Orthodox Judaism

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Visitors in the Orthodox Jewish cemetery in Budapest (1920s). Traditionalist Jews in Hungary were the first anywhere to form an independent Orthodox organization in 1871.

Orthodox Judaism is a collective term for the traditionalist branches of contemporary Judaism. Theologically, it is chiefly defined by regarding the Torah, both Written and Oral, as literally revealed by God on Mount Sinai and faithfully transmitted ever since. Orthodox Judaism therefore advocates a strict observance of Jewish Law, or Halakha, which is to be interpreted and determined only according to traditional methods and in adherence to the continuum of received precedent through the ages. It regards the entire halakhic system as ultimately grounded in immutable revelation, essentially beyond external and historical influence. More than any theoretical issue, obeying the dietary, purity, ethical, and other laws of Halakha is the hallmark of Orthodoxy. Other key doctrines include belief in a future resurrection of the dead, divine reward and punishment for the righteous and the sinners, the Election of Israel, and an eventual restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem under the Messiah.

Orthodox Judaism is not a centralized denomination. Relations between its different subgroups are sometimes strained, and the exact limits of Orthodoxy are subject to intense debate. Very roughly, it may be divided between Ultra-Orthodox or "Haredi", which is more conservative and reclusive, and Modern Orthodox Judaism which is relatively open to outer society. Each of those is itself formed of independent streams. They are almost uniformly exclusionist, regarding Orthodoxy as the only authentic form of Judaism and rejecting all competing non-Orthodox philosophies as illegitimate. While adhering to traditional beliefs, the movement is a modern phenomenon. It arose as a result of the breakdown of the autonomous Jewish community since the 18th century, and was much shaped by a conscious struggle against the pressures of secularization and rival alternatives. The strictly observant and theologically aware Orthodox are a definite minority among all Jews, but there are also numerous semi- and non-practicing persons who are officially affiliated or personally identifying with the movement. In total, Orthodox Judaism is the largest Jewish religious group, estimated to have over 2 million practicing adherents and at least an equal number of nominal members or self-identifying supporters.


The earliest known mentioning of the term "Orthodox Jews" was made in the Berlinische Monatsschrift in 1795. The word "Orthodox" was borrowed from the general German Enlightenment discourse, and used not to denote a specific religious group, but rather those Jews who opposed Enlightenment. During the early and mid-19th century, with the advent of the progressive movements among German Jews and especially early Reform Judaism, the title "Orthodox" became the epithet of the traditionalists who espoused conservative positions on the issues raised by modernization. They themselves often disliked the alien, Christian name, preferring titles like "Torah-true" (gesetztreu), and often declared they used it only for the sake of convenience. The Orthodox leader Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch referred to "the conviction commonly designated as Orthodox Judaism"; in 1882, when Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer became convinced that the public understood that his philosophy and Liberal Judaism were radically different, he removed the word "Orthodox" from the name of his Rabbinical Seminary. By the 1920s, the term became common and accepted even in Eastern Europe, and remains as such.[1]

Orthodoxy perceives itself ideologically as the only authentic continuation of Judaism throughout the ages, as it was until the crisis of modernity; in many basic aspects, such as belief in the unadulterated divinity of the Torah or strict adherence to precedent and tradition when ruling in matters of Jewish Law, Orthodoxy is indeed so. Its progressive opponents often shared this view, regarding it as a fossilized remnant of the past and lending credit to their own rivals' ideology.[2] Thus, the term "Orthodox" is often used generically to refer to traditional (even if only at the default sense, of being unrelated to the modernist non-Orthodox movements) synagogues, prayer rites, observances, and so forth.

However, academic research has taken a more nuanced approach, noting that the formation of Orthodox ideology and organizational frameworks was itself a product of modernity. It was brought about by the need to defend and buttress the very concept of tradition, in a world where it was not self-evident anymore. When deep secularization and the dismantlement of communal structures uprooted the old order of Jewish life, traditionalist elements united to form groups which had a distinct self-understanding. This, and all that it entailed, constituted a great change, for the Orthodox had to adapt to the new circumstances no less than anyone else; they developed novel, sometimes radically so, means of action and modes of thought. "Orthodoxization" was a contingent process, drawing from local circumstances and dependent on the extent of threat sensed by its proponents: a sharply-delineated Orthodox identity appeared in Central Europe, in Germany and Hungary, by the 1860s; a less stark one emerged in Eastern Europe during the Interwar period. Among the Jews of the Muslim lands, similar processes on a large scale only occurred around the 1970s, after they immigrated to Israel. Orthodoxy is often described as extremely conservative, ossifying a once-dynamic tradition due to the fear of legitimizing change. While this was not rarely true, its defining feature was not the forbidding of change and "freezing" Jewish heritage in its tracks, but rather the need to adapt to being but one segment of Judaism in a modern world inhospitable to traditional practice. Orthodoxy developed as a variegated "spectrum of reactions" – as termed by Benjamin Brown – involving in many cases much accommodation and leniency. Scholars nowadays, mainly since the mid-1980s, research Orthodox Judaism as a field in itself, examining how the need to confront modernity shaped and changed its beliefs, ideologies, social structure, and halakhic rulings, making it very much distinct from traditional Jewish society.[3]


Orthodox attitudes[edit]

A definite and conclusive credo was never formulated in Judaism; the very question whether it contains any equivalent of dogma is a matter of intense scholarly controversy. Some researchers attempted to argue that the importance of daily practice and punctilious adherence to Halakha (Jewish law) relegated theoretical issues to an ancillary status. Others dismissed this view entirely, citing the debates in ancient rabbinic sources which castigated various heresies with little reference to observance. However, while lacking a uniform doctrine, Orthodox Judaism is basically united in affirming several core beliefs, disavowal of which is considered major blasphemy. As in other aspects, Orthodox positions reflect the mainstream of traditional Rabbinic Judaism through the ages.

