Orthodox Judaism: History, Beliefs, Practices

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Orthodox Jew

Orthodox Judaism is one of the major sects of Judaism. It encompasses several groups whose members tend to traditional Jews who are conservative in their outlook and are characterized by strict observance of laws and rituals (the Halakhah) Orthodox Jews share a common belief that God gave Moses the entire Torah, including both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. They believe that the 613 mitzvoth, or commandments or laws contained in the Torah, remain binding on Jews. It is estimated that about 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox. Orthodox Judaism is the only recognized form of Judaism in Israel. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

Strict Orthodox Jews take the Torah literally. For them God commands and they obey without questioning. There are many commandments, rules or prohibitions they have to abide by. Their primary reason for existence is to declare, “There is only one God.” Devout Muslims live by a similar code. Although the state of Israel guarantees freedom of worship, Orthodoxy so dominates the religious life there that it prevents the other branches of Judaism from getting a foothold.

There are a number of groupings in contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Reform has made little headway among Sephardic Jews (mostly from North Africa and the Middle East) , and the majority of these, if religious, are at least Orthodox, with many of their own rites and customs. The term "Traditional Judaism" is sometimes used to denote either Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. The term "Torah-true Judaism" is used by some of the Orthodox as a synonym for Orthodoxy in order to avoid the possible pejorative implications of the latter term as suggesting reaction or obscurantism

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: In the U.S. “the percentage of Jews who are Orthodox — especially ultra-Orthodox, whose members tend to have very large families — is growing rapidly. Almost 10 percent of American Jews and nearly 25 percent of Israeli Jews are Orthodox today, although attrition from these communities is also rising. This trend may continue, or that sector may see mass defections, as it did a century ago. Either way, Orthodoxy is going to continue to play a very important role in Jewish life for many years to come. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism;Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Development of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism,

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: Competing Jewish denominations emerged, each one attempting to negotiate the relationship between Jewishness and modernity in its own way. Each group claimed that they followed the best or most authentic traditions of Judaism. The first modern denomination to organize was Reform — first in Germany in the early 19th century, but soon in America as well. Reform Judaism is based on the idea that both the Bible and the laws of the oral Torah are divinely inspired, but humanly constructed, meaning they should be adapted based on contemporary moral ideals. Reform congregations tend to emphasize prophetic themes such as social justice more than Talmudic law, though in recent years many have reclaimed some rituals, such as Hebrew liturgy and stricter observance of Shabbat. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Orthodox Judaism soon organized in reaction to Reform, rallying to defend the strict observance of Jewish customs and law. Orthodox leaders often blurred the distinction between these categories and put particular emphasis on the 16th-century legal code called the Shulchan Aruch. Orthodoxy insists that both the written and oral Torah have divine origins. Contrary views in pre-modern sources are often censored.

Conservative Judaism, which did not arrive in the U.S. until the mid-1900s, shares many of Reform Judaism’s views, such as equal religious roles for men and women. However, Conservative Jews argue that the Reform movement pulled too far away from Jewish tradition. They insist that Jewish law remains obligatory, but that the Orthodox interpretation is too rigid. In practice, most Conservative Jews tend not to be strict about even major rituals, like observing Sabbath restrictions or kosher food practices.

By the end of the 20th century Orthodox Judaism had strong support and to many Jews reformed ideas seemed quaint and old fashioned. A younger more devout generation emerged. They brought back the old traditions, observed Jewish laws to the letter, with some embarking Messianic movements and moving to Israel because they regarded it as their Biblical homeland. Recent years has been characterized by a battle between observant Jews and secular ones.

