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  • "So-called Orthodoxy":The History of an Unwanted Label
  • Jeffrey C. Blutinger (bio)

One of the stranger aspects of the polemical arguments between German-Jewish reformers and traditionalists that took place in the middle of the nineteenth century is their odd agreement on the singular inappropriateness of the term "orthodox"—literally, "right believing"—to describe traditional Jews. Instead, they disagreed about who was to blame for the use of this label, with each group attributing its origin to the other. German-Jewish reformers regularly referred to their traditionalist opponents not merely as orthodox, but as "der sogenannte Orthodoxen" ("the so-called orthodox"), or "die vorgebliche Orthodoxie" ("the ostensibly orthodox"), or "die erheuchelte Orthodoxdie ("the sham orthodox").1 In this way, reformers both disparaged the legitimacy of the description of traditionalists as right believing, as well as at the same time implying that this was how traditionalists referred to themselves.

The leading spokesman for the traditionalists in Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, responded to these attacks in 1854, stating that "it is not 'orthodox' Jews who first introduced the term 'orthodoxy' into Judaism," but, in fact, "it was the modern 'progressive' Jews who first applied the epithet to their 'old-style' backward brethren to distinguish them in a derogatory sense." Hirsch noted that traditionalists resented the use of the term "orthodox," and "rightly so."2 Yet, Hirsch himself used the term "orthodox" to describe traditional Jews, though he preferred the label "gesetztreu" (literally "true to the law" or "Torah true").3

Perhaps the oddest aspect of this debate was over whether the great German-Jewish philosopher and advocate of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, was really orthodox. Rabbi Leopold Stein, the leader of the Franfurt reform community, argued that Mendelssohn opposed and was opposed by orthodox Jews, and that therefore by implication he really was a reformer, but Hirsch, quoting passages from Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, showed he had remained committed to the observance of traditional Jewish law, and that therefore by implication he really was orthodox.4 [End Page 310]

What makes this debate so surreal is that both Stein and Hirsch were right about Mendelssohn: during his life he opposed and was opposed by orthodox Jews, while at the same time he advocated positions that were entirely consistent with Hirsch's orthodoxy. What Stein and Hirsch were apparently unaware of, however, was that the meaning of the term "orthodox" among Jews had changed significantly between the middle of the eighteenth century when Mendelssohn used it and the middle of the nineteenth century when Stein and Hirsch were using it. By then, both the reformers and the traditionalists were painfully aware of the disconnect between the literal meaning of the term "orthodox" as "right belief" and its use as a denominational label for those who asserted they observed "right action," yet both groups seemed unable to shake its use. How had this come about? Why would both reform and traditional Jews choose such a singularly inapposite term, and then continue to use it while disapproving of it? A quick review of the secondary literature provides little guidance.

For many years it was believed that the first usage of the term "orthodox" in a Jewish context was in 1806, at the Paris Sanhedrin.5 In a debate at the Assembly of Notables convened to respond to Napoleon's questions concerning the compatibility of Judaism with French citizenship, there was a discussion over whether to describe Jewish law as "the Law of Moses" or "the Law of God." The question was not purely semantic: Enlightenment philosophers had advocated a religion of reason over one based on revelation. Describing the Torah as the "Law of Moses" placed it within an existing Enlightenment discourse, while calling it the "Law of God" highlighted the tension between traditional Judaism and the values of the Enlightenment. One unnamed delegate stated that "my parents were, to the full, as orthodox as they can possibly be. Yet I well remember to have heard them say always Torat Moshe, the Law of Moses, in speaking of the written law."6 The intent of the statement seems clear: if even his orthodox parents used the term Law of Moses, than the Paris Sanhedrin...


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