Saturday, April 13, 2013

Is Chabad Ultra-Orthodox?

photo credit:
     I spend a lot of time on this blog referring to "ultra-orthodox" outreach. Usually, unless otherwise noted, I am referring to outreach groups including Chabad. I bring this up because while perusing, the colorful, article-laden, information-rich website put out for those curious about all things Chabad and Jewish related, I happened upon an article in which that same question was asked. Here is's answer:

Is Chabad "Ultra-Orthodox?"

Chabad is referred to as an "Orthodox" Jewish movement because it adheres to Jewish practice and observance within the guidelines of Talmudic law and its codifiers. The prefix “ultra” is commonly used by media broadcasters, but it has no practical meaning. It is used to marginalize a group or to portray them as extremists battling with extremists of other religions.
Mother Theresa was never called “ultra-Catholic.” Albert Schweitzer was never “ultra-Calvinist.” Doctors Without Borders are not ultra-militant New-Agers. When a Chabad couple travel to a community, they are not interested in converts, in battles, or in brainwashing youth. They are only interested in sharing their Shabbat tables and the heritage that belongs to every Jew. A Chabad House is a “Jewish Center” and a Chabad rabbi is a rabbi, period.
If you hear Chabad described in the media as “ultra-Orthodox,” pick up the phone or fire off an email and complain. Tell them Chabad is a Jewish movement, without any labels, and they should describe it as such.1
     As that is a statement put out by Chabad, I'm hesitant to argue, after all, they probably know better than anyone else how to define themselves. However, I really think that their statement is simply one of semantics. According to the website, "the word "haredi" is a catchall term, either an adjective or a noun, which covers a broad array of theologically, politically, and socially conservative Orthodox Jews, sometimes referred to as "ultra-Orthodox." What unites haredim is their absolute reverence for Torah, including both the Written and Oral Law, as the central and determining factor in all aspects of life.... Certain groups of haredim, notably, but not exclusively, members of Chabad Lubavitch, do make contact with non-haredi Jews for the purpose of kiruv--encouraging others to adopt more stringent religious observance."2
     Ami Steinberger, a Jewish Press blogger, explains that "“Ultra-Orthodox” is the English term that describes a large group of Jews, whose religious practice tends to be very strict and whose dress remains very conservative, reminiscent of Eastern Europe before modernity. Many English speakers are familiar with another term that describes this group – Haredim..... [The term Haredi is further explained as meaning] "those who tremble before the word of God."3
     I completely understand why Chabad, who tends to define themselves as a movement and a philosophy, eschews the use of the term "ultra-orthodox." They don't want to appear threatening. Under the heading "Questions People Ask" in the handbook for outreach workers,  it's written that they find labels to be problematic because they divide people. To Chabadniks, one is simply a Jew. However welcoming and pluralistic this sounds, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, is cited as having stated that "the doctrines and ideologies of the Reform and Conservative movements, can only be classed in the category of heretical movements which have plagued our people at one time or another, only to disappear eventually, having no basis in our everlasting Torah, the Torah of truth, the living Torah, Toras Emes, Toras Chaim."4 
     Rather than divide people by labels, it is better to get rid of the labels that the Chabad movement finds problematic. To them, all non-orthodox Jews appear to be equal as (non-orthodox) Jews. However, to Lubavitchers, Chabad is Chabad, and even though they may fall under the Hebrew term haredi, they never want to be called by the English translation "ultra-orthodox."

1. What is Chabad? Frequently Asked Questions.
2. Weiss, Raysh. Haredim (Charedim.)
3. Steinberger, Ami. Ktzat Ivrit. The Jewish Press. com Blogs. January 30, 2013.
4. On Reform and Conservative Judaism.


  1. I've heard this line that "ultra-Orthodox" is somehow a derogatory term before, from non-Chabad sources as well.

    "Ultra", as a prefix, means "beyond". It's not necessarily derogatory - otherwise, you wouldn't have a product called Ultra Downy, or have people advertise products as being ultra clean or ultra luxurious.

    I suspect that the issue is that "ultra Orthodox" is often a term used by those who are not ultra-Orthodox, so it tends to be associated with criticism. Haredi really has the same meaning, but because it is not an English word, it was traditionally the term more likely to be used by these groups themselves.

    I wonder if Haredi will become a term to be shunned as it is used more often in English media.

  2. I agree, JRKmommy. I think they (and other kiruv groups) want to distance themselves from anything negative associated with "ultra-orthodoxy." Instead of owning the term, they run from it. "No, not us! We're not ultra-orthodox, nope! Not at all!!!!" But a trip to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, or Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem, or Kfar Chabad near Tel Aviv, or any other Chabad enclave tells otherwise.
    I keep thinking that it's like a game. "Whatever box you think we fit into, we'll find a way to not fit, even if we do fit." If Chabad is "just Jewish," then they're not Chabad, they're Jewish if we get rid of the labels. The problem arises if there are negative connotations with the word. When a person is approached on the street (this happens a lot in New York, I'm not sure about other places,)and asked if he/she is Jewish, should the response be "I don't believe in labels. I'm human?"