History of Orthodox Judaism

Traditional Jews did not take the development of Reform Judaism and Conservative Judasim lying down. Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Moses Sofer (1762–1839), a Germanborn rabbi who was widely recognized as the leading Halakhah authority of his day, viewed all theological and organizational attempts to accommodate the modern world and its secular values as a mortal threat to Judaism. He is said to have coined the slogan "All innovation is forbidden by the Torah," about which Ultra-Orthodox Jews have since organized their uncompromising opposition to any deviation from Jewish tradition. Sofer's younger colleague, [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–88), also a German-born traditional rabbi, regarded Sofer's principled resistance to all things modern as profoundly mistaken. Preferring to call him-self a "Torah-true" rather than an Orthodox rabbi, Hirsch held that traditional Judaism not only could but also should affirm certain aspects of modern enlightened culture. Indeed, Jews should regard themselves as obligated to learn the physical and social sciences, for God is manifest in nature and history. Further, the humanistic ethic of the Enlightenment is compatible with the deepest ethical values of Judaism. In the twentieth century other Orthodox theologians, such as Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903–93) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72), have given their own twists to Hirsch's modern, or Neo-Orthodox, views.

Rabbi YY Rubinstein wrote for the BBC: “Those unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism, sometimes believe that it became fossilised some time in the past and is not an evolving and dynamic religion. This is certainly a myth. The legal precedents and principles that were given at Mount Sinai are elastic and capable of expansion or contraction to meet any given situation. The range of the topics covered in the legal rulings of the great recent and contemporary authorities makes this quite clear. Rabbi Moses Feinstein (1895 -1986) was among the top three Jewish legal authorities in the world. His legal rulings range from In-vitro Fertilisation to advising the Surgeon General of America on surgical procedures. All his judgements are sourced in Halachah. The greatest current authority is Rabbi Eliashev of Jerusalem. The leading Jewish courts in the UK and throughout the world consult him. The scope of his decisions, demonstrate the ease with which the Halachah applies itself to contemporary issues. |::| [Source:Rabbi YY Rubinstein, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“The emergence of Rabbis with that degree of expertise and authority involves a process of intense study that spans many decades. Such Rabbis will be expected to have mastered the entire Talmud as well as all the later legal conclusions of people like Maimonides to present day authorities. They will have been rigorously tested, not just in their mastery of the Jewish Legal process, but their absorption of Judaism's highest ideals into their own personality and behaviour.” |::|

Orthodox Jewish Beliefs

Rabbi YY Rubinstein wrote for the BBC: “Orthodox Judaism believes that the Jewish people left the slavery of Egypt and rendezvoused with G-d at a mountain called Sinai. There, through Moses, they would be given the Torah. Moses was also taught the deeper meaning of that book and that explanation was passed from teacher to pupil and was known as the 'oral tradition'. [Source: Rabbi YY Rubinstein, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“The Torah's insistence of "An eye for an eye", for example, was never meant to be taken literally, Moses was taught that it meant the financial value of the lost eye. The Oral tradition was in fact a system which allowed the 304,805 letters that are contained in the Torah to expand into a set of legal rulings that covered, building law, agricultural law, criminal law, sexual Law, business law and in fact a complete set of legislation for every conceivable aspect of a society. |::|

“The form that the Talmud takes is a key set of statements know as the Mishna, which draws its information from the Torah. These statements are then discussed at great length sometimes comparing the information in one Mishna with another and clarifying seeming contradictions. Once the discussions reach a conclusion that becomes the Jewish legal ruling or Halachah. The Talmud also carries background to the stories in the Torah and so the dialogue in Genesis between Rachel and Jacob is expanded upon and a deeper insight gained. |::|

“After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, the Talmud needed to be written down. Those who carried it in their minds were being systematically persecuted and killed by Rome. There was a danger that it could become lost and so the oral law too became written. Its' scope is vast and it is contained in twenty huge volumes as thick as a telephone directory and twice the height.” |::|

Orthodox and Reform Differences on Jewish Law (Halakhah)

Louis Jacobs wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The great divide between Orthodoxy and Reform was on the question of Jewish law (halakhah). According to the Orthodox position, the traditional doctrine of Torah min ha-Shamayim ("the Torah is from Heaven") means that both the Written and the Oral Laws were communicated by God to Moses and that, therefore, all the Pentateuchal laws, in their interpretation as found in the rabbinic literature, are binding upon Jews by divine fiat. The Sabbath, for instance, is to be kept in the manner set forth in detail in the Talmud; the dietary laws are to be observed in all their minutiae. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s, Encyclopedia.com]

