A Rose by any Other Name

The NY Jewish Week noted a thread of criticism of media coverage of the terrorist attack on the Chabad of Mumbai, one both different and more subtle than the media’s obfuscation of the terrorists’ identity as Islamic radicals and their Jewish victims as deliberate targets (though, to be certain, it took note of that as well). What exercised the Jewish Week is that the news reports called the Chabad shluchim “ultra-Orthodox.” But lest you think that the NY Jewish Week took this as an opportunity for soul-searching, to perhaps finally discard its consistent use of a disparaging term to describe our community, prepare to be disappointed — for that impression would be sadly mistaken.

Mark Steyn, writing in the National Review and Washington Times (Dec. 6), noted that “ultra” was used “in almost all the western media … less a term of theological precision than a generalized code for ‘strange, weird people, nothing against them personally, but.” And Steyn adds, were these ultras “stranger or weirder than their killers?”

Mark Steyn, in this passage quoted in the NYJW, gets it exactly right. Frequent readers will note that many of us at Cross-Currents have protested the “ultra” label for exactly this reason. Steyn is not at all Orthodox himself; he just knows an offensive smear when he sees one. He correctly outlines the offensive bias inherent in the “ultra” label and calls it unfair, thus implying that it should be jettisoned from civilized discourse — and not a moment too soon.

The NYJW takes what Steyn said, twists it around, and comes out with a message that is both wrong and offensive. Associate Editor Jonathan Mark contributes no special insight to make sure Mark Steyn’s message hits home. On the contrary, to Mark there is nothing wrong with retaining the “ultra-” term in the NYJW lexicon. According to the Mark, the problem is not that the bigoted term is universally offensive and to be discarded — rather, it is that Chabad Chassidim aren’t “ultras.” He attempts to take Chabad out of the world of charedi Judaism, something which neither Lubavitchers nor anyone else should find acceptable.

‘Clothes make the man,” said Mark Twain. “Naked people have little to no influence on society.” But when it comes to the media, there’s little other than clothes that can justify calling Chabad “ultra-Orthodox,” and even at that, they dress in ways that would fit in at Yeshiva University.

Chabad, one could argue, are really “Modern Orthodox,” having pioneered the use of the Internet in the Orthodox community; giving equal status to women, alongside men, as the rebbe’s emissaries; being tolerant and inclusive, offering their services to secular and non-Orthodox Jews; and supporting Israeli troops.

First of all, Steyn was not referring to Rav Gavriel & Rivka Holzberg, Hy”d, but to all those murdered at the Chabad House, including Rav Leibish Teitelbaum Hy”d, son of the Av Beis Din of Volov in Boro Park. Volover Chassidim dress and act in a more stereotypically Chassidische fashion than do Lubavitchers, yet Steyn’s appalled disbelief at the “ultra-Orthodox” label applied equally to him. [I do not know the affiliations, dress or practices of the other victims.]

Furthermore, Mark’s depiction of Chabad Chassidim as “Modern” is ludicrous. Regardless of the philosophical differences between the Rebbe and his adherents on the one hand, and the yeshivishe Gedolei Torah and their adherents on the other, Chabad chassidim conduct their daily lives as charedi Jews. If they would fit in at YU, it is because today the Bais Medrash and Kollel Elyon of RIETS are filled with young men who look like typical charedi yeshiva students.

Cross-Currents was created by two Orthodox pioneers in use of the Internet, has benefited from the work of female writers since its inception, offers its services to anyone who cares to read it, and backs Israel and its soldiers. This is not because Cross-Currents is a “Modern Orthodox” publication. It’s because the Orthodox community overall (and specifically the charedi wing) was far ahead of the curve in using the Internet for Jewish outreach, offers women far more opportunities for Jewish communal leadership per capita than any other Jewish group, and is also far more likely to evaluate a candidate’s stance on Israel before voting. If the NYJW were to apply its standard in a logical and consistent fashion, it would categorize everyone outside Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg as “modern.”

If the NY Times mysteriously and offensively failed to understand that Jews were targeted in Mumbai, the NYJW’s Jonathan Mark mysteriously and offensively misconstrues Mark Steyn’s point about the bigoted term that the NYJW, like the rest of the Jewish and Western media, continues to use. Neither should be given a free pass for this failure.

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19 Responses

  1. David Alt says:

    “(Mark) Steyn is not at all Orthodox himself…” Quite right. It seems that he is (despite the name) not even Jewish, but he consistently understands the media, social trends, internaional diplomacy and domestic politics. He even understands Israel’s situation. He is also hilariously amusing whenever the topic allows him to be so. May HaShem bless his efforts for many years.

