On the Obsolescence of “Orthodoxy” and the Timeliness of “Observance”

We in the Observant community – my preferred term – historically have reflected, to our shame, a reduced sensitivity to the use of English language for transmitting values, ideas, and goals. “Colored People” started insisting on “Negro” as a transition to acknowledging a Peoplehood and abandoning an absurd term; they are not green, blue, or orange. Later, preferring to abandon the Spanish sobriquet for an American English term that paralleled the majority “White” culture, they moved to “Black.” And, for those among them who further sought to move away from defining-by-color and to define the group as an ethnic player alongside Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, and others, the term moved to “African American.” They stuck to their new term, and they have won, despite Americans’ preferences for reduced-syllabic terms.

When married and single women alike moved to “Ms.” from “Miss” and “Mrs.,” they used and revolutionized language effectively to impact on wider goals, forcing a new debate and discussion. The very term “Ms.” downgrades the importance of marriage as a defining ethic for women and has contributed, albeit in a small measure, to the societal chaos. They stuck to their guns, and they won. Similarly, homosexuals somehow persuaded society to adopt the term “gay” as both their adjective and their noun. They won, and that small change in denomination has had a profound impact on the wider discourse. With a term reminiscent of Stephen Foster lyrics and as flippant as “West Side Story”s lighter moments, the group has helped attain legislative advances in small part because it is easier to restrict homosexuals than to deny gay people. It just is.

Reform Judaism was a sophisticated term for its time in the 19th Century. It had not yet had time to be tested by time. As that ideology was tested over the next hundred years, a new self-descriptive emerged: “Progressive Judaism.” Meanwhile, “Conservative Judaism” adopted a term that, in its founding era, bore some real semblance to reality when its then-temperate agenda for change was contrasted alongside “Reform.” By today, the term is profoundly obsolete – there is nothing “conservative” about the movement, not in ideology, not in practice, not in politics – but the term effectively colors the discourse, obfuscating the reality of a movement that has adopted most of the past century’s Reform platform — right down to questioning Ma’amad Har Sinai and, for that matter, increasingly denying even the belief that Jews were slaves in Egypt.

We who observe the Torah mitzvot in the classic halakhic framework are called “Orthodox” because others who abhorred Torah Observant Judaism so denominated us. When we arrived in the West, we barely understood what they were calling us. Early immigrants from Russia during the 1881-1914 influx westward indeed seemed indistinguishable from the unshaved Eastern Orthodox Christian metropolitans whose caps are so similar to the “Chazan caps” of the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Remember the “Seinfeld” episode when George Costanza tries converting to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, hoping to marry a girl of that faith, and explains to the panel of clergy that he wants to join their group because he likes the hats?)

The term “Orthodox” – like “Colored People” and “Missus”– comes from another era and defines us to our detriment in a way that withdraws the power and tool of language from our discourse. In reality, we are not “Orthodox.” If we were “Orthodox” – a word that conveys strict monolithic unilateralism – there would not be so many diverse variegations of our essence: Ashkenazic Lithuanian, Ashkenazic Hassidic (with all its multi-dimensional subgroupings), Sephardic Edot Mizrach, Sephardic Spanish-Portuguese, “Modern Orthodox,” “Black Hat,” etc. No, we are no more “Orthodox” than we are “Heterodox.”

Ultimately, as defining term for the 21st Century, we are best labeled “Observant.” That is the defining term that individuates us from “Reform” and “Conservative” and “Reconstructionist” and “Humanist” and “New Age.” Unlike all the others, we observe the Torah Laws according to the classic halakhic framework. We observe the Shabbat laws down to the practices governing “borer.” We observe kashrut down to the practices governing Pat Yisroel (Pas Yisroel) and G’vinat Akum. We observe Taharat Hamishpakha down to the practices governing mokh dakhuk and hefsek taharah. And once we decide, across all lines of our polydoxy, as a movement of Torah Observant Jews to stop using the absurd term “Orthodox” and instead unilaterally to call ourselves “Observant,” we thereby will properly redefine in a respectful fashion the discourse with Reform/Progressive Jews, the profoundly liberal “Conservative” Jews, and all others who do not fall into the rubric of the classically halakhically Observant.

And, with the term “Observant,” the O.U. does not even have to change its logo. The Union of Observant Jewish Congregations of America. Makes sense.