Attempts to codify these beliefs were undertaken by several medieval authorities, including Saadia Gaon and Joseph Albo. Each composed his own creed. Yet the 13 principles expounded by Maimonides in his Commentary on the Mishna, authored in the 1160s, eventually proved the most widely accepted. Various points – for example, Albo listed merely three fundamentals, and did not regard the Messiah as a key tenet – the exact formulation, and the status of disbelievers (whether mere errants or heretics who can no longer be considered part of the People Israel) were contested by many of Maimonides' contemporaries and later sages. Many of their detractors did so from a maximalist position, arguing that the entire corpus of the Torah and the sayings of ancient sages was of canonical stature, not just certain selected beliefs. But in recent centuries, the 13 Principles became standard, and are considered binding and cardinal by Orthodox authorities in a virtually universal manner.[4]

During the Middle Ages, two systems of thought competed for theological primacy, their advocates promoting them as explanatory foundations for observance of the Law. One was the rationalist-philosophic school, which endeavored to present all commandments as serving higher moral and ethical purposes, while the other was the mystical tradition, exemplified in Kabbalah, which assigned each rite with a role in the hidden dimensions of reality. Sheer obedience, without much thought and derived from faithfulness to one's community and ancestry, was believed fit only for the common people, while the educated classes chose either of the two schools. In the modern era, the prestige of both suffered severe blows, and "naive faith" became popular. At a time when excessive contemplation in matters of belief was associated with secularization, luminaries such as Israel Meir Kagan stressed the importance of simple, unsophisticated commitment to the precepts passed down from the Beatified Sages. This is still the standard in the ultra-Orthodox world.[5]

In more open Orthodox circles, attempts were made to formulate philosophies that would confront modern sensibilities. Notable examples are the Hegelian-Kabbalistic theology of Abraham Isaac Kook, who viewed history as progressing toward a Messianic redemption in a dialectic fashion which required the strengthening of heretical forces, or the existentialist thought of Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was deeply influenced by Neo-Kantian ideals. On the fringes of Orthodoxy, thinkers who were at least (and according to their critics, only) sociologically part of it, ventured toward radical models. These, like the apopathic views of Yeshayahu Leibowitz or the Feminist interpretation of Tamar Ross, had little to no influence on the mainstream.


Orthodox Judaism affirms monotheism - the belief in one God.

The basic tenets of Orthodoxy, drawn from ancient sources like the Talmud as well as later sages, prominently and chiefly include the attributes of God in Judaism: one and indivisible, preceding all creation which he alone brought into being, eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, absolutely incorporeal, and beyond human reason. This basis is evoked in many foundational texts, and is repeated often in the daily prayers, such as in Judaism's creed-like Shema Yisrael: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."

Maimonides delineated this understanding of a monotheistic, personal God in the opening six articles of his thirteen. The six concern God's status as the sole creator, his oneness, his impalpability, that he is first and last, that God alone, and no other being, may be worshipped, and that he is omniscient. The supremacy of God of Israel is even applied on non-Jews, who, according to most rabbinic opinions, are banned from the worship of other deities, though they are allowed to "associate" lower divine beings in their faith in God (this notion was mainly used to allow contact with Christians, proving they were not idolaters with whom any business dealings and the like are forbidden.)

The utter imperceptibility of God, considered as beyond human reason and only reachable through what he chose to reveal, was emphasized among others in the ancient ban on making any image of him. Maimonides and virtually all sages in his time and since then also stressed that the creator is incorporeal, lacking "any semblance of a body"; while almost taken for granted since the Middle Ages, Maimonides and his contemporaries noted that anthropomorphic conceptions of God were quite common in their time.

The medieval tension between God's transcendence and equanimity, on the one hand, and his contact and interest in his creation, on the other, found its most popular resolution in the esoteric Kabbalah. The Kabbalists asserted that while God himself is beyond the universe, he progressively unfolds into the created realm via a series of inferior emanations, or Sefirot, each a refraction of the perfect godhead. While widely received, this system also proved contentious and some authorities lambasted it as a threat to God's unity.[6] In modern times it is upheld, at least tacitly, in many traditionalist Orthodox circles, while Modern Orthodoxy mostly ignores it without confronting the notion directly.


The defining doctrine of Orthodox Judaism is the belief that the Torah ("Teaching" or "Law"), both the Written scripture of the Pentateuch and the Oral tradition explicating it, was revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and that it was transmitted faithfully from Sinai in an unbroken chain ever since. One of the foundational texts of Rabbinic literature is the list opening the Ethics of the Fathers, enumerating the sages who received and passed on the Torah, from Moses through Joshua, the Elders, and Prophets, and then onward until Hillel the Elder and Shammai. This core belief is referred to in classical sources as "The Law/Teaching is from the Heavens" (Torah min HaShamayim).

