Jewish Denominations: Orthodox Judaism

Most Jews would probably consider Orthodoxy the most 'authentic' denomination, but even among Orthodox, there are variations in observance, as well as in extent of integration into general society.

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Orthodox Jews hold up a Torah scroll at the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue on Shimon Agassi St., Jerusalem, Nov. 20, 2014.
Orthodox Jews hold up a Torah scroll at the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue on Shimon Agassi St., Jerusalem, Nov. 20, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman

Most Jews today, even those who would never consider identifying themselves with Orthodoxy, probably view it as the most “authentic” denomination of the Jewish faith.

There is something to that perception, as the movement we know as Orthodoxy considers its members bound in full by halakha (Jewish law) as it is delineated in the Shulhan Arukh (“The Set Table”), the codification of law as it was set down in writing by Joseph Caro in the 16th century. But more to the point, Orthodox Jews literally believe that Jewish law in its entirety was delivered to Moses by God at Mount Sinai during the Exodus from Egypt, and that the so-called “Oral Law” – meaning the Talmud and other rabbinic texts – is no less binding than the Written Law of the Bible.

Modern Orthodoxy as a movement emerged among European Jewry at roughly the same time as Reform and Conservative Judaism. In that sense, it was, like them, also a reaction to the political, social and scientific revolutions that swept over the continent in the late 18th and the 19th centuries.

The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason gave Jews an option to leave the ghettoes and integrate into society, and also posited rational, scientifically provable laws explaining the workings of the universe. Reform Judaism responded to the challenge by redefining the relationship between the Jew and God, and re-envisioning Judaism as fundamentally an ethical movement rather than a set of laws meant to govern every aspect of human life.

What we know today as Modern Orthodoxy was, like Reform, a 19th-century German development, a practical realization of the vision of the Haskalah, a Jewish version of the Enlightenment pioneered by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).

The Haskalah called on Jews to acquire a secular education, speak the local language, and also to apply rational methods to Torah study. Mendelssohn felt this liberal approach to daily life could be reconciled with continued adherence to the law, in both its oral and written versions, which were still seen as coming directly from God and as fixed.

All three of these modern denominations for the most part developed among Ashkenazi Jews. Sephardi Jews, the descendants of those exiled from Iberia beginning in 1492 and of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, have for the most part remained traditional in observance and not been drawn to these modern movements.

Although still far smaller than Reform and Conservative in the United States, Orthodoxy is growing rapidly in numbers everywhere. This is partly because the Orthodox have high birth rates and low rates of intermarriage.

A recent poll showed 61 percent of Jewish children in the New York area belonging to Orthodox families (this includes all forms of Orthodoxy, not just Modern Orthodox).

In Israel, and in most other countries, Orthodoxy is generally the default version of Judaism for those who are not secular. But, even among Orthodox, there are variations in observance, as well as in extent of integration into general society.

Haredi (also called ultra-Orthodox) Judaism rejects the possibility of such integration, and its adherents, especially in Israel, wear distinctive dress and live in segregated neighborhoods, something almost necessitated by their strict levels of observance. Their ideal, particularly for males, is a life of full-time study, but outside of Israel most Haredi men also work.

In a sense, ultra-Orthodoxy can be seen not only as a reaction to modernity, but also as reaction to Modern Orthodoxy and its limited compromises. Ultra-Orthodoxy basically preaches against engagement with the outside world, and has adopted a literal, fundamentalist reading of the basic Jewish texts, at the same time that its members strive to follow the mitzvot (commandments) according to the most stringent interpretation possible.

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