Sunday, September 14, 2008

orthodox vs. Orthodox

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

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.

6 comments:

  1. I've had Conservative students who are far more orthodox than me.

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  2. By "orthodox" you mean al-pi Conservative halacha or Orthodox halacha?

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  3. Barnavi - They were both pretty rigid when it came to both halacha and hashkafa al-pi Conservative.

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  4. It is definitely damaging for non-Orthodox Jews to believe that the Orthodox are the truest sect. I, unfortunately, have a particularly twisted view: I believe that Judaism is false, but if it were true, Orthodox Jews would be the only right ones. This makes no sense, but I was raised as an Orthodox Jew and so even now, when I do not believe in God or the Torah, I feel like Orthodox Jews follow the Torah best.
    I'm trying to fix this viewpoint, but it has been ingrained in me and is difficult to uproot.

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  5. what's funny is that historically the term "Orthodox" with respect to Jewry, was actually coined as a pejorative term by the reformers.

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  6. The small-o versus capital-O distinction was critical for me years ago when I worked for the State Senate in MA and had to draft amendments to the state’s kfosher food consumer protection law. The old law defined “Kosher” as “conforming to Orthodox Jewish religious standards,” which many thought was objectionable on many grounds.

    The Orthodox didn’t want it changed, and the Conservatives wanted the word Orthodox out of the statute. The compromise was, you guessed it, small-o “orthodox.”

    Current statute as I drafted it back in 1991 or so is here: http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/94-156.htm

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