The basic philosophy of Orthodoxy is that the body of revelation is total and complete; its interpretation and application under new circumstances, required of scholars in every generation, is conceived as an act of inferring and elaborating based on already prescribed methods, not of innovation or addition. One clause in the Jerusalem Talmud asserts that anything which a veteran disciple shall teach was already given at Sinai; and a story in the Babylonian Talmud claims that upon seeing the immensely intricate deduction of future Rabbi Akiva in a vision, Moses himself was at loss, until Akiva proclaimed that everything he teaches was handed over to Moses. The Written and Oral Torah are believed to be intertwined and mutually reliant, for the latter is a source to many of the divine commandments, and the text of the Pentateuch is seen as incomprehensible in itself. God's will may only be surmised by appealing to the Oral Torah revealing the text's allegorical, anagogical, or tropological meaning, not by literalist reading.

Lacunae in received tradition or disagreements between early sages are attributed to disruptions, especially persecutions which caused to that "the Torah was forgotten in Israel" — according to Rabbinic lore, these eventually compelled the legists to write down the Oral Law in the Mishna and Talmud. Yet, the wholeness of the original divine message, and the reliability of those who transmitted it through the ages, are axiomatic. One of the primary intellectual exercises of Torah scholars is to locate discrepancies between Talmudic or other passages, and then demonstrate by complex logical steps (presumably proving each passage referred to a slightly different situation etc.) that there is actually no contradiction.[7] Like other traditional, non-liberal religions, Orthodox Judaism considers revelation as propositional, explicit and verbal, that is, unambiguous, and may serve as a firm source of authority for a set of religious commandments. Modernist understandings of revelation as a subjective, humanly-conditioned experience are rejected by the Orthodox mainstream,[8] though some thinkers at the end of the liberal wing did try to promote such views, finding virtually no acceptance from the establishment.[9]

An important ramification of Torah min HaShamayim in modern times is the reserved, and often totally rejectionist, attitude of Orthodoxy toward the historical-critical method, particularly higher criticism of the Bible. A refusal by rabbis to significantly employ such tools in determining halakhic decisions, and insistence on traditional methods and the need for consensus and continuity with past authorities, is a demarcation line separating the most liberal-leaning Orthodox rabbinic circles from the most right-wing non-Orthodox ones.[10]

While the Sinaitic event is perceived as the supreme and binding act of revelation, it is not the only one. Rabbinic tradition acknowledges matter handed down from the Prophets, as well as announcements from God later on. Secret lore or Kabbalah, allegedly revealed to illustrious figures in the past and passed on through elitist circles, is widely (albeit not universally) esteemed. While not a few prominent Rabbis deplored Kabbalah, and considered it a late forgery, most generally accepted it as legitimate. However, its status in determining normative halakhic decision-making, which is binding for the entire community and not just intended for spiritualists who voluntarily adopt kabbalistic strictures, was always highly controversial. Leading decisors openly applied criteria from Kabbalah in their rulings, while others did so only inadvertently, and many denied it any role in normative Halakha. A closely related mystical phenomenon is the belief in Magidim, supposed dreamlike apparitions or visions, that may inform those who experience them with certain divine knowledge.[11]


Orthodox Judaism now do not include any opinions on eschatology which, in past centuries, were not mainstream views in Judaism. The prophecy of the coming of a Messiah is now central to Orthodox Judaism as it was always the Jewish belief. According to this doctrine, a Messiah will arise from King David's lineage, and will bring with him signs such as the restoration of the Temple, peace, and universal acceptance of God.[12] The Messiah will embark on a quest to gather all Jews to the Holy Land, will proclaim prophethood, and will restore the Davidic Monarchy.

Classical Judaism did incorporate a tradition of belief in the resurrection of the dead.[13]:p. 1 There is scriptural basis for this doctrine, quoted by the Mishnah:[13]:p. 24 "All Israelites have a share in the World-to-Come, as it is written: And your people, all of them righteous, Shall possess the land for all time; They are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory (Isa 60:21)." The Mishnah also brands as heretics any Jew who rejects the doctrine of resurrection or its origin from the Torah.[13]:p. 25 Those who deny the doctrine are deemed to receive no share in the World-to-Come.[13]:p. 26 The Pharisees believed in both a bodily resurrection and the immortality of the soul. They also believed that acts in this world would effect the state of life in the next world.[14]:p. 61 The Mishnah Sahendrin 10 clarifies that only those who follow the correct theology will have a place in the World to Come.[13]:p. 66

There are other passing references to the afterlife in mishnaic tractates. A particularly important one in the Berakhot informs that the Jewish belief in the afterlife was established long before the compilation of the Mishnah.[13]:p. 70 Biblical tradition categorically mentions Sheol sixty-five times. It is described as an underworld containing the gathering of the dead with their families.[14]:p. 19 Numbers 16:30 states that Korah went into Sheol alive, to describe his death in divine retribution.[14]:p. 20 The deceased who reside in Sheol have a "nebulous" existence and there is no reward or punishment in Sheol, which is represented as a dark and gloomy place. But a distinction is made for kings who are said to be greeted by other kings when entering Sheol.[14]:p.21 Biblical poetry suggests that resurrection from Sheol is possible.[14]:p. 22 Prophetic narratives of resurrection in the Bible have been labelled as external cultural influence by some scholars.[14]:p. 23

