Not ultra-Orthodox? Then How About traditional-Conservadox

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a Hareidi publicist who works for Agudath Israel of America Inc., the largest ultra-Orthodox political interest group in the world.

About two years ago, Rabbi Shafran published an essay in the English Forward objecting to the term “ultra-Orthodox” which that newspaper routinely uses when describing his kind of Jews. Back then, Shafran claimed that the “ultra” moniker, the modifying pre-fix used to characterize his brand of Judaism, is both pejorative and unnecessary: Pejorative because in Latin ultra means extreme; and unnecessary because his brand of Judaism – what insiders call Hareidi-Yeshivish or Yeshivish-Hareidi – was about to conquer the Orthodox mainstream.

Back then, apparently, Rabbi Shafran was certain that his group – whose members self-identify as Torah Loyalists – would soon be setting the standard for normative Halakhic Judaism rendering the “ultra” moniker redundant. Shafran advised the editors of the English Forward to get ahead of the curve and drop the “ultra” moniker immediately.

The editors at the Forward politely but firmly refused Rabbi Shafran’s warm advice and directly challenged his claim that the group for whom he speaks – the Hareidi-Yeshivish or Yeshivish-Hareidi – has a monopoly on normative Halakhic Judaism. To those editors, Shafran’s Jews seem to be thoroughly dissimilar and pretty much incompatible with the learned Jews whom their Yiddish speaking progenitors knew so well and disdained so completely. When compared to the Orthodox Jews from the “world of their fathers,” Shafran’s Jews appear sheltered and shallow, cut very much in the image of their long term ultra-Orthodox partners – the thoroughly insular and proudly extra-Halakhic Hasidic Jews of America.

Last month, Rabbi Shafran returned to this subject. In an op-ed piece which he published in the Jerusalem Post, Shafran excoriated the editors of the English Forward for their refusal to drop the ultra-Orthodox moniker when describing the devotees of the Judaism that he extolls. This time, however, Shafran did not so much dwell on the uselessness of the moniker given the “inevitability” of his crowd’s conquest of the Orthodox label. Instead, he mostly focused on the injustice of the moniker in the face of his continuing objection to its ongoing application. And he enfolded his outrage over this matter within the passion which currently animates the ideals of political correctness.

Rabbi Shafran stopped short of charging the editors of the English Forward with committing a micro-aggression against him personally every time they print the words “ultra-Orthodox.” But he shamelessly sheltered his argument behind the protective wall of progressive liberal sensitivities, going so far as to integrate the demand which he is making on behalf of his partisans with the demands which the spokespeople of the LGBTQ community make on behalf of their partisans, despite the fact that the partisans of LGBTQ will never set the standard for normative sexuality, not even in liberal America.

What a difference two years makes. The shrill triumphalism which animated Rabbi Shafran’s article in the Forward was missing from the article which he published just one month ago in the Jerusalem Post. The assertive voice of the earlier essay, the loud and confidently trumpeted proclamation that “his crowd,” the Hareidi Yeshivish, was about to take exclusive possession of the Orthodox label in America, was reduced to a more or less befuddled and humorous swagger, signaling nothing more than hollow bluster calculated to obscure a rising tide of self-doubt.

I suppose that the constant revelations of misdeeds within the Orthodox communities of “his crowd” disseminated by ubiquitous and unstoppable bloggers from cyberspace have had their effect. Apparently, Rabbi Shafran understands that those of us who read the Forward and the Jerusalem Post also read the blogs which chronical the unpleasant decay that has fouled parts of the environment in some of the communities which are bursting with his kind of Jews. And so Shafran now rests the justice of his cause on progressive liberalism’s lowest common denominator: The equity of political correctness.

From that perspective, Rabbi Shafran’s demand is fully justified. If the brand of Judaism which he touts considers the ultra-Orthodox moniker to be offensive, then that label should be dropped. Immediately and without reservation!

In its place, I suggest adopting the term “traditional Conservadox.” This formulation respectfully honors Rabbi Shafran’s request to replace the word ultra with the word traditional when describing his group. And it tells the truth about the origin of his brand of American Judaism in a way that the hostile and pejorative “ultra” moniker could not.

The great inspiration behind Rabbi Shafran’s brand of Judaism was Rabbi Aaron Kotler, the Lithuanian born and trained legendary founder of the Yeshiva Gedola of Lakewood. Rabbi Kotler’s “Litvak pedigree,” meant that opposition to Hasidism was part of the very texture of his life and life-style. Somewhat incongruously, however, so was opposition to modernity. In fact, it was his opposition to modernity which set him apart from the other leading Orthodox Rabbinical figures of his time. And it was in pursuit of this component of his socio-religious agenda that Rabbi Kotler broke ranks with his fellow Orthodox Rabbis and forged an alliance with Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Grand Rabbi of the Satmar Hasidic sect, and the unchallenged standard bearer of ultra-Orthodoxy’s antipathy to both modernity and Zionism.

The details of the alliance between Satmar and Lakewood forged by Rabbis Kotler and Teitelbaum, and its consequences for American Orthodox Judaism, are still awaiting their definitive historical treatment. When that treatment is offered, the long term effect which the Lakewood-Satmar alliance had on the legacies of at least two of traditional Orthodoxy’s outstanding titans, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, should be extremely revelatory. But the cultural and political importance of the alliance can be intuited from the following anecdotal fact. At Rabbi Kotler’s funeral, Joel Teitelbaum delivered a eulogy. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was in attendance, did not.

Rabbi Shafran never tires of declaring from every rise and podium his community’s boundless fealty to Torah study. But he never bothers to explain how it is that the Torah Loyalists of “his crowd” systematically boycott the scholarship of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the greatest Talmudist who lived in their midst. His silence on this matter, however, does not, alter the fact of the boycott nor conceal its meaning. The fact of the boycott means that Shafran’s crowd is rooted upon a crooked foundation. And the warp in that foundation means that his crowd is not so much inspired by an allegiance to Halakhic Judaism as by a dedication to the traditions of Orthodox Judaism. In essence, and to borrow a formulation from the Marxist tradition, Shafran’s crowd is not so much engaged in Orthodoxy as it is in thrall to Ortho-praxis.

And for this reason, although not only for this reason, I contend that the proper moniker for describing the devotees of his brand of Judaism is not, as he would prefer, traditional-Orthodox but traditional-Conservadox.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY