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Orthodox Judaism Overview

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Green Gaia

Veteran Member
Orthodox Judaism is one of the three major branches of Judaism. Orthodoxy can roughly be classified into Modern Orthodox Judaism and Haredi Judaism (Hasidic Judaism is a subgroup within Haredi Judaism). It is characterized by:

* Strict adherence to Halakha (code/s of Jewish law).
* A range of beliefs towards modern culture which vary from careful acceptance of some parts of modernity, to outright rejection of parts of modernity considered immoral.
* A range of beliefs towards modern forms of historical scholarship and text study. Haredi and some Modern Orthodox Jews hold that almost all such forms of learning are forbidden and heretical. Other Modern Orthodox Jews hold that modern forms of historical scholarship and text study may be used in some or all areas of Jewish thought.
* A traditional teaching and acceptance of the Jewish principles of faith.

Origin and definition of the name "Orthodox"

While many Orthodox Jews accept the label "Orthodox", others reject and are critical of it (as it was never traditionally applied to Jews in ancient times or the Middle Ages) and prefer to call their faith "Torah Judaism". Use of the "Orthodox" label seems to have begun towards the beginning of the 19th century. Rabbi Isaac Leeser seems to have been the first to use the term in the US in his journal "The Occident," whose target audience was the more "traditional" or Orthodox Jew. The word "orthodox" itself is derived from the Greek orthos meaning "straight" and doxa meaning "opinion".

The development of Orthodoxy

Like all modern denominations of Judaism, Orthodoxy is not identical in practice to the forms of Judaism that existed in the times of Moses, nor even identical to the Judaism which existed in the time of the Mishnah and Talmud. However, many Orthodox Jews maintain that contemporary Orthodox Judaism maintains the same basic philosophy and halachic framework that existed throughout Jewish history.

Orthodox Judaism, as it exists today, is considered by historians to have begun developing as a response to the Enlightenment in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This response was characterized by a continued strict adherence to Halakha, and it this commitment to Jewish tradition which distinguished (and distinguishes) Orthodox Judaism from other Jewish groupings at the time.

In the early 1800s, elements within German Jewry sought to reform Jewish belief and practice in response to The Enlightenment and the emancipation. In light of modern 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 worked to reconcile traditional Judaism with the social realities of the modern age, which he termed "Torah im Derech Eretz". While insisting on strict adherence to Jewish beliefs and practices, he encouraged secular studies, including history and modern philosophy; he also encouraged limited integration into the non-Jewish community. This form of Judaism was termed "neo-Orthodoxy", which later developed into Modern Orthodox Judaism.

A larger segment of the Orthodox population disagreed, and took a stricter approach. Their motto was "Anything new is forbidden by Torah". For them, all innovations and modifications within Jewish law and custom come to a near halt. This form of Judaism is termed Haredi Judaism, or (controversially) Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. However, many adherents of Rabbi hirsch considered themself part of the Haredi world and joined Agudat Israel, but today that party is identified with the stricter approach.

Both approaches have proved resilient. It is estimated that presently there are more Jews studying in Yeshivot and Kollelim than at any other time in history. In 1915 Yeshiva College (later Yeshiva University) and its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary was established in New York City for training in a Modern Orthodox milieu. Eventually a branch school was established in Los Angeles, CA. A number of other smaller but influential Orthodox seminaries, mostly Haredi, were also established throughout the country, most notably in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago. The Haredi yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey is the largest institution of its kind. There are similairly hundreds of Yeshivot in Israel, both Haredi and Modern Orthodox as represented by the Religious Zionist "Hesder" Yeshivot. There are also several important Haredi yeshivot in the United Kingdom. In general, a city with a sizeable Jewish population will today support at least one Yeshiva.


Orthodox Judaism is composed of different groups with intersecting beliefs, practices and theologies, and in their broad patterns, the Orthodox movements are very similar.

Orthodoxy, collectively, considers itself the only true heir to the Jewish tradition; most of it considers all other Jewish movements to be unacceptable deviations from tradition. Most Orthodox groups characterize non-Orthodox forms of Judaism as heresy; see Torah Judaism.

Within orthodoxy, the various groups maintain significant social differences, and differences in understanding halakha due to their varying attitudes concerning (a) the role of women in Judaism, (b) relations with non-Orthodox Jews, (c) attitudes toward modern culture and modern scholarship, and (d) how to relate to the State of Israel and Zionism.

