Orthodox Judaism

An introduction to the roots and wings of Judaism's most traditional branch.

There are actually many varieties of Orthodox Judaism. The following article provides an introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of Orthodoxy. Related articles detail the history of specific Orthodox groups, from a portrait of Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of neo-Orthodoxy, to the development of Orthodox Judaism in America. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Rejecting Reform

The actual term “Orthodox” is derived from Christian theology and was, at first, a term of reproach hurled against the traditionalists by the early Reformers at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to imply that those who failed to respond to the modernist challenge were hidebound. Eventually, however, the term was used by the traditionalists themselves as a convenient shorthand for the attitude of complete loyalty to the Jewish past, although some traditionalists prefer the term “Torah-true” to describe their religious position. In any event, Orthodoxy came to mean for Jews faithfulness to the practices of Judaism, to the halakhah (Jewish law) in its traditional formulation.

Orthodox Judaism rejects the notion introduced by Reform that, in the light of modern thought and life in Western society, Judaism required to be “reformed.” Granted that the Torah is of divine origin, as the Orthodox affirm, to attempt to reform is to imply that God can change his mind, to put it somewhat crudely.Orthodoxy also takes issue with Conservative Judaism which, unlike Reform, does accept halakhah but perceives it in a more dynamic fashion, according to which changes are legitimate if they are in the spirit of halakhah. Naturally, the Orthodox disagree with the notion that there is a halakhic spirit, in obedience to which the letter of the law can be set aside where it is considered necessary. Ultimately, the differences between the Orthodox and Conservative approach depend on whether or not there is a human element in the Torah.
There are, in fact, a variety of Orthodox approaches, from the ultra-Orthodox to neo-Orthodoxy, and it by no means follows that every Jew who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue is fully Orthodox in theory and practice. Yet all who subscribe, at least nominally, to Orthodoxy have in common that they believe the Torah is unchanging, so that while, here and there, minor changes take place in the wake of new social and economic conditions, for the Orthodox these are not really “changes” at all, but simply the application of traditional law to new situations.

To give a simple illustration of how the Orthodox attitude differs from those of Reform and Conservative Judaism, Reform maintains that the conditions of modern life demand a relaxation of the traditional Sabbath laws, Orthodoxy that no relaxation is possible, while Conservative Judaism allows those relaxations which can be defended on halakhic grounds if halakhah itself is treated in a more flexible way than it was in the past.

A Reform Jew will not usually be bothered by such prohibitions as that of producing light and fire on the Sabbath. A Conservative Jew will accept that the biblical prohibition of lighting a fire on the Sabbath is still binding but will not (necessarily) accept that to switch on an electric light involves lighting a fire. An Orthodox Jew will hold not only that the biblical prohibition still applies but also that it embraces switching-on of electric lights.

The Ultra-Orthodox

This rather ridiculous term is often used, nowadays, to denote the attitude of strict adherence to all of the details of the traditional law. A term preferred by the “ultra-Orthodox” themselves is Haredim (“those who fear God”) based on the verse: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble [ha-haredim] at his word (Isaiah 66:5).”

In the ranks of the Haredim belong all of the Hasidic groups (Hasidism is a pietist movement founded by Israel Ba’al Shem Tov in the first half of the 18th century.); the Yeshiva world; Ashkenazi Jews who try to preserve intact the way of life followed in (pre-modern) eastern Europe; and Oriental and other Sephardi Jews who follow faithfully the pattern of life in the pre-modern communities of the East.

The actual pattern of life differs of course, among the Haredim. The Hasidic ideal is different from that of the Yeshiva world, an Oriental Jew hardly resembles a typical Jew of Eastern European background. But all the Haredim have in common a total dedication to Torah in its traditional form and believe that the secular world is best kept at arm’s length.


The basic difference between neo-Orthodoxy and the Haredim is the attitude taken toward modern culture. The founder of Neo-Orthodoxy, Samson Raphael Hirsch, though strictly observant, held that Western culture and other details of Western society should not be embraced solely in order to earn a living and the like, but welcomed as good in themselves.

Neo-Orthodoxy, or Modern Orthodoxy as it is called in the US, is represented in the majority of Orthodox synagogues in the US and England, with its major institutions for the training of Modern Orthodox rabbis being Yeshiva University in New York and Jews’ College in London.

Orthodox Self-Definition

Orthodoxy is less an organized movement than a reaction to other groups. There is much internecine feuding, for example, among the Orthodox, and there is nothing like any official world organization for Orthodox Judaism.

It is probably true to say that, for most of its adherents, Orthodoxy means simply that one’s own true religious traditions are followed, whether Hasidic or Mitnagdic (that of opponents of Hasidism in the eighteenth century and beyond), Ashkenazi or Sephardi.

The real issue on the level of practice between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox is whether the tradition needs to be revised in some respects. The Orthodox rightly claim that theirs is the Judaism of tradition as followed in the pre-modern era. But this is precisely the question. Is the pre-modern tradition true to the tradition as it is now required to be interpreted? To what extent, in other words, is “traditional” Judaism traditional?

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