Orthodox Judaism

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An Orthodox Jew

Template:Jew Orthodox Judaism is the formulation of Judaism that adheres to a relatively strict interpretation and application of the laws and ethics first canonized in the Talmudic texts ("Oral Torah") and as subsequently developed and applied by the later authorities known as the Gaonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim.

Orthodox Judaism is characterized by:

  • Belief that the Torah (i.e. the Pentateuch) and its pertaining laws are Divine, were transmitted by God to Moses, are eternal, and are unalterable;
  • Belief that there is also an oral law in Judaism, the authoritative interpretation of the written Torah, which is also Divine, having been transmitted by God to Moses along with the Pentateuch, passed down to various authorities from Moses to the Talmudic period, and which is embodied in the Talmud, Midrash, and innumerable related texts, all intrinsically and inherently entwined with the written law of the Torah;
  • Belief that God has made an exclusive, unbreakable covenant with the Children of Israel (the descendants of the Jewish patriarch, Jacob, whose other name was Israel) to be governed by the Torah;
  • Belief in a Jewish eschatology, including a Jewish Messiah, a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and a resurrection of the dead.
  • Adherence to Halakha (the Shulkhan Arukh known as the "Code of Jewish law");
  • Acceptance of codes, mainly the Shulchan Aruch, as authoritative practical guidance in application of both the written and oral laws. New Halakhic rulings can be made by Orthodox authorities, but such rulings cannot contradict or remove previous accepted Halakhic rulings, which are considered more authoritative.
  • Belief in the thirteen Jewish principles of faith as stated by the Rambam (Maimonides); and
  • Acceptance of halakha-following Rabbis as authoritative interpreters and judges of Jewish law.

Diversity within Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism's central belief is that the Torah, including both the Written Law and the Oral Torah, was given directly from God to Moses and can never be altered or rejected in any way. As a result, all Jews are required to live in accordance with the Commandments and Jewish law.

However, since there is no one unifying Orthodox body, there is no one official statement of principles of faith. Rather, each Orthodox group claims to be a non-exclusive heir to the received tradition of Jewish theology, while still affirming a literal acceptance of Maimonides' thirteen principles.Template:Fact

Given this (relative) philosophic flexibility, variant viewpoints are possible, particularly in areas not explicitly demarcated by the Halakha. These areas are referred to as devarim she'ein lahem shiur (Hebrew: "things / phenomena with no set measure"). The result is a relatively broad range of hashkafot (Hebrew: world view; sing. hashkafa) within Orthodoxy.

Social and philosophic differences

The greatest differences as regards the devarim she'ein lahem shiur are over:

  1. the degree to which an Orthodox Jew should integrate and/or disengage from secular society;
  2. the extent of acceptance of Torah/Talmud/Aggadah/Halakha through the viewpoint of rabbis and their rabbinical literature as a principal outlook on all matters of the external world including secular, scientific, and political matters, vis-a-vis accepting secular views on some matters;
  3. the weight assigned to Torah study versus secular studies or other pursuits;
  4. the centrality of yeshivas as the place for personal Torah study;
  5. the importance of a central spiritual guide in areas outside of Halakhic decision;
  6. the importance of maintaining non-Halakhic customs, such as dress, language and music;
  7. the relationship of the modern state of Israel to Judaism;
  8. the role of women in (religious) society.
  9. the nature of the relationship with non-Jews;


The above differences are realised in the various subgroups of Orthodoxy, which maintain significant social differences, and differences in understanding Halakha. These groups, broadly, comprise Modern Orthodox Judaism and Haredi Judaism, the latter comprising Hasidic Judaism and non-Hasidic Hareidi Judaism.

  • Modern Orthodoxy advocates increased integration with non-Jewish society, regards secular knowledge as inherently valuable, and is somewhat more willing to use Talmudic arguments to revisit questions of Jewish law
  • Religious Zionism, characterised by belief in the importance of the modern state of Israel to Judaism, often intersects with Modern Orthodoxy.
  • Haredi Judaism advocates segregation from non-Jewish culture, although not from non-Jewish society entirely. It is characterised by its focus on community-wide Torah study (in contrast with Modern Orthodoxy, which decentralises the role of Torah study for lay people). Engaging in the commercial world is often seen as a legitimate means to achieving a livelihood, but participation in modern society is not perceived as an inherently worthy ambition. The same outlook is applied with regard to obtaining degrees necessary to enter one's intended profession: where tolerated in the Haredi society, attending secular institutions of higher education is viewed as a necessary but inferior activity. Pure academic interest is instead directed toward the religious edification found in the yeshiva.
  • Hasidic Judaism places great emphasis on all Jewish traditions, including the mystical, and generally prefers separation from all non-Jewish society.