The Talmudic discourse expanded on the details of the World to Come. This was to motivate Jewish compliance with their religious codes.[14]:p. 79 In brief, the righteous will be rewarded with a place in Gan Eden, the wicked will be punished in Gehinnom, and the resurrection will take place in the Messianic age. The sequence of these events is unclear.[14]:p. 81 Rabbis have supported the concept of resurrection with plenteous Biblical citations and shown it as a sign of God's omnipotence.[15]



A relatively thorough observance of Halakha – rather than any theological and doctrinal matters, which are often subject to diverse opinions – is the concrete demarcation line separating Orthodox Jews from other Jewish movements. As noted both by researchers and communal leaders, the Orthodox subgroups have a sense of commitment towards the Law which is rarely manifest outside the movement, perceiving it as seriously binding.[16]

Law, custom, and tradition[edit]

The Halakha, like any jurisprudence, is not a definitive set of rules, but rather an ever-expanding discourse: Its authority is derived from the belief in divine revelation, but interpretation and application are done by the rabbis, who base their mandate on biblical verses such as and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee. From ancient to modern times, the rabbinic discourse was wrought with controversy (machlokes) and sages disagreeing upon various points of the law. The Talmud itself is mainly a record of such disputes. Traditional belief, maintained by the Orthodox today, regards such disagreement as flowing naturally from the divinity of Jewish Law, which is presumed to potentially contain a solution for any possible predicament. As long as both contesting parties base their arguments according to received hermeneutics and precedents and are driven by sincere faith, both these and those are the words of the Living God (this Talmudic statement is originally attributed to a divine proclamation during a dispute between the House of Hillel and House of Shammai).[17] Majority opinions were accepted and canonized, though many old disagreements remain and new ones appear ceaselessly. This plurality of opinion allows decisors, rabbis tasked with determining the legal stance in subjects without precedent, to weigh between a range of options, based on methods derived from earlier authorities. The most basic form of halakhic discourse is the responsa literature, in which rabbis answered questions directed from commoners or other rabbis, thus setting precedent for the next generations.[18]

The system's oldest and most basic sources are the Mishna and the two Talmuds, to which were added the later commentaries and novellae of the Geonim. Those were followed by the great codes which sought to assemble and standardize the laws, including Isaac Alfasi's Hilchot HaRif, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, and Jacob ben Asher's Arba'ah Turim. One of the latest and most authoritative codifications is the 1565 Shulchan Aruch, or "Set Table", which gained a canonical status and became almost synonymous, in popular parlance, with the halakhic system itself – though no later authority accepted it in its entirety (for example, all Orthodox Jews don phylacteries in a manner different from the one advocated there), and it was immediately contested or re-interpreted by various commentaries, most prominently the gloss written by Rabbi Moses Isserles named HaMapah. Halakhic literature continued to expand and evolve, with new authoritative guides being compiled and canonized, until the popular works of the 20th century like the Mishnah Berurah.

The most important distinction within Halakha is between all laws derived from God's revelation (d'Oraita); and those enacted by human authorities (d'Rabanan), who are believed traditionally to have been empowered by God to legislate when necessary. The former are either directly understood, derived in various hermeneutical means or attributed to commandments orally handed down to Moses. The authority to pass measures d'Rabanan is itself subject to debate – for one, Maimonides stated that absolute obedience to rabbinic decrees is stipulated by the verse and thou shalt observe, while Nachmanides argued that such severeness is unfounded – though such enactments are accepted as binding, albeit less than the divine commandments. A Talmudic maxim states that, when in doubt regarding a matter d'Oraita, one must rule strenuously, and leniently when it concerns d'Rabanan. Many arguments in halakhic literature revolve over whether any certain detail is derived from the former or the latter source, and under which circumstances. Commandments or prohibitions d'Rabanan, though less stringent than d'Oraita ones, are an equally important facet of Jewish law. They range from the 2nd century BC establishment of Hanukkah, to the bypassing on the Biblical ban on charging interest via the Prozbul, and up to the 1950 standardization of marital rules by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel which forbade polygamy and levirate marriage even in communities which still practiced those.[19]

Apart from these, a third major component buttressing Orthodox practice (and Jewish in general) is local or familial custom, Minhag. The development and acceptance of customs as binding, more than disagreements between decisors, is the main factor accounting for the great diversity in matters of practice across geographic or ethnic lines. While the reverence accorded to Minhag across rabbinic literature is far from uniform – ranging from positions like "a custom may uproot Halakha" to wholly dismissive attitudes –[20] it was generally accepted as binding by the scholars, and more importantly, drew its power from popular adherence and routine.

The most important aspect of Minhag is in the disparities between various Jewish ethnic or communal groups, which also each possess a distinctive tradition of halakhic rulings, stemming from the opinions of local rabbis. Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Teimanim and others have different prayer rites, somewhat different kosher emphases (since the 12th century at least, it is Ashkenazi custom not to consume legumes in Passover) and numerous other points of distinction. So do, for example, Hasidic Jews and non-Hasidic ones, though both originate from Eastern Europe. The influence of custom even elicited the complaint of scholars who noted that the common masses observe Minhag, yet ignore important divine decrees. Some well-known attributes distinguishing Orthodox Jews, like the donning a head-covering for males at all times or the keeping of separate sinks for dairy and meat products, are customs with little legal basis.

