Orthodox Judaism

Zion Zohar. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Overview

Since the nineteenth century the term “Orthodoxy” (Greek orth, “correct,” and doxa, “belief”) has been applied to the most traditional movement within Judaism. This movement sees itself, compared with other Jewish groups, as the authentic carrier of Jewish tradition since ancient times. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, also called the written law) is the word of God and, along with interpretations of the Torah known as the oral law, was divinely revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Because of its strict adherence to written and oral law (the latter compiled in the Talmud and codified in the Sholchan Aroch), the Orthodox community often calls itself “Torah-true Judaism.”

Scholars generally partition Orthodox Judaism into two major groups: the “ultra-orthodox,” or Haredi (awestruck), community and the Modern, or Neo-Orthodox, community. The Haredi community, in turn, can be divided into three general subgroups: the Hasidim (pious ones), the Mitnaggdim (opponents of Hasidim), and a relatively new phenomenon, Haredim of Sephardic and Oriental descent. The Hasidim and Mitnaggdim both originated in eastern Europe, and the ancestry of Sephardic and Oriental Haredim may be traced to the Iberian Peninsula and various Arab countries. Some scholars divide the Orthodox world into three major groups, distinguishing a “centrist” Orthodox camp that falls somewhere between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox communities.

History

Throughout the Middle Ages European, or Ashkenazi, Jews lived in autonomous, separate communities (often required to do so by law) that reinforced a cultural and religious aloofness from surrounding non-Jewish populations. In the mid-eighteenth century Hasidism, a revival movement with deep mystical tendencies, commenced among eastern European Jews. Opponents of the Hasidim, known as Mitnaggdim, attempted to thwart Hasidic innovations with orders of excommunication. Despite this opposition Hasidism soon dominated most of eastern European Judaism outside of Lithuania, leading to an ever-widening rift within the traditional Jewish world.

Because of the emancipation of Jews in central and western European societies, as well as the relaxing (if not abolishment) of discriminatory laws in the early nineteenth century, Jews were exposed to, and began to participate more equally in, the non-Jewish world. As a result, the traditional Jewish community was forced to grapple with the influence of surrounding cultures and the role of the emerging nation-state. Community cohesion gave way as Jews struggled to react to these societal shifts. Various reforms of Judaism were proposed to accommodate the changing times and to help Jews integrate with the societies around them. In 1795 the term “orthodoxy”(borrowed from Christianity) first appeared in a Jewish context—in an article published by reformers intent on disparaging those who refused to modify Jewish practice or belief. Jewish traditionalism had previously required no specific designation.

In the early 1800s another bloc within traditional Judaism developed (this time in western Europe) that would come to be called Neo-Orthodoxy, or Modern Orthodoxy; its motto became “Torah Im Derekh Eretz” (“Torah in harmony with secular culture”). Modern Orthodoxy was characterized by a willingness to embrace some contemporary cultural forms but also by a rejection of reformist modifications in such areas as traditional liturgy, the authoritative nature of divine revelation, and the binding character of halakhah (Jewish law). As the challenge of modernity intensified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, divisions within Haredi Orthodoxy became less relevant as factions joined forces to fight modernizing trends.

From the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, Sephardic and Oriental Jews were exposed to modernization and European colonial culture. In more rural areas traditional Orthodox forms prevailed, whereas in urban centers Modern Orthodoxy emerged. In contrast to western Europe, however, the establishment of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations never developed within Sephardic and Oriental societies. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the majority of Sephardic and Oriental Jews immigrated to Israel.

Central Doctrines

Judaism has never developed a universally accepted set of dogmas, thus making the appellation “Orthodoxy” something of a misnomer. What generally characterizes Orthodox Jews is a belief in three things: 1) “Torah Min HaShamayim,” the divine revelation of the Five Books of Moses, representing direct supernatural communication of content from God to man; 2) the obligation to live according to traditional inter-pretations of halakhah (Jewish law); and 3) the authority of Orthodox rabbis to assist the believer in applying halakhah to his or her life. These attitudes usually inspire the believer to live and worship in an Orthodox community, where these values will be reinforced.

