Today’s Beliefs column in the New York Times, by Peter Steinfels, focuses on the journalistic use of the word “orthodox(y)”, particularly in regard to Christian denominations. Steinfels makes a compelling case that it is not the place of newspapers and magazines to label one side in a controversy as “orthodox”, in the sense of “what constitutes correct or true teaching within that particular tradition”.
In explaining the prevalence of this usage, he delineates between “orthodox” and “Orthodox”:
One obvious reason is the confusion between uppercase Orthodox and lowercase orthodox. Among Jews, it has become conventional to use the word “Orthodox” to designate one segment of the Jewish community adhering to a certain interpretation of what Jewish belief and observance require. The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements within Judaism may joust with the Orthodox over many things, but use of that word has become a settled matter.
Likewise, among Christians it has long been conventional to use uppercase Orthodox as a term distinguishing the Christianity that shared forms of liturgy and theology rooted in the Byzantine, or Greek-speaking, part of the Roman Empire from those who took a separate path in the West. Again, Roman Catholics and Protestants may argue that they are as orthodox as the Orthodox (or more so), but they do not fight about the label.
Lowercase orthodoxy is quite another matter.
I have complained frequently about the way Jewish denominations are framed in the Jewish and mainstream press, and this column is a breath of fresh air. “One segment of the Jewish community adhering to a certain interpretation of what Jewish belief and observance require” is the most objective and least judgmental description of Orthodox Judaism that I have seen, and is a welcome respite from the usual question-begging descriptions along the lines of “Orthodox Judaism has the strongest adherence to Jewish law and observance.”
In the Jewish world, there isn’t precisely the same linguistic confusion between “Orthodox” and “orthodox”, because lowercase-o “orthodox” isn’t used so much in a Jewish context (though it’s hard to verify this other than anecdotally, since Google doesn’t allow case-sensitive searches). But there is often an implicit assumption that Orthodox Judaism is orthodox Judaism. People talk about “more Orthodox” and “less Orthodox” in such a way that they might as well be saying “more orthodox” and “less orthodox”. Now there is, of course, nothing wrong with Orthodox Jews believing that their path is the correct path. But it is highly damaging and self-defeating for non-Orthodox Jews to believe that about Orthodox Judaism.
So I think the Jewish world would be better off if we were all to fully internalize Steinfels’s approach. Capital-O Orthodox Christianity is a good analogy for how we should be talking and thinking about Orthodox Judaism. No one confuses Orthodox Christianity with orthodox Christianity. Everyone understands that “Orthodox” is just a label to refer to one of the branches of Christianity, and there is no meme out there that Orthodox Christianity is “more religious” or “more observant” than Catholic or Protestant Christianity. One could make a historical argument that Orthodox Christianity is “more traditional” (they still pray in Greek, use the Julian calendar, etc.), but Catholics and Protestants are secure enough in their own traditions that this is of no relevance to their self-understanding. Let’s get the streams of Judaism to that point too.