On this view nothing in the law is trivial or unworthy or out-of-date, since every law is a direct command of God for all time. Reform Judaism rejects the idea of a permanently binding religious law. In the Reform view, the moral law alone is eternally valid, together with those religious ceremonies which are still capable of inspiring contemporary Jews to appreciate the beauty, dignity, and supreme worth of a God-orientated life. A middle of the road position was advocated by the followers of the historical school in Germany and later by the Conservative movement in the United States. In this view, Reform is in error in rejecting the halakhah, but Orthodoxy is also mistaken in wedding adherence to halakhah to a fundamentalism which recognizes no change or development in Jewish law.

Different Practices in Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia The traditional service is, except for a few Aramaic interludes, in Hebrew. However, in the typical Reform Temple (the term temple was originally chosen as a substitute for synagogue to disavow hope for the rebuilding of the shrine that was once the pride of Jews) most of the prayers are in the vernacular. Since every congregation is independent, the proportional use of Hebrew and English in Reform and Conservative congregations varies. Traditional Jews will not pray, study Torah, or perform any act of worship unless their heads are covered. If they did otherwise, they would consider it irreverent, to stand slipshod in the presence of the Lord. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

The Orthodox Jews who follow custom rigidly have their heads constantly covered; at services they like to wear hats, whereas Conservatives use "yarmulkes" (Yiddish word for skullcaps), at times of varied colors and beautifully embroidered. Reform Jews wear no head covering, following in this the conventions of Western civilization, where the bared head is a sign of respect.

In Orthodox synagogues men and women are separated. In most Conservative synagogues and all Reform temples they are seated together. In a traditional service Scripture readings and prayers are chanted; in a modernized one, they are recited in a formal manner. In all Orthodox and many Conservative synagogues, priestly descendants (their shoes removed, as was done in the Temple of Jerusalem) chant the Aaronic blessing (Nm6.22–27) over the people. The cantillation, at times amateurish, may jar a modern musically trained ear. In a reformed service, therefore, the rabbi imparts that blessing. There, as elsewhere, a prevailing criterion is decorum.

Dissent and Divorce in Orthodox Judaism

Rabbi YY Rubinstein wrote for the BBC: “Reaching back to the Second Temple, there were movements like Sadducees, Boethusians and others that rejected and redefined existing Jewish beliefs. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, the world's best minds struggled to emerge from the dogmas of the dark ages and the 'Enlightenment thinkers' began to change European society. The Bible was seen increasingly seen as myth and fairy tale. [Source: Rabbi YY Rubinstein, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“At the same time the Ghetto doors had been burst open by the French revolution and Jews for the first time saw the opportunity of merge into mainstream society. In Germany in particular this opportunity came to be endorsed and accelerated by a redefinition of existing core Jewish beliefs, this was known as the Reform movement. The authority of the Talmud was denied, and its legal conclusions rejected. Synagogues became patterned on Churches. The first such Synagogue opened in Seesen in 1810. An organ and mixed choir (both alien to Synagogue ritual) were introduced, along with German Sermons, German Songs, German prayers and ecclesiastical costume. |::|

“Halachah as we have seen is elastic and it is legitimate to stretch it to meet the challenges thrown up by any given era. It goes without saying, there comes a point where the elastic breaks. Orthodox Judaism sees the changes made by Reform in the UK and elsewhere as having passed that point. |::|

“Today, the Reform process has continued to edit and alter many other areas. These range from redefining who can be considered a Jew, to omitting certain passages from the public reading of the Torah, because they fail the test of political correctness. The Reform movement is seen by Orthodox Judaism as long since having moved from a position of dissent to one of divorce. Like most divorces, it can only be hoped that the ex-couples can move on to make their own ways amicably; with one of the partners, perhaps more than a little sad that the other decided to leave.” |::|