In practice

For guidance in practical application of Jewish law (Halakha) the majority of Orthodox Jews appeal, ultimately, to the Shulchan Aruch ("Code of Jewish Law" composed in the 16th century by Rabbi Joseph Caro) together with its surrounding commentaries. Thus, at a general level, there is a large degree of uniformity amongst all Orthodox Jews. Concerning the details, however, there is often variance: decisions may be based on various of the standardized codes of Jewish Law that have been made over the centuries, as well as on the various responsa. These codes and responsa may differ from each other as regards detail (and reflecting the above differences, on the weight assigned to various issues).

By and large, however, the differences result from the historic dispersal of the Jews and the consequent regional differences in practice (see minhag).

(Note that on an individual level there is a considerable range in the level of observance amongst "Orthodox Jews". Thus there are those who would consider themselves "Orthodox" and yet may not be observant of, for example, the laws of family purity.)

Orthodox Jewish married women may never show their hair to men other than their own husbands and usually wear hats or wigs to cover their hair up. In Hasidic Judaism, most women shave their hair off and wear a head covering. Orthodox Jews strictly observe the Shabbat and have three prayer services daily. Orthodox families usually have many children.

Origin and definition of the name "Orthodox"

While many Orthodox Jews accept the label "Orthodox", others reject and criticise it because it was never traditionally applied to Jews who strictly interpreted and followed halakhah in ancient times or the Middle Ages. Many Orthodox Jews prefer to call their faith Torah Judaism. The word "orthodox" itself is derived from the Greek orthos meaning "straight/correct" and doxa meaning "opinion".

Use of the "Orthodox" label seems to have begun towards the beginning of the 19th century. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in 1854 that:

...it was not "Orthodox" Jews who introduced the word "orthodox" into Jewish discussion. It was the modern "progressive" Jews who first applied the name to "old," "backward" Jews as a derogatory term. This name was... resented by "old" Jews. And rightfully so...

Others, however, say that Rabbi Isaac Leeser was the first to use the term in the US in his journal "The Occident," whose target audience was the more "traditional" or Orthodox Jew.

Yet others explain that the term arose out of the growth of the then-new Reformer Movement, which was "unorthodox", hence making the traditionalists the "orthodox." Template:Fact

The development of Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is not a single movement or school of thought. There is no single rabbinic body to which all its rabbis are expected to belong, or any one organisation representing its member congregations. In the United States at the present time, there are a number of Orthodox congregational organisations such as, for example, Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union, and the National Council of Young Israel— none of which can claim to represent even a majority of all Orthodox congregations.

What the exact forms of Judaism were during the times of Moses or during the eras of the Mishnah and Talmud cannot be exactly known today in all their details, but Orthodox Jews maintain that contemporary Orthodox Judaism maintains the same basic philosophy and legal framework that existed throughout Jewish history—whereas the other denominations depart from it. It may be said that Orthodox Judaism, as it exists today, is an outgrowth that stretches from the time of Moses, to the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, through the oral law, and rabbinic literature ongoing until the present time.

In the early 1800s, elements within German Jewry sought to reform Jewish belief and practice in response to The Age of Enlightenment and the Jewish Emancipation. In light of contemporary scholarship, they denied divine authorship of the Torah, declared only those biblical laws concerning ethics to be binding, and stated that the rest of halakha (Jewish law) need no longer be viewed as normative (see Reform Judaism).