Practices are largely standardised. All Sephardic Orthodox Jews base most of their practices on the Shulkhan Arukh, the 16th century legal index written by Rabbi Joseph Karo; All Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews base most of their practices on the Mappah, a commentary to the Shulkhan Arukh written by Rabbi Moses Isserles. In the postwar period, the Mishnah Berurah (a commentary on the "Orach Chayim" section) has become the authoritative halakhic guide for much of Orthodox Ashkenazic Jewry.

Orthodox Judaism affirms monotheism, the belief in one God. Its members have varied beliefs about the nature of God, and no one understanding of the Deity is mandated. Among the beliefs affirmed are: Maimonidean rationalism; Kabbalistic mysticism; Hasidic panentheism. A few affirm limited theism (the theology elucidated by Gersonides in "The Wars of the Lord".) Religious naturalism (Reconstructionist theology) is regarded as heretical.

Orthodox Judaism maintains the traditional 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. Similarly, Orthodoxy does not allow 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.

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, usually affirming a literal acceptance of Maimonides's 13 principles as the only acceptable position. Some within Modern Orthodoxy take the more liberal position that these principles only represent one particular formulation of Jewish principles of faith, and that others are possible.


Green Gaia

Veteran Member
Beliefs about Jewish law and tradition

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 incredibly high degree of accuracy.

According to Orthodox Judaism, Jewish Law today is based on the commandments in the Torah, as viewed through the discussions and debates contained in the 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. If the laws are not the word of God per se, they are nonetheless derived from the literal 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. 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 thirteen 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. Thus, Orthodox Jews study the Talmud in depth, but Talmudic legal methodology is rarely used to alter Jewish law as codified in later compendia. Orthodox Jews will also study the Talmud for its own sake; this is considered a great mitzvah.

As above, it is held virtually as a principle of belief among many Orthodox Jews that halakha (Jewish law) never changes. Many Haredi Jews thus view higher criticism of the Talmud as inappropriate, and perhaps 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.

Orthodox organizations 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 which represent Modern Orthodox Judaism, a large segment of Orthodoxy in America, Canada and England. 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 originally founded as Modern Orthodox organizations, but which have since become much more right-wing. Its current leadership disavows the use of the term "Modern Orthodoxy" altogether, and most will not attend official meetings of the RCA or OU.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel was originally 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 many smaller Haredi groups. Since the 1960s the Chief rabbinate of Israel has moved somewhat to the theological right-wing. Chief Rabbinate of Israel (http://www.israel-mfa.gov.il/gov/relaffs.html)

Chabad Lubavitch is a vast international educational, outreach, community-building movement of Hasidic Judaism. In over 40 years, about 5,000 young men and women who are all accompanied by equally motivated spouses and typically large families, all of whom aim to fulfil their mandate of Jewish outreach, education, and revival. They look for and recruit people who want to join them, and they are the originators of, and major players in, the Teshuva movement, which encourages Jews alienated from their religion to become more Jewishly aware and religiously observant.

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) Poland . The American Agudath Israel was founded in 1939. There is an Agudath Israel of Israel in Israel, split off into what is called Degel HaTorah, as well as an Agudath Israel of Europe in Europe. These groups are loosely affiliated through the "World Agudah Movement", which from time to time holds a major gathering in Israel called a knessiah. Agudah unites many rabbinic leaders from the Hasidic Judaism with those of the non-Hasidic "Yeshiva" world. In Israel it shares a similar agenda with the Sephardic Shas political party. Agudath Yisrael (http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/Orthodoxy/Aguddah.html), More on Agudath Yisrael (http://www.shemayisrael.com/chareidi/archives5761/behar/adinner.htm).

The Agudath HaRabonim (Agudas HaRabbonim), also known as The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, is a small Haredi organization 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 organization. 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, Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and Modern Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik) that the Conservative and Reform are "not Judaism at all."

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

The Hisachdus HaRabbonim (also: Hisachduth HaRabbonim), Central Rabbinical Congress (CRC) of the U.S.A. & Canada, was established in 1952. It is a relatively small anti-Zionist Haredi organization, consisting only of Satmar Hasidic Jews.

Edah is a new left-wing Modern Orthodox advocacy group, consisting of American Modern Orthodox rabbis. Most of its membership comes from synagogues affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Congregations and RCA (above). Their motto is "The courage to be Modern and Orthodox".
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