Rabbinic authority[edit]

Rabbinic leadership, assigned with implementing and interpreting the already accumulated tradition, changed considerably in recent centuries, marking a major difference between Orthodox and pre-modern Judaism. Since the demise of the Geonim who led the Jewish world up to 1038, Halakha was adjudicated locally, and the final arbiter was mostly the communal Rabbi, the Mara d'Athra (Master of the Area). He was responsible to judicially instruct all members of his community. The emancipation and modern means of transport and communication all jointly made this model untenable.[21] While Orthodox communities, especially the more conservative ones, have rabbis who technically fill this capacity, the public generally follows well-known luminaries whose authority is not limited by geography, and based on reverence and peer pressure more than the now-defunct legal coercion of the old community. These may be either popular chairs of talmudic academies, renowned decisors and, in the Hasidic world, hereditary Rebbes.

Their influence varies considerably: In conservative Orthodox circles, mainly ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) ones, rabbis posses strong authority and exercise their leadership often. Bodies such as the Council of Torah Sages, Council of Torah Luminaries, the Central Rabbinical Congress, and the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem are all considered, at least in theory, as the supreme arbiters in their respective communities. In the more liberal Orthodox sectors, rabbis are revered and consulted, but rarely exert such direct control.

Daily life[edit]

Orthodox Judaism emphasizes practicing rules of kashrut, Shabbat, family purity, and tefilah (daily prayer).

Many Orthodox Jews can be identified by their manner of dress and family lifestyle. Orthodox men and women dress modestly by keeping most of their skin covered. Married women cover their hair, with either scarves (tichel), snoods, hats, or wigs; some Hasidic women shave their hair altogether and wear a wig. Orthodox men are expected to wear a ritual fringes called Tzitzit, and a skullcap (kippah). Many men grow beards, and Haredi men wear black hats with a skullcap underneath and suits. Modern Orthodox Jews are sometimes indistinguishable in their dress from general society, although they, too, wear kippahs and tzitzit; additionally, on Shabbat, Modern Orthodox men wear suits (or at least a dress shirt) and dress pants, while women wear fancier dresses or blouses.

Along with these practices, Orthodox Jews practice the laws of negiah, which means touch. Orthodox men and women do not engage in physical contact with those of the opposite sex outside of their spouse, or immediate family members (such as parents, siblings, and children).

Organization and demographics[edit]


Orthodox Judaism lacks any central framework or a common, authoritative leadership. It is not a "denomination" in the structural sense, but a variegated spectrum of groups, united in broadly affirming several matters of belief and practice, which also share a consciousness and a common discourse. Individual rabbis may, and often do, gain respect across boundaries, especially recognized decisors, but each community eventually obeys or reveres its own immediate leaders (for example, the ultra-Orthodox world shares a sense of common identity, yet constitutes several large distinct sub-sections, each including hundreds of independent communities with their own rabbis). Apart from this inherent plurality, the limits and boundaries of Orthodoxy are also a matter of great controversy. Indeed, the attempt to offer a definition that would encompass all communities and subgroups challenges scholars. Even the moderately conservative subgroups hotly criticize the more liberal ones for deviation from what they consider as inviolable principles, while strict hard-liners merely dismiss the latter as non-Orthodox. Contentious topics range from the abstract and theoretical, like the attitude to the historical-critical study of scripture, to the mundane and pressing, such as modesty rules for women and girls.

As in any other broad religious movement, there is an intrinsic tension between the ideological and the sociological dimensions of Orthodox Judaism – while the leading elites and intellectuals define adherence in theoretical terms, the masses are inducted via societal, familial, and institutional affiliation. Rank-and-file members may sometimes neither be observant nor fully accept the tenets of faith.[22]


Professors Daniel Elazar and Rela Mintz Geffen, according to calculations made around 1990, assumed in 2012 that there were at least 2,000,000 observant Orthodox Jews worldwide, and at least 2,000,000 additional nominal members and supporters who were identifying with the movement. These figures made Orthodoxy the largest Jewish religious denomination. Originally, Elazar produced an even higher estimate when he considered association by default and assumed higher affiliation rates, reaching a maximum of 5,500,000 that may be considered involved with Orthodoxy.[23]

In the State of Israel, where the total Jewish population is about 6.5 million, 22% of all Jewish respondents to a 2016 PEW survey declared themselves as observant Orthodox (9% Haredim, or "ultra-Orthodox", 13% Datiim, "religious"). 29% described themselves as "traditional", a label largely implying little observance, but identification with Orthodoxy.[24] The second largest Orthodox concentration is in the United States, where a 2013 PEW survey found that 10% of respondents identify as such, in a total Jewish population of at least 5.5 million. 3% were Modern Orthodox, 6% were ultra-Orthodox, and 1% were "other" (Sephardic, liberal Orthodox, etc.)[25] In Britain, of 79,597 households with at least one Jewish member that held synagogue membership in 2016, 66% affiliated with Orthodox synagogues: 53% in "centrist Orthodox", where congregants are often lax in observance, and 13% in "strictly Orthodox" (further 3% were Sephardi, which technically eschews the title "Orthodox").[26]

High birth rates are an important aspect of Orthodox demographics: They are the most reproductive of all Jews, and ultra-Orthodox communities have some of the highest rates in the world, with 6 children per an average household. Non-existent levels of intermarriage (unlike some liberal Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy vehemently opposes the phenomenon) also contribute to their growing share in the world's Jewish population. While American Orthodox are but 10% of all Jews, among children, their share rises immensely: An estimated 61% of Jewish children in New York belong to Orthodox households, 49% to ultra-Orthodox. Similar patterns are observed in Britain and other countries. With present trends sustained, Orthodox Jews are projected to numerically dominate British Jewry by 2031, and American Jewry by 2058.[23][27] However, their growth is balanced by large numbers of members leaving their communities and observant lifestyle. Among the 2013 PEW respondents, 17% of those under 30 who were raised Orthodox disaffiliated (in earlier generations, this trend was far more prevalent, and 77% of those over 65 left). It is estimated that over 20% of those raised religious Zionist in Israel disaffiliate, and greater numbers adopt a secularized lifestyle and define themselves as "living on the spectrum (of religion)". Loose observance among young adults is common even when they retain formal affiliation.

