Orthodoxy’s Power

What is it about Orthodoxy that has kept it alive in a marketplace of beliefs?


The following working paper was written for the Bronfman Vision Forum’s

Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities

, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

The survival–indeed, flourishing–of

Orthodox Judaism

is one of the many mind-bending surprises of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Orthodoxy has successfully managed to retain its hold on established Judaism and, in forms as wildly varied as the

Settler Movement



, has reshaped the public sphere and remade public policy.

In the US, where, by contrast, Orthodoxy must compete in a vigorous marketplace of beliefs, it has successfully crafted networks of institutions and ideas, distinctive practices and mores, and is increasingly visible in both Jewish communal life and American civil society. In both places, which together comprise some eighty percent of world Jewry, Orthodoxy has been able to win new adherents, even as those born into the fold drop off, a sign of genuine, if certainly complicated, dynamism.

Orthodoxy is not the only contemporary religious movement that seems to be beating the historical odds and giving modernization theory a run for its money; and that complicates the lives, not only of sociologists, but of so many of us–Orthodox people included–who have long been operating with a distinctive story of modernity.

Supposed to Die Out?

Once upon a time, the Western story went, there was religion. A powerful phenomenon in its time, it had become tamed in the cool light of reason, an intermittently helpful and most often harmless handmaiden to the great and steadily-advancing projects of secularism and modernity. There were, to be sure, some who tried to hop off the Progress Express, indeed at times turn it around; they were called “Fundamentalists” and were to be pitied, really, and, when needed, put in their place.orthodox jewish scribe

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Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.

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