Orthodox Judaism Today
With rising numbers and increasingly stringent observance, Orthodoxy thrives even as it faces challenges.
When Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman became the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, the public suddenly turned its attention on Orthodox Judaism, with pundits and journalists explaining the dos and don'ts of Shabbat and dietary laws. But Lieberman himself eschewed the label "Orthodox" in favor of the less denominational "observant," and many within the Orthodox community disliked the fact that Lieberman became, in the world's eyes, the example of the Orthodox life.
Lieberman, in many ways, represents an Orthodox Judaism of decades past, one which integrated more seamlessly than today's Orthodoxy with mainstream, secular society. Orthodox Jews since the 1970s have grown greatly in numbers, self-confidence, and public profile; at the same time, they have shifted to the right socially and religiously, refusing to make what they see as the compromises that their parents' and grandparents' generations made to fit into American society.
The outward signs might be subtle but they are not insignificant--the fact that Lieberman doesn't wear a yarmulke and that he sometimes votes in the Senate on Shabbat, even if he does walk home afterward. It is less likely that tomorrow's Orthodox politician will do likewise, a tension that came to the fore when Lieberman was criticized by some Jews during the campaign for drinking water during the Tisha B'Av fast.
The Orthodox world often divides into two major categories, generally referred to as haredi (or sometimes, ultra-Orthodox) and centrist, or modern, Orthodox. But in recent years, the line between haredi and Orthodox has blurred. Many Modern Orthodox Jews are increasingly stringent in their adherence to Jewish law and express a growing sense of alienation from the larger, secular culture. Some scholars have even referred to the trend as the "haredization" of Orthodoxy, and some believe that Modern Orthodoxy is essentially dead.
Orthodoxy today is more strictly observant and better educated than at any point since before the destruction of Eastern European Jewry during the Holocaust. Children in Orthodox families are maintaining and increasing their allegiance to traditional Judaism and increasing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews are finding themselves attracted to Orthodoxy.
Reasons for the Shift
The fact that Orthodox Judaism is, in the words of historian Jonathan Sarna, the "great success story of late 20th-century American Judaism" may seem surprising; a religion that believes in strict adherence to rules and rituals thrives at a time when personal choice seems to reign as the cultural norm. But traditional religious values can be said to be the great success story of many major religious groups since the 1970s; witness the phenomenal rise of evangelical Christianity and Mormonism as examples. In Judaism, the Reform movement, long so averse to tradition that the wearing of yarmulkes was officially barred from some synagogues, has itself embraced a more traditional path of observance.