At the same time, there were those German Jews who actively maintained their traditions and adherence to Jewish law while simultaneously engaging with a post-Enlightenment society. This camp was best represented by the work and thought of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch held that Judaism demands an application of Torah thought to the entire realm of human experience—including the secular disciplines. This philosophy is termed "Torah im Derech Eretz". While insisting on strict adherence to Jewish beliefs and practices, he held that Jews should attempt to engage and influence the modern world, and encouraged those secular studies compatible with Torah thought. This form of Judaism is sometimes termed "neo-Orthodoxy". The religious and social realities of Western European Jewry are considered by some to be the precursors to Modern Orthodoxy. While Modern Orthodoxy is considered traditional by most Jews today, some within the Orthodox community groups to its right consider it of questionable validity, and the neo-Orthodox movement of today holds that Hirsch's views are unalike in essence to those of Modern Orthodoxy. [See Torah im Derech Eretz and Torah Umadda "Relationship with Torah im Derech Eretz" for a more extensive listing.]

In the 20th century, a large segment of the Orthodox population (notably as represented by the World Agudath Israel movement formally established in 1912) disagreed, and took a stricter approach. For a few of them, the motto "recent is forbidden by Torah" was appealing, but they too followed various routes of observance and practice. The leading rabbis of Orthodoxy viewed innovations and modifications within Jewish law and customs with extreme care and caution. Some today refer to this form of Judaism as "Haredi Judaism", or "Ultra-Orthodox Judaism". Both terms are controversial: in some circles, the label "Haredi" is considered pejorative, as is the case of the label "ultra-Orthodox".

The various approaches have proved resilient. It is estimated that presently there are more Jews studying in yeshivot (Talmudical schools) and Kollelim (post-graduate Talmudical colleges for married students) than at any other time in history. In 1915 Yeshiva College (later Yeshiva University) and its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary was established in New York City for training in a Modern Orthodox milieu. Eventually a school branch was established in Los Angeles, California. A number of other smaller but influential Orthodox seminaries, mostly Haredi, were also established throughout the country, most notably in New York City, Baltimore, and Chicago. The Haredi yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey is the largest institution of its kind.



Orthodox Judaism is composed of different groups with intertwining beliefs, practices and theologies, although in their core beliefs, all Orthodox movements share the same principles.

Orthodoxy collectively considers itself the only true heir to the Jewish tradition. The Orthodox Jewish movements generally consider all non-Orthodox Jewish movements to be unacceptable deviations from authentic Judaism; both because of other denominations' doubt concerning the verbal revelation of Written and Oral Torah, and because of their rejection of Halakhic (Jewish legal) precedent as binding. As such, most Orthodox groups characterise non-Orthodox forms of Judaism as heretical; see the article on Relationships between Jewish religious movements.

Orthodox Judaism affirms monotheism—the belief in one God. Among the in-depth explanations of that belief are Maimonidean rationalism, Kabbalistic mysticism, and Hasidic panentheism. A few affirm self-limited omniscience (the theology elucidated by Gersonides in "The Wars of the Lord".)

Orthodox Judaism maintains the historical understanding of Jewish identity. A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Orthodoxy thus rejects patrilineal descent as a means of establishing Jewish national identity. Similarly, Orthodoxy strongly condemns intermarriage. Intermarriage is seen as a deliberate rejection of Judaism, and an intermarried person is effectively cut off from most of the Orthodox community. However, some Chabad Lubavitch and Modern Orthodox Jews do reach out to intermarried Jews.

Beliefs about Jewish law and tradition

Orthodox Judaism holds that the words of the Torah, including both the Written Law (Pentateuch) and those parts of the Oral Law which are Halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai, were dictated by God to Moses essentially as they exist today. The laws contained in the Written Torah were given along with detailed explanations as how to apply and interpret them, the Oral Law. Although Orthodox Jews believe that many elements of current religious law were decreed or added as "fences" around the law by the rabbis, all Orthodox Jews believe that there is an underlying core of Sinaitic law and that this core of the religious laws Orthodox Jews know today is thus directly derived from Sinai and directly reflects the Divine will. As such, Orthodox Jews believe that one must be extremely careful in changing or adapting Jewish law. Orthodox Judaism holds that, given Jewish law's Divine origin, no underlying principle may be compromised in accounting for changing political, social or economic conditions; in this sense, "creativity" and development in Jewish law is limited. There is, however, significant disagreement within Orthodox Judaism, particualrly between Haredi Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism, about the extent of the Sinaitic core within the corpus of current Jewish law and the circumstances under which non-Sinaitic law can be changed. As a general rule, Haredi Jews believe that even Rabbinic rulings generally should not be changed. To the Orthodox Jew, Halakha is a guide, God's Law, governing the structure of daily life from the moment he or she wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep. It includes codes of behaviour applicable to a broad range of circumstances (and many hypothetical ones). There are though a number of meta-principles that guide the halachik process and in an instance of opposition between a specific halacha and a meta-principle, the meta-principle often wins out. Examples of Halachik Meta-Principles are: Deracheha Darchei Noam-the ways of Torah are pleasant, Kavod Habriyot-basic respect for human beings, Pikuach Nefesh-the sanctity of human life.

