Orthodox Judaism

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

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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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.