Quibble: “ultra-Orthodox”

Hasidism was a mystical reaction against legalistic halachic orthodoxy. Calling Hasidim “ultra-Orthodox” is a little bit like calling Pentacostals “ultra-fundamentalist.”

UPDATE An expert tells me this is mostly wrong. (Not the part about covering up child molesting, but the sharp distinction between the Hasidim and the rest of the haredim.) See below.

“Ultra-Orthodox” is now established journalistic usage to refer to Hasidic Judaism, but it’s really quite astonishingly wrong. There are indeed ultra-Orthodox groups, still trying to live according to Sixteenth-Century Middle-European ideas of Jewish law as embodied in the Shulkhan Aruch and its commentaries. But it’s absurd to confuse them with the Hasidim, who carry on the tradition founded two centuries later by the Baal Shem Tov (R. Israel ben Eliezer) as a protest against what he saw as the closed-minded, joyless, oppressive legalism of the Shulkhan Aruch. Hasidism embraces both mystical exploration and ecstatic dancing and chanting: along, often, with copious quantities of alcohol. Thus the dancing-man logo of Chabad, which grows out of the Lubavitch Hasidic tradition.

The true ultra-Orthodox and the Hasidim are easily confused because they’re all trying to dress like Eighteenth-Century Polish bourgeois, wearing black suits and hats and sporting massive beards. (The same is true of the Amish, which led to the extremely funny scene in Witness where the fugitive Amish kid spots a bunch of Hasidim in Penn Station in New York 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and thinks they must be from his community.) And to a large extent they have joined hands with one another theologically against both Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative and Reform Judaism, and politically with the rest of the reactionary religious fundamentalists from the Pope to Jerry Falwell to various mullahs against the rest of modernity, especially when it comes to keeping women and gays in their place. Agudath Israel claims to speak for both communities, and naturally endorses the obstruction of justice as a religious duty in cases of intra-communal child molestation

Still, calling the Hasidim “ultra-Orthodox” is a little bit like calling Pentacostals “ultra-Catholic” or “ultra-Evangelical.”

With respect to the specific issue raised by the New York Times story, I’d be curious to know whether covering up child molestation is specifically a problem among the Hasidim (and, if so, whether it’s universal or limited to specific Hasidic sects) or whether it extents to the other black-hat groups as well. But you can’t even ask the question unless you understand the distinction.

Footnote Terminology is confusing. Both the Hasidim and the true ultra-Orthodox now refer to themselves as Haredim. The only term that refers specifically to the non-Hasidic black hats is misnagadim, which referred originally to the opposition to Hasidism.

Update A friend who knows much more about this than I do writes in protest. Even in its early phase, he says, Hasidism merely added the mystical impulse to ritualistic legalism. It’s true that the two haredi tendencies used to be at daggers drawn – the in the Eighteenth Century, the Vilna Gaon furiously denounced Hasidism – but they are now more or less compatible. “Haredi” is probably a better label than the pejorative “ultra-Orthodox” – it’s the word the black hats use to describe themselves – but it’s equally applicable to Hasidim and the non-Hasidic Jewish fundamentalists.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

18 thoughts on “Quibble: “ultra-Orthodox””

  1. Mark, from the reporting, both in the New York Times and The Forward, I get the impression that the worst of the cover-ups take place in communities where the Rabbi’s rule. I tend to associate that with the dynastic Hasidic sects. Is that accurate?

  2. Of great interest also is whether the Satmar and other Hasidim view American law as just and legitimate. The Halacha was written when Jews lived under secular authorities who did not hesitate to use any pretext to dispossess and persecute them. To inform on a fellow Jew to the gentiles was to turn him over to an unjust group of bandits.

    What do these sects now think of American justice and the secular courts? Do they think that they are still essentially living in medieval ghettos where the governments are abusive and eager to subjugate them? What century do they think they are living in, and on what continent?

  3. I don’t know about the true Ultra-Orthodox Jews, but covering up sexual abuse is an enormous problem among the Amish. There it tends to be males abusing females and is often incest. But the same problems of insularity and submission to men exist compounded by their religious imperative to forgive anything.

  4. I’d be curious to know whether covering up child molestation is specifically a problem among the Hasidim (and, if so, whether it’s universal or limited to specific Hasidic sects) or whether it extents to the other black-hat groups as well.

    My guess it it extends. That it may be the pressurized evolutionary response of a smaller group embedded in a larger: grooming, gossiping, and groping. The first two obviously allowed and used to maintain the social network. The third one, a perverse subterranean measure to bind the embedded group together for the future.

    Do other bonded social species bugger their children? Or is child molestation a unique attribute of big-brained humans? We now know chimps commit murder. Do they grope too?


  5. “Covering up” child molestation is definitely an issue in the conservative Amish/Mennonite communities.

    I do not think, though, that communities that are both self-governing, and accustomed to surviving extensive official and inofficial persecution from the surrounding majority groups (true of Anabaptists and Jews both), are quite fairly described as “covering up” issues if they deal with them internally rather than involving outsiders. Amish and Mennonite justice can be quite harsh; Bann und Meidung is a mind-breaking penalty. (Remember, to get the force of it, that a Plain church is a society; it is your safety net, your social network, and your community; for no one in that system to buy from you, sell to you, accept a gift from you, eat at the same table with you, or talk to you socially is not a minor penalty. It’s 15 years in my past, and I still can’t talk about it without my heart rate going up as if I’d been running.)

    1. Are they using that to punish both molesters, and those who’ve covered up the molestation? So far, the claim that ‘we deal with it on our own’ is 100% congruent with ‘we aid and abet it’.

    2. Sam, do you know of reliable evidence (preferably with data) regarding the child abuse problem among the Amish? I’m curious because I’m planning to write about this in my next book (a little piece of it); so far I’ve seen some journalistic reports but nothing very solid.

      I’m also interested in Barry’s question. The anecdotal stuff I’ve seen suggest that serious punishment of child molesters does *not* reliably occur in the Amish community. I’d be very happy to be wrong, so again if you have citations I’d love to see them.

      1. Andrew Sabl

        I do not know of data-based evidence. I grew up in that community and have friends and family members still there, so I’d describe what I have as “reliably-sourced anecdote.” If you want to contact me, this email address works and I’d be glad to discuss it further off-line.

        It’s extraordinarily difficult to separate “aiding and abetting”, “covering up”, and “dealing with it ourselves.” From the police perspective, they are identical. In my observation, people within the church’s jurisdiction (this excludes non-members, such as minor children) were quite severely censured for child abuse; I’m not aware of any cover-ups and so can’t speak to that issue.

  6. A bit off-topic, but that was not Penn Station (or the fake Penn Station that exists under Madison Square Garden). That was 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, a survivor from the golden age of Pennsylvania Railroad stations, and one of the great railroad stations of the country. Please, Philadelphians have enough of an inferiority complex about not being New York without having their station attributed to the city that tore down a great station in favor of a sports arena..

    Written as someone who has lived in the Detroit area for almost 34 years, but remains a Philadelphian at heart.

  7. I must have not gotten the memo. Is not still kosher to call them Litvaks? (Not that it’s the best term for a general-interest newspaper, however heavy its Jewish readership.)

    1. The term “Litvak” simply refers to Lithuanian Jews. The most eminent opponents (misnagdim) of early Hasidism were from Vilna in Lithuania, and they saw the Hasidim as threats to Jewry.

      The two Hasidic sects in the article came from outside Lithuania; the Lubavitcher sect came from a town in Russia and the Satmar sect had its origins in Hungary. The term “Litvak” therefore would not apply to Jews from countries in Eastern Europe other than Lithuania.

      1. Right. I’m proud to be a Litvak – the hymn-tunes I know are the Litvak tunes, and I pronounce my very limited Hebrew vocabulary with a strong Litvak accent – but I look silly in a big black hat.

  8. The Times needs a way to describe, for a general audience, the difference between strictly observant Jews who reject modernity and those who accept it. They’ve settled on “ultra-Orthodox” for those who reject it, and it’s a perfectly good term. The ordinary Times reader really doesn’t need to understand the difference between hasidim and misnagdim.

  9. Although the daggers may not be as openly drawn today as in the eighteenth century when the Vilna Gaon saw the Hasidim as a dangerous new sect, there have been strong bones of contention between rival Hasidic sects even in recent years. The messianic wing of Chabad/Lubavitch was and is denounced by the Satmar and other sects, sometimes with opponents coming to blows.

    Interestingly, some of the intensity of the suspicion of the Vilna Gaon towards the ecstatic new sect derived from very painful recent memories of Sabbatai Zevi, the false messiah who had excited the entire Jewish world in the 1660s, convincing many that he was the true Messiah before converting to Islam when threatened with death. Gershom Scholem reports that although Vilna was uncompromisingly hostile to revivalist emotionalism, it yielded to none in messianic fervor in 1666. The wounds of that era were still fresh in the eighteenth century.

    Satmar and Lubavitch are also at odds on Zionism and the legitimacy of the State of Israel, of course, but I do find it interesting that contemporary messianism has the power to create strife and estrangement between Haredi of differing persuasions. There are deep cultural memories of what can happen when one group of Jews says that the Messiah has come and other groups do not.

    For my money, Franz Kafka said the deepest thing about the Messiah, that he will come when he is no longer necessary, that he will come as soon as the most unbridled individualism of faith becomes possible, that he will come on the day after his arrival, not on the last day, but on the very last.

  10. Mark,

    Thanks for clearing that up. I guess.

    Still, I couldn’t help being reminded of the “Judean People’s Front” scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” perhaps the best satire of the religious splinter group phenomenon ever made.


    Of course, this is mirrored in Christian splinter groups and their terminology. “Fundamentalism,” I understand, has a fairly specific reference and not the broad brush used by most MSM writers. And, I suppose we skeptics have our petty differences too though none come to mind….;-)

  11. In line with the site’s slogan, I have no complaint against your opinions, but you should get the facts right. “Orthodox” Jews try to live according to ancient and medieval ideas of Jewish law. That is what “Orthodox” Judaism is. Some naturally try harder than others or in different ways. “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews — Haredim in Hebrew, as you say — are stricter or more conservative on many issues than other Orthodox (“modern Orthodox”) Jews, and are more militantly opposed to modernism. The sixteenth century is not terribly relevant here; some norms are older than that, others more recent. (Sometimes “ultra-Orthodox” just a derogatory synonym for Orthodox; cf. “ultra-liberal.”) Some Haredim, as you say, are Hasidim. Many Hasidim, although not all, can be visually distinguished by their fur hats, high stockings, and other old-fashioned clothing. Haredim who are not Hasidim seldom if ever wear these items; they tend to wear dark clothes. Men have beards, although not necessarily massive ones, and married women cover their hair and wear “modest” clothing. The sociology of the two groups is quite different. Some Hasidic groups are particularly insular, which may be relevant here.

Comments are closed.