Moral Code of Conduct

The Orthodox code of conduct in both the ritual and moral realms is based upon a strict adherence to Jewish law, which determines what constitutes morality in every aspect of life. Issues concerning family relationships, sexuality, and conduct in business, among many others, are discussed and adjudicated in exquisite detail within Jewish sources, beginning with the Bible and extending to the responsa (answers to follower’s questions) of modern rabbis.

Sacred Books

In Orthodox Judaism both the written law (Torah) and the oral law (finally written down c. 500 C.E. in the Talmud) are considered sacred; the latter in particular is an essential source of study throughout a Jewish man’s life. Because of the complexity of the oral law, various attempts were made from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries to summarize its rulings in comprehensive legal codes. The most recent and authoritative of these is Rabbi Joseph Caro’s sixteenth-century work the Shulkhan Arukh (“Set Table”). It remains the foundation of the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. These and other authoritative texts are considered fixed and binding for all time, reflecting God’s will.

Sacred Symbols

Orthodox Jews do not have any sacred symbols that differ from those of other Jewish movements.

Early And Modern Leaders

The charismatic Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, also called the Baal Shem Tov (“master of the good name”), founded the Hasidic movement in the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson served as rebbe (spiritual leader) of the Habad (Lubavitch) branch of Hasidism. He founded an educational network emphasizing worldwide outreach to all Jews and became a controversial figure when many of his followers claimed he was the Jewish messiah.

Within the non-Hasidic Haredi community, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman of Vilna, known as the Vilna Gaon, was in the late eighteenth century one of the intellectual giants of post-medieval Judaism and an implacable foe of the Hasidic movement. In the early nineteenth century Rabbi Moses Sofer, or the Hatam Sofer, gave voice to the anti-modernist, separatist faction within Orthodoxy. His legacy was continued in the United States by Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the leading non-Hasidic Haredi figure in the second half of the twentieth century.

Within the Modern Orthodox community, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–88) is considered its founder. In the early twentieth century Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine and an early proponent of Religious Zionism. In the second half of the twentieth century Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik influenced generations of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel (known as the Rishon Le-Zion), founded the Sephardic Haredi party Shas in the 1980s and has served as the de facto leader of Haredi as well as of more modern Orthodox Sephardi Jews.

Major Theologians and Authors

Rabbi Shneur Zalman (1745-1812) of Lyady, Russia, founded Habad Hasidism; he developed a mystical theology detailed in The Tanya (1796), which became a fundamental text of Hasidic spirituality within the Habad (Lubavitch) movement. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elucidated the Modern Orthodox perspective in his work Nineteen Letters(1836).

Several Modern Orthodox thinkers emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik in the United States wrote Halakhic Man (1944; originally published in Hebrew); Rabbi David Hartman in Israel wrote A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (1985); and Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg helped bridge the divide between Orthodoxy and other Jewish groups by founding the Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City in the 1970s. His wife, Blu Greenberg, wrote On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (1981), which led to new roles and learning opportunities for Orthodox women. In general non-Hasidic Haredi leaders promote their theology and outlook through their responsa, which are gathered into collections and published for the faithful.

Organizational Structure

Leadership in Orthodox communities is usually based upon a person’s piety of practice and depth of Jewish knowledge. The synagogue rabbi or the rabbi of the community is ostensibly the most powerful figure, able to impose his interpretation of halakhah on the synagogue or community. Nevertheless, Orthodox communities are democratic in many ways; for instance, owing to the numerous subgroupings and synagogues in the Orthodox world, a person may always move to a more compatible environment.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Orthodox Jews usually gather for prayer in a synagogue. Synagogues are situated in the center of an Orthodox community to enable worshipers easy access by foot on Sabbaths and festivals, when traveling by automobile is forbidden as a violation of the Sabbath rest. Men and women sit in separate sections, and no human images are allowed in the sanctuary. Sometimes prayer takes place in the beit midrash (house of study) or in a yeshiva (institution of higher Jewish learning), where students live and study on a daily basis over many years.