Orthodox Judaism holds that on Mount Sinai the Written Law was transmitted along with an Oral Law. The words of the Torah (Pentateuch) were spoken to Moses by God; the laws contained in this Written Torah, the Mitzvot, were given along with detailed explanations (the oral tradition) as to how to apply and interpret them. Furthermore, the Oral law includes principles designed to create new rules. The Oral law is held to be transmitted with an extremely high degree of accuracy. Jewish theologians, who choose to emphasize the more evolutionary nature of the Halacha point to a famous story in the Talmud[1], where Moses is magically transported to the House of Study of Rabbi Akiva and is clearly unable to follow the ensuing discussion.

According to Orthodox Judaism, Jewish law today is based on the commandments in the Torah, as viewed through the discussions and debates contained in classical rabbinic literature, especially the Mishnah and the Talmud. Orthodox Judaism thus holds that the Halakha ("Jewish law") represents the "will of God", either directly, or as closely to directly as possible. The laws are from the word of God in the Torah, using a set of rules also revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and have been derived with the utmost accuracy and care, and thus the Oral Law is considered to be no less the word of God. If some of the details of Jewish law may have been lost over the millennia, they were reconstructed in accordance with internally consistent rules; see The 13 rules by which Jewish law was derived.

In this world view, the Mishnaic and Talmudic rabbis are closer to the Divine revelation; by corollary, one must be extremely conservative in changing or adapting Jewish law. Furthermore, Orthodox Judaism holds that, given Jewish law's Divine origin, no underlying principle may be compromised in accounting for changing political, social or economic conditions; in this sense, "creativity" and development in Jewish law is held to have been limited. Orthodox Jews will also study the Talmud for its own sake; this is considered to be the greatest mitzvah of all; see Torah study.

Haredi and Modern Orthodox Judaism vary somewhat in their view of the validity of Halakhic reconsideration. It is held virtually as a principle of belief among many Haredi Jews that halakha ("Jewish law") never changes. Haredi Judaism thus views higher criticism of the Talmud as inappropriate, and almost certainly heretical. At the same time, many within Modern Orthodox Judaism do not have a problem with historical scholarship in this area. See the entry on Higher criticism of the Talmud. Modern Orthodox Judaism is also somewhat more willing to consider revisiting questions of Jewish law through Talmudic arguments. Although in practice such instances are rare, they do exist. Notable examples include acceptance of rules permitting farming during the Shmita year and permitting the advanced religious education of women.

Orthodox movements, organisations and groups

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, more commonly known as the Orthodox Union, or more simply as the "OU", and the Rabbinical Council of America, "RCA" are organizations that represent Modern Orthodox Judaism, a large segment of Orthodoxy in the United States and Canada. These groups should not be confused with the similarly named Union of Orthodox Rabbis (described below).

The National Council of Young Israel, and the Council of Young Israel Rabbis are smaller groups that were founded as Modern Orthodox organisations, are Zionistic, and are in the right wing of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Young Israel strongly supports and allies itself with the settlement movement in Israel. Israeli government leaders typically refuse to deal with the NCYI, preferring to work with the more moderate and mainstream Orthodox Union. Template:Fact While the lay membership of synagogues affiliated with the NCYI are almost exclusively Modern Orthodox in orientation, the Rabbinical leadership of the synagogues ranges from Modern Orthodox to Haredi.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel was founded with the intention of representing all of Judaism within the State of Israel, and has two chief rabbis: One is Ashkenazic (of the East European and Russian Jewish tradition) and one is Sephardic (of the Spanish, North African and middle-eastern Jewish tradition.) The rabbinate has never been accepted by most Israeli Haredi groups. Since the 1960s the Chief rabbinate of Israel has moved somewhat closer to the positions of Haredi Judaism. Chief Rabbinate of Israel

