Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox and In-Between

I have been reading too many news articles and commentaries recently using the term “Orthodox” when they mean “Ultra-Orthodox.” This confusion extends to TV as well, albeit there some poetic license is allowed (e.g., the hit Netflix mini-series “Unorthodox,” even if technically it should have been called an ungainly “UnUltraOrthodox”) – but that conflates the two categories even more. So here’s a “crib sheet” for this important difference, including a category that almost everyone outside of Israel has never heard of (and many in Israel too).

The distinction between the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox can be found on two main planes: religious and national-political i.e., Zionism.

The term (and self-identifying) “Orthodox” did not ever exist until the mid-19th century. For centuries and even millennia, observant Jews considered themselves to be “traditionalists” – the quote marks here to note that they did not even use that term. In fact, there was no term used for those who strictly adhered to the Halakha (Jewish religious law). Yes, there were different “streams” e.g., Hasidim (more spiritual-minded) and Mitnagdim (emphasis on learning and scholarship). But aside some very minor differences in practice – mostly customary – they all adhered to Judaism as they felt it was practiced “forever.”

Then in the early 19th century Judaism got hit by the Enlightenment, secular – and religious (Haskalah). The initial Jewish reaction was Liberal (Reform) Judaism in that century’s teens, and a few decades later Conservative Judaism arose as well, more traditional than Reform but less than…? The real “traditionalists” had to rebrand themselves, and thus was born “Orthodoxy” (the main “founder”: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch).

What did/does it stand for? Continuing the traditional, Jewish way of life but with some openness to modernity within the confines of the halakha. For example, Orthodoxy does not shun higher education, and certainly not regular secular education (math, science, foreign languages etc.). Orthodox Jews also do not try to residentially segregate themselves from the rest of their country’s citizenry, although they do naturally (similar to almost all strongly self-identifying ethnic groups) tend to live in “semi-Jewish” neighborhoods – if only because they have to walk to synagogue (the Torah does not permit vehicular travel on the Sabbath). Moreover, on certain new issues related to technology (i.e., IV fertilization) Orthodox will tend to find ways to adopt them, at times through adaptation e.g., turning on electricity on the Sabbath is forbidden, but using a pre-set “Shabbat clock” to automatically turn lights and appliances on and off, is acceptable.

As a reaction to such Orthodox, religious “leniency” (and for a second reason discussed below), ultra-Orthodoxy emerged in the late 19th century, with the Agudath Yisrael movement leading the way. Their religious theology was not that much different, but their practice was far more stringent: educational and residential segregation, with only minimal secular skills taught (if at all). This led to (and was a function of) their hyper-emphasis on Limud Torah, studying Jewish Law (almost exclusively through the Talmud – as opposed to modern Orthodoxy’s focus on the Bible, Talmud, and even later Jewish commentators). By the 20th century, among most ultra-Orthodox, their life choices were decided by their personal rabbi and/or the specific sect they belonged to. Here was another difference with the Orthodox: the latter dress basically as relatively conservative-oriented, non-Jews do; the ultra-Orthodox, themselves split into several major “sects,” each have their own idiosyncratic “Jewish uniform.”

On the political-national front, the divide used to be even greater, but for many ultra-Orthodox it has been narrowing in the past few decades. The Orthodox from the start were mostly, even enthusiastically, pro-Zionist (indeed, the first “proto-Zionists” in the mid-19th century, before Herzl, were two European rabbis: Alkalai and Kalischer). The ultra-Zionists were rabidly anti-Zionist (not surprising, given that Herzl, a secular Jew, was the founder of modern Zionism). Their theological justification: “only the Messiah can revive the Jewish State and the Temple.” True, they had to join the early Zionist (and later Israeli) elections in order to wield some power, but this was considered a necessary evil. However, with power came “grudging acceptance”; today, most ultra-Orthodox (other than the still strongly anti-Zionist Satmar sect and a few other mini-sects) can best be called “aZionist” – no longer against, but not officially for Zionism either. On the other hand, the Orthodox (in Israel, as well as most in Diaspora) have largely become the most ultra-nationalistic Zionists of all, pushing for further settlement in Judea and Samaria, as well as some domestic Israeli policies of a halakhic bent.

All this misses lots of nuance, mainly because these are not a couple of completely homogeneous camps, but rather two agglomerations of “modern tribes” – within (to use a Jewish historical parallel) two separate “kingdoms.” Nevertheless, as a schematic, general rule, the above analysis holds. Except that…

Over the past two decades or so, an intermediate group has emerged, especially in Israel, colloquially called “hardalim” – an acronym for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and leumi (national Zionist). As the name suggests, these are ultra-Orthodox in their religious outlook and practice, but politically they are zealously Zionist. Somewhat similar, but not exactly the same phenomenon, can be found overseas with “black velvet” skullcaps (religiously, close to ultra-Orthodox) but with a somewhat modern outlook (and “normal” dress).

In short, one can understand why the hardalim might confuse a news reporter or news readers; they are a “hybrid.” However, there is no excuse for confusing or conflating the clearly Orthodox from the ultra-Orthodox – much like we wouldn’t tolerate a journalist conflating Presbyterians with Evangelicals. It behooves all news propagators to get their Jewish nomenclature right.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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