I pity the members of the press who try to cover the Jewish world, especially that corner of it known as Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Jew has rarely, if ever, been seen in the wild. Orthodoxy is coupled with modifiers or replaced with euphemisms: ultra, modern, fervent, centrist, yeshivish, observant, open, traditional, orthoprax, conservadox. Then we start getting ornithological: are you right-wing MO (modern Orthodox) or left-wing MO, right-wing yeshivish or left-wing yeshivish? And speaking of yeshivish, which yeshiva? And if you want to even start talking about Hasidim, you’re going to need extensive sects education.
We used to have a catch-all term: frum (pronounced not like “from”, but to rhyme with Things That Make You Go Hmmm…), but since there aren’t that many Yiddish speakers left, “Orthodox” has become the default term in the Western world. Thus, for example, when the Pew Research Center published its report on Jewish Americans, this was the picture they presented:
So why we should we care about taxonomy? It helps us understand why Orthodoxy tends to react so strongly to any activism on its left flank, while ignoring or endorsing activism on its right.
You see, Orthodoxy is the most right-leaning stream of Judaism recognized by most Western demographers. For this reason, moderates and even liberals are loathe to alienate anyone on the right. After all, Orthodoxy’s claim to fame abroad is being the right flank of Judaism, and if someone’s frummer than Orthodoxy, that identity will be lost. Meanwhile, whenever any one dares to stick a toe over “the line” to the left, there’s a ready-made answer: hey, buddy, go to the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. — you’re ruining our brand.
But here in Israel, we’ve gotten over that. According to our Central Bureau of Statistics, 43% of Israeli Jews are secular, 9% are haredi, and the remaining 48% are somewhere between masorti (traditional) and dati (religious): 23% the former, 10% the latter, and 15% smack in the middle. These five groups do not parallel the five groups identified by Pew, e.g. Orthodox is a denomination, while dati is a declaration.
Now, for a long time, dati was thought of in political terms, as a short descriptor for Tziyoni dati (religious Zionist) or dati leumi (nationalist religious). But we are now in the era of post-Zionism and post-denominationalism, and dati is just what it says it is.
Etymologically, dat is a Persian term for “law,” found a dozen times in the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra, and more than twenty times in the book of the month, the Scroll of Esther. Follow it through Esther, and you’ll find that it is used for all sorts of things: statutes, rituals, decrees, customs, mores. There is the dat of drinking, the dat of women, the study of dat, the dat of the king, the dat of the Jews. It’s very difficult to find one word in English to encompass all that, so let’s not try. Honestly, of all terms, why go with Orthodox, which literally means “right-thinking”? You can call it dati olami if you prefer, making it universal or worldly, which is the dictionary definition of “catholic.” I would much prefer to have been labelled a catholic Jew.
The advantage of being dati is that one no longer feels the need to hew to the right. Demographically, economically, socially, politically, the haredi are a distinct community, and they are not confused with the dati. It doesn’t stop us from praying in the same synagogues, in which the bulk of the congregants may in fact be masorti.
Ultimately, as many of my social-media friends have pointed out (shout out, Jeff!), the dati abroad must choose a side. There is a neoharedi movement afoot, which constantly obsesses over heresy, homosexuality and hysteria (in its original sense of “bitches be crazy”). You may have heard of some of their more egregious statements, from declaring war on gays to classifying most of their fellow Orthodox as idolaters; from classifying tefillin on women as worth dying for to calling for shooting the prime minister; from condemning efforts to free agunot to defending child molesters. This movement is not like the paleoharedi movement; it sounds reasonable, uses big words and may be led by folks with advanced secular degrees and active social-media accounts. But it’s ultimately the same daat-Torah jazz–that’s daat, not dat, the idea that the Torah must be protected and refined through great minds before it can be presented to the masses. If ever a movement deserved to be called orthodox, it’s this one. They are welcome to the label.
As for me, don’t call me Orthodox. I’m dati, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be.