For many Orthodox Jews, living in Israel, the Holy Land, is encouraged, and visiting there on a regular basis is common. Within Hasidic and Oriental communities the graves of especially notable rabbis or biblical figures are considered holy places, worthy of pilgrimage.

What is Sacred?

As the language of the Bible, Hebrew is known as the Holy Tongue (lashon hakodesh) and is endowed with special sanctity. As a result, over time its use was restricted to specific sacred objectives, such as study, prayer, or religious correspondence. The Orthodox insistence on using Hebrew as the exclusive language of prayer was a key issue in the emergence of Reform Judaism, whose advocates favored using the vernacular. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many in the Orthodox community fiercely opposed the transformation of Hebrew from a sacred language to the vernacular of Jews living in Israel. Many Ashkenazi Haredi Jews purposefully use Yiddish as their primary language.

Holidays and Festivals

Holidays and festivals are the same for Orthodox Jews as for members of other Jewish movements. Orthodox Jews might differ from others in the manner and duration of their holiday observance. Out of respect for tradition Orthodox Jews living in the Diaspora, and many Conservative Jews as well, observe each holiday for two days (rather than one, as specified in the Torah). Some Haredi Jews refuse to mark modern holidays, such as Israel’s Independence Day, because they were ordained by the government of the secular State of Israel rather than by God.

Mode of Dress

Dress in the Orthodox world is quite varied. In keeping with a more separatist philosophy, those in the Haredi community dress in a quasi-uniform intentionally designed to make them stand out from the surrounding culture, as well as to preserve traditions specific to particular subgroups within the Haredi world. For men, this means always covering one’s head with a hat or skullcap, wearing a beard and often earlocks, and displaying the biblically ordained fringes (tzitzit) outside of their upper garments. Orthodox men wear the tallith katan, a small prayer shawl, under their shirts. In the Hasidic world black caftans, black hats (fur hats on the Sabbath), and often some form of knee pants and black shoes are worn in a style traceable to Polish nobility. For women, pants are not permitted; all clothing must cover the chest to the neck and the arms to at least the elbows and fall below the knees. As a sign of modesty, married women hide their hair with a covering that may be a wig over a shorn head (in the most extreme cases), a wig over hair, a scarf, or a hat.

Modern Orthodox men and women might dress entirely in the fashion of the country in which they reside, albeit with a more modest cut of clothing. In general, men will put on a skullcap while eating and praying, if not all the time, and women will cover their hair during prayer or all the time.

Dietary Practices

Orthodox Jews are generally meticulous in their observance of kashruth (Jewish dietary laws), seeing it as an essential expression of holiness commanded in sacred text as well as a means of cultural separation. The range of observances varies widely. Those in the Modern Orthodox world would try to eat only in kosher homes and establishments, but given no alternative, might eat uncooked, vegetarian, or dairy foods in a non-kosher environment. The majority of Orthodox Jews, however, confine themselves to homes or restaurants where the dietary laws are observed. Because there are different levels of scrupulousness regarding kashruth, those in the Haredi communities are even more stringent about where and what they will eat. In addition, blessings of gratitude are supposed to be recited before and after every meal as well as upon ingesting any food or drink.

Rituals

Orthodox Judaism is characterized by adherence to traditional practices, such as strict observance of the Sabbath and holidays, kashruth (dietary laws), and taharat hamishpakhah (commandments relating to family purity). Many engage in daily worship, regular and intensive study of sacred texts, and acts of charity. Modesty (tsniut) is an essential value, leading to a less public role for women within the synagogue as well as separation of the sexes during worship services and often in school classrooms after a certain age. Many rituals incumbent upon men, such as reading from the Torah or putting on the prayer shawl (tallith) or the phylacteries (tefillin), are largely frowned upon or forbidden for Orthodox girls and women.