Modern Orthodoxy

According to the BBC: “Judaism responded in different ways to the Enlightenment and the development of scientific studies towards the end of the 18th century. Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews had often been forcibly separated from their Christian neighbours. With the onset of the Enlightenment Jewish people were made full citizens. This exposed Jewish people to new scientific ideas as the ghetto walls came down all over Europe. [Source: Alexander Goldberg, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“In response to the Jewish emancipation of the late 18th to early 19th century, the Enlightenment and modernity, some Jewish groups decided to abandon certain customs and principles of Jewish law, often doing away with practices that they could not easily explain to their fellow non-Jewish citizens; whilst others decided to ignore secular studies in their entirety and only study Torah. |::|

“Modern Orthodoxy was borne out of this context, believing that it was possible for Jews to maintain Jewish law, ritual observance and customs whilst exposing themselves to secular knowledge, science and modern ideas. This was to bridge Orthodox Judaism and modernity. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: Torah with Worldly Knowledge |::|

Torah holding

“Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) was a Frankfurt rabbi and Jewish philosopher who articulated the fundamental position of Modern Orthodoxy in the 19th century. In historic terms, he founded the orthodox (Torah observant and non-Reformed Jewish) community within the city of Frankfurt. His neo-orthodox philosophy was largely in response to the growing Reform Movement in Germany and an Orthodox Jewish position on the Enlightenment. The movement that he established was based on the belief that it was possible to partake in secular studies, in particular the sciences, without compromising on Jewish law. He believed that the Torah could be found through worldly and secular studies. This philosophy is known in Hebrew as Torah im Derekh Eretz (Torah with the ways of the world). |::|

“The ideas of neo-orthodoxy spread in Western Europe and later the United States. Neo-orthodoxy enabled the preservation of Jewish laws and customs within communities that at the same time were keen to embrace modernity, secular society and the modern world. Neo-orthodoxy enabled the orthodox movement to adapt and survive in Western Europe. In the United Kingdom and France, orthodoxy has remained the denomination of the majority of synagogue-goers to this day. |::|

“The Jewish community within the United Kingdom has remained largely orthodox but with a modern outlook. The synagogues, clergy and prayer book (Siddur) became distinctly English, at times trying to minimise differences between the community and the established Church to such an extent that it mimicked some Anglican customs. This included the wearing of Geneva bands and dog collars by rabbis; the use of the term Reverend in reference to some members of the clergy; and even the shape, size and colour of the Authorised Daily Prayer Book looked similar to that of the Book of Common Prayer. Elected presidents and other honorary officers of the community wore suits and top hats. The French orthodox community went through similar stylistic changes that involved wearing Napoleonic uniforms. |::|

“However, unlike in Liberal and some Reform communities, prayers largely remained in Hebrew. The prayer book was given a new English translation. The changes were only in outward appearance. The neo-orthodoxy of England was pragmatic rather than radical, introducing minor changes to prayers (omissions from their prayer book rather than alterations) in order to protect the image of the community. |::|

“The United Synagogue had developed a modernist outlook by the end of the 19th Century. This led to certain traditionalists forming their own Federation of Synagogues and later the Haredi (strictly Orthodox or ultra Orthodox) Jews would form the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. |::|

Neo Orthodoxy and Zionism

According to the BBC:“Neo-orthodoxy was split on the issue of Zionism in the late 19th century. Some maintained that political Zionism was not compatible with Jewish law (halakhah) on the basis that Jews had to wait for the coming of a Messiah in order to return to Israel en masse (a sizeable community was already living in cities such as Jerusalem and Tiberias). Some neo-orthodox rabbis believed that the future of Judaism would never be in doubt following the emancipation of Jews across Europe in the late 18th and 19th century. Others, led by Rav Kook differed. He created a religious Zionism movement. [Source: Alexander Goldberg, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“For centuries Jews had prayed for a return of the Jewish diaspora to the land of Israel. Kook believed that a return to Zion by Jewish people would bring on a Messianic era. Also, religious Zionists believed that they could give Judaism a place within the Zionist movement. In many ways they succeeded in ensuring that there was a place for Judaism within the State of Israel alongside the socialist and secularist ideologies of other Zionist pioneers. |::|

“Ultimately, many non-Zionist neo-orthodox leaders changed their view in the light of the Holocaust (Shoah). With the systematic murder of six million European Jews by the Nazis, many saw the need for a Jewish homeland and a place of refuge for Jews fleeing from persecution.

Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodoxy and Torah Umadah

Orthodox Jews That Oppose Zionism

According to the BBC: “Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik developed Hirsch's concept of Torah im Derekh Eretz and espoused Torah Umadah (Torah and Science). Solveitchik differed from Hirsch. He saw Torah and Science as distinct disciplines with the ideal being a synthesis of the two. Soloveitchik's own background was a synthesis between Torah learning and secular studies at the highest level. He was brought up in Eastern European Lithuanian Judaism with its strong emphasis on the study of the Talmud and the Musar doctrine. (The Musar doctrine was developed by Orthodox Lithuanian rabbis in the 19th century and emphasised moral teachings based on Jewish ethics). [Source: Alexander Goldberg, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“Soloveitchik received a secular education and went to study philosophy at Friedrich-Wilhelm University, Berlin where he received a PhD in the early 1930s. He also ordained more than 2000 rabbis during his tenure as head of RIETS (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary), a rabbinic school for modern orthodox rabbis at Yeshiva University, New York. Through both his students and his collected works, his influence on Modern Orthodoxy is without parallel. |::|

“His belief system encouraged open engagement with science, a synthesis between Torah learning and scientific knowledge; the possibility of working on a communal level with non-orthodox Jews; and a religious basis for supporting Zionism and the state of Israel. Soloveitchik and his supporters branded their form of orthodoxy as Centrist or Modern Orthodoxy. The current Chancellor of Yeshiva University, Professor Norman Lamm, describes the movement's worldview as being "education, moderation, and the centrality of the people of Israel". The Modern Orthodox movement continues to respond to new issues. Recent developments in Jewish law concerning ethics in medicine and science have contributed to the general response to new advances in these disciplines. |::|

Open Orthodoxy and Centrist Orthodoxy

According to the BBC: “Centrist orthodoxy has maintained that it is in the centre between the Haredi orthodox worldview and other Jewish denominations that are not orthodox. The Modern Orthodox in Britain is still the largest denominational grouping within the Jewish Community. However, there have been challenges from both the right and the left over the last 30-40 years. There is evidence that there has been a "haredi-isation" of modern orthodox communities (a move towards more traditional forms of ultra orthodox or strictly orthodox forms of Judaism). [Source: Alexander Goldberg, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“Increasingly, modern orthodox communities are not able to recruit modern orthodox rabbis, often appointing Haredi rabbis instead. This situation has not been helped with the closure of Jews' College’s rabbinic school, the only modern orthodox one of its kind in Britain. A new modern orthodox rabbinic ordination programme commenced in 2006 but it will be sometime before home-grown modern orthodox rabbis will become available. |::|

“In the meantime, British orthodox rabbis either receive ordination in Israeli Yeshivot (Talmud institutions based in Israel) or from Haredi Yeshivot (ultra orthodox institutions for the study of Talmud and Torah study). In the latter, students are not encouraged to engage in advanced secular studies. Modern Orthodoxy in Britain was always seen as a pragmatic regime rather than a theological position. Challenged by more assertive closed forms of Judaism, it has suffered along with other forms of liberal religions within Europe. |::|

“In the United States, the move towards more traditional Judaism has resulted in a more conservative regime at Yeshiva University. In the meantime, Orthodox Jews on the left have begun to develop new institutions that aim to be outward looking whilst maintaining a discourse between modernity and Jewish law. |::|

“This process has resulted in the development of open orthodoxy whereby adherents to halakhah (Jewish law) re-engage both with secular studies, Jews of all denominations and global issues. This movement has its own rabbinic school in New York, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Some within this movement have experimented with orthodox egalitarianism where gender equality solutions are found through halakhah. This has led to women taking on more leadership roles. Others in this movement are increasingly re-engaging with social justice issues from a halakhic point of view. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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