Orthodox Judaism

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

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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.

Neo-Orthodoxy

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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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.