This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

"Orthodox," "Cowboys" and Other Insults*

Recently I received an irate letter from a correspondent who had been accessing my articles via the Internet. This individual, who claimed to be descended from Spanish Jewish converts to Christianity, was taking issue with an article in which I had made reference to the religious practices of the "Marranos" of Spain and Portugal. The term "Marrano," he argued correctly, was an abusive and demeaning old Spanish word meaning "swine"--expressing the distaste felt by many veteran Christian Iberians, even for Jews who had adopted the official faith.

I felt the occasion called for apology rather than self-justification. I explained that I had hesitated before choosing the offensive epithet over the more respectable "conversos" or "New Christians," but had ultimately decided that such terms would be unfamiliar to my average reader.

As an aside, I remarked that Jews have a long history of accepting names that were originally intended as derogatory. Perhaps this practice can be traced back to the patriarch Abraham whose designation Ivri, "Hebrew" is understood by some commentators to mean "one who comes from the other side ['ever]," possibly reflecting the perspective of the Canaanites who patronizingly viewed him as an "alien."

In later generations Jews consistently referred to themselves as "Israel." The term "Yehudi" (Jew) is found very rarely in Talmudic literature, and in those rare instances where it does appear it is usually in quotations attributed to non-Jews. This is consistent with the evidence of Greek texts, where Ioudaioi is the name that is normally used to designate our people.

This demonstrates a crucial difference in perspective: Gentiles acknowledged only the truncated province of Judea, as it existed under Persian, Greek and Roman rule, whereas the Jews were always conscious of their links to the glorious days when David and Solomon reigned over the united Israelite monarchy.

Rabbinic Judaism evolved out of the Second Temple Jewish faction known as the Pharisees. The word "Pharisee" translates as "separatist" and alludes to the fact that the group imposed upon itself extra stringencies in the areas of purity and dietary laws, which set limits to their social interaction with people outside their own group.

The Hebrew word for "separatist" is normally a term of opprobrium. Ancient texts of the "Sh'moneh Esreh" prayer included a condemnation of those who do not make their proper contribution to the welfare of the community.

When Talmudic documents mention the word Pharisee (P'rushi) as the name of a religious movement, the word is usually being used by their opponents, the supporters of the priestly Sadducee party. When referring to their own origins, the rabbis employed the term "Haverim" (comrades). Eventually however, the name Pharisee came to be accepted by Jews as a neutral or even an honourable title--in spite of the fact that Christian innuendo has turned it into a synonym for "hypocrite" in many European languages.

In more recent times , we may note the rise of the "Misnagdim" who championed the primacy of Talmudic scholarship against the nascent Hasidic movement and its ideology of charismatic mysticism.

The term "Misnagdim" ("opponents," "protestants") was coined by the Hasidim and reflects their perspective. It has subsequently been accepted by their opponents, the followers of the Ga'on of Vilna who emulated his scholarly ideals in the Lithuanian-style yeshivahs.

A striking instance of the acceptance of a hostile epithet is the widespread use of the name "orthodox" as a designation for Jewish traditionalists in the post-Emancipation era.

The word "orthodox" was derived from a Christian context and was first applied to Jews with ironic derision in 1795 by a Reform polemicist.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the outspoken leader of the traditionalist forces in Germany, reacted indignantly to this epithet in an essay written in Frankfurt in 1854. And yet the same rabbi, barely thirty years later, established a "Free Union for the Interests of Orthodox Judaism"!

I doubt that the above tendencies are unique to the Jewish experience. I have often suspected, for example, that the oddly phrased word "cowboy" (as distinct from, say, "cattleman") originated in some such derogatory usage, though I have yet to find confirmation for this theory.

If the above hypothesis appears overly cynical, then we must recall that "cynic" ("dog-like") was also originally an insult intended to ridicule the allegedly uncouth mannerisms of that ancient philosophical school.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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    First Publication:
    • JFP, March 7 1996.
    • Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Philadelphia, 1987.
    • Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., The Jew in the Modern World, Oxford and New York, 1995.
    • David Rudavsky, Modern Jewish Religious Movements, New York, 1979.
    • E. P. Sanders, Judaism--Practice and Belief: 63 BCE - 66 CE, London and Philadelphia, 1992.