  2. Ezzie says:


    Please define Charedi.

    (or more specifically, what separates the Charedi Jew from a “Modern Orthodox” Jew, and all that goes along with that)

  3. Avigdor M"Bawlmawr says:

    Mark Steyn’s religious background is described in the FAQ’s on his site, Steynonline.com :

    Mark is of Jewish descent, but was baptized a Catholic, confirmed an Anglican, and currently attends a small rural American Baptist Church. As John Podhoretz of The New York Post said, “You’re not Jewish or gay? But you wrote a book on musicals?”

    What “Jewish descent’ means, I don’t know.

  4. Nachum says:

    Avigdor, it means, according to him, distant Jewish ancestry on his father’s side. He said he was shocked at the anti-Semitism that began to pop up when he announced this for the first time. (I’ve read similar things from the British actor Stephen Fry and others.)

    R’ Menken, yo’re being very disingenous in this column. To call Charedim “ultra-Orthodox” because you’re trying to marginalize them and minimize the violence and tragedy of their deaths is unacceptable. (Indeed, the same would be true even if they were simply called “Orthodox.” “Jewish” works just fine; they weren’t killed because they were frum.)

    On the other hand, to call them “ultra-Orthodox” in a religious discussion, because one feels that that is a perfect description of Charedism, is not only legitimate, but, in my mind, quite accurate, unless one feels that anyone who’s not a Charedi isn’t Orthodox. (Do you? Sometimes it’s hard to tell if all the arguing against the term “ultra-Orthodoxy” isn’t an attempt by Charedim to have “Orthodox” kept only for themselves.)

    You’re mixing apples and oranges and trying to capitalize for your own group on a general Jewish (human, actually) tragedy. I guarantee you Mary Steyn didn’t mean anything that you brought up.

  5. Daniel says:

    Thank you for speaking such bold, unsaid emes.
    Your words were truly soul quenching.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:


    That you don’t see “ultra-” as inappropriate in any discussion means you are deaf to not only the media’s bias, but your own. Look in the mirror and ask how it would sound to be termed “ultra-,” as the media describes charedi Jews on any and all occasions. It’s an obvious pejorative — and used constantly. There is no distinction at all between articles describing how charedim died and articles describing how they live, it’s all “ultra-” — “strange, weird people, nothing against them personally…” or maybe all too much.

    To read the counter-argument as “anyone who’s not a Charedi isn’t Orthodox” is a complete non sequitur, and to claim that I’m “trying to capitalize” on the tragedy is, to be honest, deeply offensive. The NYJW distorted Mark Steyn’s obvious point, in order to continue calling charedim “ultra-Orthodox,” and your reaction is “how dare you be offended that you’re being smeared!”

  7. Yechezkel says:


    Please define Charedi.

    May I recommend my book on this subject:

    One Above and Seven Below: A Consumer’s Guide to Orthodox judaism from the perspective of the Chareidim


  8. Ivan says:

    Perhaps we should extend the discussion to the word “orthodox” as well. Wasn’t this terminology started by the Reformers to label Torah-observant Jews as old-fashioned, antiquated and fanatical in the face of new trends in Judaism? If I remember correctly, I think that R. Reinman in the book “ONe People, Two Worlds” promotes changing the name from “orthodox” Judaism to “classical” Judaism as a less pejorative term.

  9. Nachum says:

    I’m sure many would call me “ultra-conservative,” among other things that would get the “ultra” label. I don’t mind, so long as it’s true. Perhaps you honestly don’t think that you are doing more than God (or Orthodoxy) requires of you, and thus take offense. I do think you are doing such, and thus I think the label applies. Non sequitor or not, you haven’t told me how you feel about the subject, and I think it’s very relevant.

    You write “There is no distinction at all between articles describing how charedim died and articles describing how they live”. I’m not sure what you mean. That the distinction isn’t made, or that it shouldn’t be made? If the former, well, of course that’s offensive. To remove it from vague and arguable labels, let’s say the article said something like, “Black-hatted Jews killed.” (Which, of course, is basically what they did.) Well, of course, that would be- and was- offensive. When describing “how charedim died” (better: how Jews died), such terminology has no place.