Orthodox Jews firmly reject burial practices such as cremation, embalming, and even autopsies (except under certain exceptional conditions) as violations of Jewish law and expressions of disrespect to the deceased.

Rites of Passage

Orthodox Jews observe the same basic ceremonies (circumcision, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, burial) as other Jews, differing in the degree to which they adhere to traditional custom and what role women and girls may play. The influence of feminism on liberal Jews has led to greater emphasis in the Orthodox world on ceremonies marking rites of passage for girls, such as naming and bat mitzvah, though more so in the Modern Orthodox than in the Haredi community.

Membership

The Holocaust in Europe decimated many Sephardic communities (in Amsterdam, Greece, and Italy, for example) and almost all of the eastern European Orthodox world by destroying entire families, towns, Hasidic dynasties, and major Orthodox educational institutions, disproportionate to the more liberal Jewish communities who lived abroad or managed to escape. As a result of high birthrates and, in some communities, extensive campaigns of outreach or proselytizing to less observant Jews, the Orthodox community world-wide has since rebounded.

Religious Tolerance

Within traditional Judaism there is a greater ideological tolerance shown toward gentiles than toward non-Orthodox Jews, because according to traditional Jewish thinking, non-Jews may achieve salvation by following a few basic universal practices, whereas Jews are considered sinners if they do not observe halakhah in full. Because of cultural and religious ties, however, Orthodox Jews, especially the Haredi, are generally more socially comfortable with non-Orthodox Jews than with non-Jews.

Few Orthodox leaders are willing to grant legitimacy to non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism, which cast doubt upon (or outright reject) the principle of “Torah Min HaShamayim” (the divine revelation for the Five Books of Moses) and the obligation to live based on halakhah as interpreted by Orthodox rabbis. While some among the Orthodox left might promote intra-Jewish dialogue, even on theological issues, and many more among the “modern/centrist” community would promote cooperation on a variety of intra-Jewish issues (such as charity work), the Haredi Orthodox embrace a calculated policy of separatism and withdrawal in nearly all matters not directly related to Jewish survival.

Social Justice

Performing kind deeds (gemilut hesed) and acts of charity (tzedekah) are considered commandments of the highest order in Judaism, though in general Orthodox Jews tend to devote themselves to causes within the Jewish world. Orthodox communities are often distinguished by their generosity to Jewish causes (giving at least 10 percent of one’s income to charity is the norm) and the time given to care for those in need.

Social Aspects

Because of strict prohibitions against premarital sex, marriage in the Orthodox community usually takes place at an earlier age than in the Jewish and general population. In some Haredi circles (particularly the children of prominent rabbis), marriages may be arranged by parents or by a matchmaker.

Family life is extremely important within the Orthodox community, and because of the biblical commandment to be “fruitful and multiply,” families tend to be large. Men and women share in the childrearing tasks. An element that distinguishes Modern from Haredi Orthodoxy is that men in the latter community, particularly those in Israel, often engage in full-time study of sacred texts, leaving their wives to manage the home and to serve as breadwinners.

Controversial Issues

Various controversies plaguing Orthodoxy include the role of women in communal and ritual life, the legitimacy of non-Orthodox ideologies, preserving the unity of the Jewish people, the proper amount of isolation from (versus assimilation into) non-Jewish culture, the sanctity of the State of Israel, the role of religion in Israeli political life, and the increasing concentration upon fastidiousness in ritual.

Cultural Impact

It is difficult to identify cultural elements within Judaism and secular culture as a whole that are directly attributable to Orthodox Judaism. An exception is the collection and production of Jewish ceremonial and ritual objects, which are often handmade and of expensive materials, such as gold. This area of Jewish art has been growing, in part because hiddur mitzvah (beautifying a commandment), a value traditionally held by Orthodox Jews, has been increasingly adopted by Jews of all movements.