Mizrachi, Mafdal and National Union (Israel) all represent certain sectors within the Religious Zionist movement, both in diaspora and Israel. Gush Emunim, Meimad, Tzohar, Hazit and other movements represent over competing divisions within the sector. They firmly believe in the 'Land Of Israel for the People of Israel according to the principles Torah of Israel.', although Meimad are pragmatic about such programme. Gush Emunim are the settlement wing of National Union (Israel) and support widespread kiruv as well, through such institutions as Machon Meir, Merkaz HaRav and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. Another sector includes the Hardal faction, which tends to be unallied to the Government and quite centristic.

Chabad Lubavitch is a well-known branch of Hasidic Judaism which is well known because of its emphasis on outreach and education. The organisation has been in existence for 200 years, and especially after the Second World War, it began sending out emissaries (Shluchim) who have as a mission the bringing back of disaffected Jews to a level of observance consistent with authentic and proper norms (ie, Orthodox Judaism). They are major players in what is known as the Baal Teshuva movement. Their mandate is to make nonobservant Jews more Jewishly aware.

Agudath Israel of America (also: Agudat Yisrael or Agudas Yisroel) is a large and influential Haredi group in America. Its roots go back to the establishment of the original founding of the Agudath Israel movement in 1912 in Kattowitz (Katowice), Germany (now Poland). The American Agudath Israel was founded in 1939. There is an Agudat Israel (Hasidic) in Israel, and also Degel HaTorah (non-Hasidic "Lithuanian"), as well as an Agudath Israel of Europe in Europe. These groups are loosely affiliated through the World Agudath Israel, which from time to time holds a major gathering in Israel called a knessia. Agudah unites many rabbinic leaders from the Hasidic Judaism wing with those of the non-Hasidic "Yeshiva" world. It is generally non-nationalistic.[1]

In Israel it shares a similar agenda with the Sephardic Shas political party, although Shas are more bipartisan towards their own issues, non-nationalistic based with a huge emphasis on Sephardi Judaism and Mizrahi Judaism. They have their own postions and play a more prominent role in the Government of the State, usually having somrthing to say about almost every Jewish issue. They are usually in fierce contention to Agudat Yisrael.

The Agudath HaRabonim (Agudas HaRabbonim), also known as the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, is a small Haredi-leaning organisation that was founded in 1902. It should not be confused with "The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America" (see above) which is a separate organisation. While at one time influential within Orthodox Judaism, the Agudath HaRabonnim in the last several decades it has progressively moved further to the right; its membership has been dropping and it has been relatively inactive. Some of its members are rabbis from Chabad (Lubavitch) Judaism; some are also members of the RCA (see above). It is currently most famous for its 1997 declaration (citing Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and Modern Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik) that the Conservative and Reform movements are "not Judaism at all."

The Igud HaRabonim (also: Igud HaRabanim), the Rabbinical Alliance of America, is a small Haredi organisation. Founded in 1944, it claims over 650 rabbis; recent estimates Template:Fact indicate that less than 100 of its members worldwide actually work as rabbis.

The Hisachdus HaRabanim D'ARHA"B V'Canada or the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada (CRC) התאחדות הרבנים דארה"ב וקאנאדא), was established in 1952. It is an anti-Zionist Haredi organisation, consisting mainly of the Satmar Hasidic group, which has about 100,000 adherents (an unknown number of which are rabbis), and other like-minded Haredi groups.

During the past years, the left-wing Modern Orthodox advocacy group Edah, consisting of American Modern Orthodox rabbis. Most of its membership came from synagogues affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Congregations and RCA (above). Their motto was "The courage to be Modern and Orthodox". Edah ceased functioning in 2007 and merged some of its programs into the left-wing Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

The Bais Yaakov movement, begun in 1917, introduced the concept of formal Judaic schooling for Orthodox women.

See also

External links

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  1. Agudath Yisrael More on Agudath Yisrael