Internal division[edit]

Orthodox Judaism may be categorized according to varying criteria. The most recognizable sub-group are the Haredim (literally, "anxious" or "fervent"), also known as "ultra-Orthodox", "strictly Orthodox", and the like. They form the most conservative, strict, and self-segregating part of the Orthodox spectrum. Haredim are characterized by a minimal engagement with modern society and culture if not their wholesale rejection, by avowed precedence given to religious values, and by a high degree of rabbinic authority and involvement in daily life. In spite of many differences, Haredi rabbis and communities generally recognize each other as such, and therefore accord respect and legitimacy between them. They are organized in large political structures, mainly Agudath Israel of America and the Israeli United Torah Judaism party. More radical groups include the Central Rabbinical Congress and the Edah HaChareidis. Some Haredim also hold a lukewarm or negative assessment of the more modernist Orthodox. They are easily discerned by their mode of dress, often all black for men and very modest by religious standards for women (including hair covering, long skirts, etc.)

Apart from that, the ultra-Orthodox consist of a large spectrum of communities. They may be roughly classified into three different sub-groups. The first are the Hasidic Jews. The Hasidim originated in 18th-Century Eastern Europe, where they formed as a spiritual revival movement which defied the rabbinical establishment. The threat of modernity turned the movement into a bastion of conservatism and reconciled it with other traditionalist elements. Hasidim espouse a mystical interpretation of religion, with each Hasidic community aligned with a hereditary leader known as Rebbe (who is almost always, though not necessarily, an ordained rabbi). While the spiritualist element of Hasidism declined somewhat through the centuries, the authority of Rebbes is derived from the mystical belief that the holiness of their ancestors is inborn. They exercise tight control over the lives of their followers. Every single one of the several hundreds of independent Hasidic sects (also "courts" or "dynasties"), from large ones with thousands of member households to very small, has its own line of Rebbes. "Courts" often possess unique customs, religious emphases, philosophies, and styles of dress. Hasidim, especially on the Sabbath, don long garments and fur hats, which were once the staple of all Eastern European Jews, but are now associated almost exclusively with them. As of 2016, there were some 130,000 Hasidic households worldwide.

The second Haredi group are the "Litvaks" or "Yeshivish." They originated, in a loose fashion, with the Misnagdim, the opponents of Hasidism, who were mainly concentrated in old Lithuania. The confrontation with the Hasidism bred distinct ideologies and institutions, especially great yeshivas, learning halls, where the study of Torah for its own sake and admiration for the scholars who headed these schools was enshrined. With the advent of secularization, the Misngadim largely abandoned their hostility towards Hasidism. They became defined by affiliation with their yeshivas, and their communities were sometimes composed of alumni of the same institutes. The great prestige ascribed to those as centers of Torah study (after they were rebuilt in Israel and America, bearing the names of original Eastern European yeshivas destroyed in the Holocaust) swept many of a non-Misnagdic background, and the term "Litvak" lost its ethnic connotation. It is in fact granted to all non-Hasidic Haredim of European (Ashkenazi) descent. The "Litvak" sector is led mainly by heads of yeshivas.

The third ultra-Orthodox movement is the Sephardi Haredim, who are particularly identified with the Shas party in Israel and the legacy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Originating in the Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African Jews) immigrants to the country who arrived in the 1950's, most of the Sephardi Haredim were educated in Litvak yeshivas, both adopting their educators' mentality and developing a distinct identity in reaction the racism they encountered. Shas arose in the 1980's with the purported aim of reclaiming Sephardi religious legacy, in opposition to Israeli secularism on one hand and the hegemony of European-descended Haredim on the other. While living in strictly observant circles (there are several hundreds of Sephardic-Haredi communal rabbis) they, unlike the insular Hasidim or Litvaks, maintain a strong bond with the lax or nonobservant masses of Israeli Mizrahi society.

Apart from the Haredim, other Orthodox pursue other paths. In the West, especially in the United States, "Modern Orthodoxy", or "Centrist Orthodoxy", is a broad umbrella term for communities which seek an observant lifestyle and traditional theology, but either do not strictly reject the modern world or ascribe a positive role to engagement with it. In America, the Modern Orthodox form a cohesive community and identity group, highly influenced by the legacy of leaders such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and concentrated around Yeshiva University and institutions like the Orthodox Union or National Council of Young Israel. They affirm a strict obedience to Jewish Law, the centrality of Torah study, and the importance of positive engagement with modern culture. American Modern Orthodoxy underwent growing polarization in recent decades. Both its liberal-leaning wing, that includes organizations such as Edah and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and conservative elements, like the Hebrew Theological College, drifted away from the center. Some progressives adopted the name "Open Orthodoxy", intending to enact controversial policies. The "Open Orthodox" were condemned by most Orthodox circles, and decried as heretics by not a few.

