maybe that is radical these days. But calling it the “far side” of normalcy doesn’t say much for the new normal.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and a columnist for Ami]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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