  3. The whole concept of labelling is an interesting discussion.

    In general, I support the rights of various groups to label themselves (eg. I'll say Roma, not gypsies), unless it is clearly deceptive. Terms that are not automatically offensive can shift over time - for example, "mental retardation" was a legitimate term in medical and professional usage, but when people started to use "retarded" as an insult, it tainted the term as people started to see it as offensive even in its legitimate use.

    Here, the label ultra-Orthodox was created by outsiders, and it is not the term used by these Jews themselves. Interestingly enough, even the term "Orthodox" was created by those who were not Orthodox (see, but that term is now embraced.

    However, while they didn't create the ultra-Orthodox label, they certainly did create a version of Judaism that stands in contrast to Modern Orthodoxy. When the Jews of the ghettos and shtetls were confronted with freedom and the ability to join modern society, they faced a choice: joining the world while keeping one's personal faith, or reject too much contact with the rest of the world and work to rebuild walls with the outside world that no longer existed physically. Samson Raphael Hirsh leaned one way and influenced Modern Orthodoxy, the Chasem Sofer leaned the other way and inspired what became Haredi Judaism. So, the concept clearly exists - it's a question of what term you use to describe it. Is ultra-Orthodox better because it is understood in the English-speaking world, or is Haredi better because it is a more precise term used by the people themselves?

    As for Chabad - in my experience, they don't hide that they are Chabad. They have distinctive clothes and beards, and don't blend it as some Modern Orthodox do. My Chabad rabbi will describe himself as someone who is Haredi, but who is likely to be rejected by other Haredim.

    They are Haredi in the sense of:
    - not being a part of the formal Modern Orthodox groups
    - not giving theological significance to Zionism
    - not emphasizing secular studies for boys in yeshivas meant for actual Lubavitchers
    - following a Rebbe
    - limitations on TV, movies, etc.

    They are distinct from other Haredim in the following ways:
    - lack of insularity
    - degree of contact with other Jews
    - willingness to use modern media and technology as a tool (they don't watch TV, but they are more than willing to appear on TV)
    - willingness to make contacts with non-Jews and non-Haredi Jews
    - theological view that puts an emphasis on "ahavat yisroel", so that services are provided to Jews even in settings where full kiruv is unlikely (prisons, addicts, travelers, soldiers, etc.)
    - fact that they do not follow other Haredi leaders, and have often come into conflict with them.

  4. To a non practicing, unaffiliated, assimilated, secular Jew the word Jewish probably means Jewish like all the other non practicing secular Jews they've ever met. Anything else is Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Most non practicing, unaffiliated, assimilated, secular Jews can't tell the difference between a bearded Reform rabbi & bearded Satmar rabbi.

    I think it is completely fair to distinguish between Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox. Kiruv involves the Ultra Orthodox sects including Chabad. Reform Rabbis don't participate in organized kiruv.

    The problem is that Chabad, Aish, Meor and other Ultra Orthodox kiruv groups target non practicing, unaffiliated, assimilated Jews knowing full well what the phrase "Just Jewish" probably means to them. It's intentionally and extraordinarily deceptive. Where the non practicing, unaffiliated, assimilated, secular college student might run from a group that calls itself Orthodox or even Conservative, "Just Jewish" sounds harmless enough and kiruv knows it.

  5. What is the goal if there is no divine law then nothing matters?

  6. "What unites haredim is their absolute reverence for Torah, including both the Written and Oral Law, as the central and determining factor in all aspects of life...." Curious, I also hold an absolute reverence for the Torah, and it's also the Torah that determines all aspects in my life. And curiously, I also tremble before the word of G-d. It's amazing how that expression really describes what I feel. Strange that I never thought before of that expression myself. I'll take it from no on. Thanks. But I don't wear black, neither I close myself in a tight community. Am I haredi, am I not? The word 'judaism' is just a synonymous to 'Torah' and the word 'jewish' is just a synonymous to 'bound by the Torah', and the Torah is absolute. So there are no labels to the word 'judaism'. There is indeed not such a thing as a reform judaism. That's not Torah, ergo that's not judaism. The label in 'reform judaism' is 'judaism' not 'reform'. As long as you live in a free country you are free to take the Torah, add some spice to it and have a party with your friends around it, but that's not judaism. Judaism is Torah and Torah is absolute and binding, a jew is someone bound by the Torah. You can be a jew and play the reformation, you're just a jew behaving not jewishly. We've all seen it. Golden calf and the like.


Your respectful comments are welcome.