In Israel, Religious Zionism represents the largest Orthodox public. While Centrist Orthodoxy's fault-line with the ultra-Orthodox is the attitude to modernity, a fervent adoption of Zionism marks the former. Religious Zionism not only supports the State of Israel, it ascribes an inherent religious value to it; the dominant ideological school, influenced by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's thought, regards the state in messianic terms. Religious Zionism is not a uniform group, and fragmentation between its strict and conservative flank (often named "Chardal", or "National-Haredi") and more liberal and open elements has increased since the 1990s. The National Religious Party, once the single political platform, dissolved, and the common educational system became torn on issues such as gender separation in elementary school or secular studies.

In Europe, "Centrist Orthodoxy" is represented by bodies like the British United Synagogue and the Israelite Central Consistory of France, both the dominant official rabbinates in their respective countries. The laity is often non-observant, retaining formal affiliation due to familial piety or a sense of Jewish identity. Another large non-observant demographic usually considered aligned with Orthodoxy are the Israeli Masortim, or "traditional". This moniker originated with Mizrahi immigrants who were both secularized and reverent toward their communal heritage. However, Mizrahi intellectuals in recent years developed a more reflective, nuanced understanding of this term, eschewing its shallow image and not necessarily agreeing with the formal deference to Orthodox rabbis. Self-conscious Masorti identity is still limited to small, elitist circles.

Even more than in Europe's formal state rabbinates, Orthodox Judaism exerts a powerful, transnational authority through its control of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Regulating Jewish marriage, conversion, adoption, and dietary standards in the country, the Chief Rabbinate influences both Israel's population and Jews worldwide.


Roots of Orthodox Judaism[edit]

The roots of Orthodox Judaism can be traced to the late 18th and early 19th century, when elements within German Jewry sought to reform Jewish belief and practice in the early 19th century in response to the Age of Enlightenment, Jewish Emancipation, and Haskalah. The Haskalah movement sought to modernize education in light of contemporary scholarship. They rejected claims of the absolute divine authorship of the Torah, declaring only biblical laws concerning ethics to be binding, and stated that the rest of halakha (Jewish law) need not be viewed as normative for Jews in wider society. (see Reform Judaism).

In reaction to the emergence of Reform Judaism, a group of traditionalist German Jews emerged in support of some of the values of the Haskalah,[28] but also wanted to defend the classic, traditional interpretation of Jewish law and tradition. This group was led by those who opposed the establishment of a new temple in Hamburg [1819], as reflected in the booklet "Ele Divrei HaBerit". As a group of Reform Rabbis convened in Braunschweig, Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger of Altona published a manifesto entitled "Shlomei Emunei Yisrael" in German and Hebrew, having 177 Rabbis sign on. At this time, the first Orthodox Jewish periodical, "Der Treue Zions Waechter", was launched with the Hebrew supplement "Shomer Zion HaNe'eman" [1845 - 1855]. In later years, it was Rav Ettlinger's students Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer of Berlin who deepened the awareness and strength of Orthodox Jewry. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented in 1854:

It was not the "Orthodox" Jews who introduced the word "Orthodoxy" into Jewish discussion. It was the modern "progressive" Jews who first applied this name to "old", "backward" Jews as a derogatory term. This name was at first resented by "old" Jews. And rightly so. "Orthodox" Judaism does not know any varieties of Judaism. It conceives Judaism as one and indivisible. It does not know a Mosaic, prophetic, and rabbinic Judaism, nor Orthodox and Liberal Judaism. It only knows Judaism and non-Judaism. It does not know Orthodox and Liberal Jews. It does indeed know conscientious and indifferent Jews, good Jews, bad Jews, or baptized Jews; all, nevertheless, Jews with a mission which they cannot cast off. They are only distinguished accordingly as they fulfill or reject their mission. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, Religion Allied to Progress, in JMW. p. 198)[29]

Hirsch held the opinion that Judaism demands an application of Torah thought to the entire realm of human experience, including the secular disciplines. His approach was termed the Torah im Derech Eretz approach, or "neo-Orthodoxy". 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 pattern of religious and secular involvement has been evident at many times in Jewish history. Scholars[who?] believe it was characteristic of the Jews in Babylon during the Amoraic and Geonic periods, and likewise in early medieval Spain, shown by their engagement with both Muslim and Christian society. It appeared as the traditional response to cultural and scientific innovation.

Traditionalist and reformist Jews in the middle of the nineteenth century had a consensus that the "Orthodox" label was inappropriate. Reformists even referred to the Orthodox as "der so genannte Orthodoxen" ("the so-called Orthodox"). The traditionalists blamed the reformists for causing this label to come about by drawing a distinction between themselves and those Jews who adhered to the old ways.[1]

Some scholars believe that Modern Orthodoxy arose from the religious and social realities of Western European Jewry. While non-Orthodox Jews consider Modern Orthodoxy traditional today, some (the Haredi/Hasidic groups) within the Orthodox community consider some elements to be of questionable validity. The neo-Orthodox movement holds that Hirsch's views are not accurately followed by Modern Orthodoxy. [See Torah im Derech Eretz and Torah Umadda "Relationship with Torah im Derech Eretz" for a more extensive listing.]