    The problem is, you seem to leaning toward the latter (i.e., that the distinction shouldn’t be made): You’re trying to argue that just as it has no place in death, so too it has no place in life. That’s what I mean by saying you’re trying to capitalize. You, and various charedi spokeman, have had an issue with the term “ultra” for years. I don’t think this post is at all unrelated to that issue. You’re trying to use the offense correctly taken at the usage in Bombay to drive your effort to eliminate it everywhere.

    And that is wrong. “Ultra” is a real term. Face facts: Lots of people, including lots of 100% frum Jews, think that Charedim are “ultra-Orthodox” and do more than is required. (Indeed, if the term “lifnim meshuras hadin” means anything, it’s “ultra,” and surely you don’t deny *that’s* a good thing, albeit practiced by lots of non-Charedim too.) To use “ultra” in Bombay is wrong. To try to use that fact to prevent its use anywhere else is…well, not quite as wrong, but wrong as well.

  10. The Contarian says:

    I have suggested that Charedim be called Quakers.

    Three Hundred and Fifty years ago a British judge derisively called a defendant who happened to be a member of the Society of Friends a Quaker because he “trembled before the Lord”. Therefore, the Society of Friends always considered the name to be pejorative and probably could be easily persuaded to give it up.

    Chareedim,on the other hand, gave themsleves that name precisely because they wanted to emphasize the fact that they tremble or quake before the Lord. Voila Jewish Quakers.

  11. Nathan Elberg says:

    There is a self-serving and incorrect view of observant Jews being disengaged from society, now and throughout history. Whether it’s the many Rishonim who were government or business leaders, or the Tannaim at odds with Rabban Gamliel, it’s simply not true. There is a view held by many of people, both secular and full time Kollel devotees, that a properly observant Jew is a weird (i.e. different) person, who separates from society, & devotes his time to his service of God. While you and I may be offended by the term “ultra,” there are many, including the disciples of Amalek, who revel in it.

  12. Aaron Goldhamer, Esq. says:

    I’ve seen the Agudah complaining about this for a long time, and the problem is, it likes to have its cake and eat it, too. Most people described as “ultra-orthodox” do, in fact, dress quite differently than the rest of society. [That includes yeshivah circles too. Wearing a suit does not make one mainstream, when that suit is always black, and accomapnied by a beard and a hat.] Seems to me such folks revel in this, as though they were proud to be different than others. If so, why get all worked about a name that accurately describes them as being different?

    More, the ultra-orthodox enjoy taking on chumrahs that other orthodox Jews do not. Though you will never hear a PR man say it publicly, certainly they beleive it makes them better Jews, or else why would they do it? Thus, they are certainly more orthodox than others. They are ultra orthodox.

    Further, certain cross current writers refuse to address certain persons as Rabbi, instead adding the preface “Conservative rabbi X ” or “Reform Rabbi X.” How is that any less insulting than what you decry?

    Steyn himself meant nothing of what you write, by the way. That’s an internal Jewish affair. He just meant to draw a contrast between the way Muslims and Jews are described; he was not commenting on your issue.

  13. Yaakov Menken says:


    Your restated point is much better, and I think many would respond approvingly to your distinction between a classification upon death vs. a classification during life. Nonetheless, that would better apply to a term like “Conservative Rabbi.” Your enemy in this case is the dictionary. I’ll get back to this in a second.

    Aaron Goldhamer, the fact that charedim dress differently, quite differently, or unbelievably differently, does not justify referring to them by a pejorative term, any more than it would justify using a pejorative on an Indian women in a sari. No one has said that a classification term such as “Chassidic,” “Lithuanian Orthodox,” “charedi,” “fervently Orthodox,” etc. would be inappropriate. The problem is not with a term that means “different” but with a term that means (to use Mark Steyn’s word) “strange.”

    I agree that when a Jew is killed it could be taken as offensive to classify him or her, unless that classification is clearly complimentary. For one of us to say “Conservative Rabbi X” was killed would sound like we were belittling his importance as a Jew. In life, however, that’s how Rabbi X defines himself (or herself, of course). He is a Conservative Rabbi, and you’ll find similar modifiers in Reform Judaism magazine when they want to point out that Rabbi so & so isn’t part of their movement.

    [The fact that Orthodox writers use the modifier only offends you because Orthodoxy only recognizes an observant leader and teacher as a “Rav.” Since this is exactly the same method used to recognize a Rabbi 300 years ago, the question becomes whether it is appropriate to take offense when someone else retains his or her standards.]

    It remains true that Mark Steyn has it right, and the term “ultra-” is rife with unsavory implications entirely absent from other adjectives such as “Conservative,” “charedi,” etc. “Ultra-conservative” (small “c”) may denote a far right political position, it does not imply that the person is ready to blow up a building. But the thesaurus classifies “ultra-” with the following synonyms: “extreme, extremist, fanatic, fanatical, rabid, radical, revolutionary.”

    Try all you will, but out in the real world, “religious fanatics” are busy killing people. You claim “ultra-” is a neutral or accurate word, but the dictionary says otherwise. I think most educated people are more likely to trust the dictionary.

  14. Confused by Labels says:

    I dislike the term “ultra-Orthodox”, but what about its alternatives?

    There are writers across Orthodoxy who consider the description “Charedi” fair and neutral (Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik , “Rupture and Reconstruction”, footnote #1; R. Nosson Scherman, “Shma” interview, February 07).

    Others, “Charedi” themselves, eschew, or don’t use the term. R. Berel Wein in a Summer 2007 Jewish Action article writes that, “the creation of the term “Chareidi” in the 1980s has had a disastrous effect on Orthodox unity”. R. Emanuel Feldman, in an article in the Jewish Action(Spring 2007) coins the term “Yeshiva Orthodox”, apparently, preferring it to the term “Chareidi”. In a May, 1998 article in the New York Times about the “Yale Five” titled “Yeshivish at Yale”, one of the plaintiffs is quoted as ” eschew[ing] both ”Modern” and ”haredi”… for the term “yeshivish”.

    According to the writer of the 1998 JTA article, linked below, ” no representative of an Orthodox group likes what he or she is called in the press”. Personally, I like R. Pesach Lerner’s preference of “Torah Jew”, which is more closer to the traditional “shomer Torah U’mitvos”, than the perhaps more value-laden “fervently Orthodox”, when the latter is used in a sociological context.

  15. Stefan says:

    Rabbi Menken is quite right: the lazy description of Chareidm as ‘ultra’ Orthodox implies that they are extremists. Particularly in an era when REAL religious extremists are killing and maiming innocents every week this is both misleading and offensive. (Note how Rabbi Menken and others express the offense taken via polite argument rather than burning effigies and blowing up buildings and slitting the throats of journalists who use the term in question.)

    The other issue is that this tag effectively tries to separate Chareidim from other ‘Orthodox’ Jews. The Jewish People from the time of Yaakov has been a pluralistic nation: 12 tribes, each with their own distinctive characteristic, serving Hashem in the way that best suits their temperament – but within the boundaries of Halachah. As it’s written, the Torah’s ways (plural) are ways of pleasantness (Proverbs 3:17).

    Aaron and Nachum and others may want to try calling all Jews who strive their best to live within the Halachah and according to the mesorah as Torah Jews as it is this acceptance of the Torah, stretching back through generations to when our ancestors first accepted it from Hashem at Sinai which distinguishes ‘Orthodox’ Jews from Reform, Conservative etc.

    The fact is that Chareidi Jews are no MORE ‘Orthodox’ than ‘modern Orthodox’. Pluralism is innate within Torah Judaism; each person, each group opts for that gate to Torah which they feel allows them the best way in to achieve intimacy with G-d. An individual may indeed be a better Jew by being stricter with themselves on certain matters than is required by Halacha – but it is not up to them (or us) to say that s/he is better than any other Jew who takes a different path.


    I agree wih “confused.” What are the alternatives to “ultra-Orthodox?” Haredi in my view is by far the best for internal and scholarly discussion, and is used more and more nowadays, but it has no meaning for the general public. “Fervently Orthodox” is too self-serving — as if MO Jews by definition aren’t fervent. (Well many aren’t, but then so are many Haredim as well.) “Torah Jew” is equally self-serving and for the same reason. Perhaps “traditional Orthodox” is the best.

  17. Michoel says:

    Are you as stumped by the question “what are the alternatives to the term ‘Modern Orthodox'”? Presumably, you are quite comfortable and confident that Centrist Orthodox is an accurate and fair term. Why are you not concerned that this term is self-serving?

  18. Stefan says:

    Far from being self-serving, ‘Torah Jew’ describes the goal of serving according to Torah. And that can include those who do not always live up to their responsibilities (after all, the Torah itself is full of examples of such people). Reform etc do not share the goal of living according to Torah. As for ‘traditional Orthodox’ – as opposed to ‘innovative Orthodox’?!


    Stefan: The point is to come up with an English equivalent of the term “Haredim” that will differentiate them from the Modern Orthodox. “Torah Jew” doesn’t do it, unless one believes that MO Jews are not Torah Jews. That’s what I meant by self-serving.

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