Growth of Orthodox affiliation[edit]

In practice, the emphasis on strictness has resulted in the rise of "homogeneous enclaves" with other Haredi Jews that are less likely to be threatened by assimilation and intermarriage, or even to interact with other Jews who do not share their doctrines.[30] Nevertheless, this strategy has proved successful, and the number of adherents to Orthodox Judaism, including Haredi and Hasidic communities, has grown rapidly.[30]

In 1915, Yeshiva College (later Yeshiva University) and its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary was established in New York City, New York, for training in an Orthodox milieu. A school branch was established in Los Angeles, California.

A number of other influential Orthodox seminaries, many of them Haredi, were established throughout the United States. Beth Medrash Govoha, the Haredi yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, is the largest Talmudic academy in the United States, with a student body of over 5,000 students.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Blutinger, Jeffrey (2007). ""'So-Called Orthodoxy': The History of an Unwanted Label"". Modern Judaism. 27 (3): 310.
  2. ^ Yosef Salmon, Aviezer Ravitzky, Adam Ferziger. Orthodox Judaism: New Perspectives (in Hebrew). The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2006. pp. 5-22, etc.
  3. ^ See for example: Benjamin Brown, The Varieties of Orthodox Responses, Ashkenazim and Sephardim (Hebrew). In: Aviezer Ravitzky, Shas: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives, Am Oved, 2006.
  4. ^ See, for example: Marc B. Shapiro. The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization (2011). pp. 1–14.
  5. ^ Benjamin Brown, The Comeback of Simple Faith - The Ultra-Orthodox Concept of Religious Belief and Its Rise in the 19th Century.
  6. ^ Adele Berlin, The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford University Press (2011). pp. 294-297 (articles: God; God, attributes of).
  7. ^ Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Wayne State University Press (1995). pp. 3-6.
  8. ^ Keith Ward, Religion and Revelation: A Theology of Revelation in the World's Religions. Oxford University Press, 1994. pp. 85, 115, 209; Barry Freundel, Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity. KTAV Publishing House, 2004. pp. 29, 35 etc.
  9. ^ Solomon Schimmel, The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth. Oxford University Press, 2008. pp. 202-203.
  10. ^ Salmon, Ravitzky, Ferziger. New Perspectives, pp. 115-119.
  11. ^ For a short introduction: Jacob Katz, Post-Zoharic Relations between Halakhah and Kabbalah. Daat, A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah, 1980. See also: Shlomo Brody, Halakha and Kabbalah: Rabbi Joseph Karo's Shulchan Aruch and Magid Mesharim, RCA Rabbis' blog, 2011.
  12. ^ Berger, David (2002). "The Fragility of Religious Doctrine: Accounting for Orthodox Acquiescence in the Belief in a Second Coming". Modern Judaism. 22 (2): 103–114.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Jon Douglas Levenson (2006). Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-13515-2.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Leila Leah Bronner (1 June 2011). Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife. Urim Publications. ISBN 978-965-524-100-6.
  15. ^ Leila Leah Bronner (1 June 2011). Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife. Urim Publications. p. 82. ISBN 978-965-524-100-6.
  16. ^ Salmon, Ravitzky, Ferziger. New Perspectives, pp. 121-122.
  17. ^ See also: Michael Rosensweig, Elu va-Elu Divre Elokim Hayyim: Halakhic Pluralism and Theories of Controversy. Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought. Spring 1992.
  18. ^ See also: Jeffrey R. Woolf, The Parameters of Precedent in Pesak Halakha. Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought. Summer 1993.
  19. ^ For a brief introduction: Halakha, Encyclopedia Judaica, 2007.
  20. ^ For example: Benjamin Brown, The Gaon of Vilna, the Hatam Sofer and the Hazon Ish - Minhag and the Crisis of Modernity. In: The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer and Leader of the Haredi Revolution. Magness Press, 2011.
  21. ^ Aaron Kirschenbaum, Mara de-Atra: A Brief Sketch. Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought. Summer 1993.
  22. ^ Salmon, Ravitzky, Ferziger. New Perspectives, pp. 25-26, 76, 116-119, 154-156.
  23. ^ a b Daniel J. Elazar, Rela Mintz Geffen, The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas and Opportunities. SUNY Press (2012). pp. 105-106; Daniel J. Elazar, How Strong is Orthodox Judaism -- Really? The Demographics of Jewish Religious Identification. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (1991).
  24. ^ Israel’s Religiously Divided Society, PEW Research Center, 8 March 2016.
  25. ^ A Portrait of Jewish Americans, PEW Research Center, 1 October 2013.
  26. ^ Donatella Casale Mashiah and Jonathan Boyd. Synagogue membership in the United Kingdom in 2016. Institute for Jewish Policy Research, July 2017
  27. ^ Orthodox To Dominate American Jewry In Coming Decades As Population Booms, The Forward, 12 June 2018; Haredi: Half of Britain's Jews will soon be strictly Orthodox, The Independent, 15 October 2015. See also: Haredi Demography – The United States and the United Kingdom, JPPI.
  28. ^ "YIVO | Orthodoxy". Yivoencyclopedia.org. Retrieved 2011-07-22.
  29. ^ Cohn-Sherbok, Dan (2004). Judaism: History, Belief, and Practice. Routledge. p. 264. ISBN 978-0415236607.
  30. ^ a b Linker, Damon (2010). The Religious Test. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 28–30. ISBN 9780393080551.

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