Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is on of the three major Jewish denominations; it is characterized by:

The development of Orthodoxy

Like all modern denominations of Judaism, Orthodoxy is not identical to the forms of Judaism that existed in the times of Moses, nor even identical to the Judaism which existed in the time of the Mishnah and Talmud.

Orthodox Judaism, as it exists today, is considered by historians to have begun developing as a response to the Enlightenment in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the early 1800s in Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch worked to reconcile traditional Judaism with the social realities of the modern age. While insisting on strict adherence to Jewish beliefs and practices, he encouraged secular studies, including history and modern philosophy; he also encouraged limited integration into the non-Jewish community. This form of Judaism was termed "neo-Orthodoxy", later known as Modern Orthodox Judaism.

A larger segment of the Orthodox population (notably represented by Agudat Yisrael) disagreed, and took a stricter approach. Their motto was "Anything new is forbidden by Torah". For them, all innovations and modifications within Jewish law and custom come to a near halt. This form of Judaism is termed Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, or Haredi Judaism.

In 1915 Yeshiva College (later Yeshiva University) and its Rabbi Issac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary was established in New York for training in a Modern Orthodox milieu. Eventually a branch school was established in Los Angeles, CA. A number of other smaller but influential Orthodox seminaries were also established throughout the country, most notably in New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Lakewood, New Jersey.

Hasidic Judaism

Many Orthodox Jews follow a spiritual path known as Hasidic (or Chasidic) Judaism.

Hasidic Judaism (also spelled Chasidic) is an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious movement. It was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), also known as the Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht. Hasidic Judaism was formed in a time of persecution of the Jewish people, and in a time when European Jews had turned inward to Talmud study; many Jews at this time felt that most expressions of Jewish life had become too academic, and that they no longer had any emphasis on spirituality or joy. The Ba'al Shem Tov set out to change this.

Prelude to the Hasidic movement

In Poland, where since the sixteenth century the bulk of the Jewry had established itself, the struggle between traditional rabbinic Judaism and radical Kabbalah influenced mysticism became particularly acute after the Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi. Leanings toward mystical doctrines and sectarianism showed themselves prominently among the Jews of the southeastern provinces of Poland, while in the north-eastern provinces, in Lithuania, and in White Russia, rabbinical Orthodoxy held sway. This was due in part to the social difference between the northern Lithuanian Jews and the southern Jews of the Ukraine. In Lithuania the Jewish masses were mainly gathered in densely populated towns where rabbinical academic culture (in the yeshibot) was in a flourishing state; while in the Ukraine the Jews were more scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers.

Pessimism in the south became more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising under Bohdan Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648-60), which completely ruined the Jewry of the Ukraine, but left comparatively untouched that of Lithuania. The economic and spiritual decline of the South-Russian Jews created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread there from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century.

Besides these influences there were deeply seated causes that produced among many Jews a discontent with rabbinism and a gravitation toward mysticism. Rabbinism, which in Poland had become transformed into a system of religious formalism, no longer provided satisfactory religious experience to many Jews. Although traditional Judaism had adopted some features of Kabbalah, it adapted them to fit its own system: it added to its own ritualism the asceticism of the "practical cabalists" of the East, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practises, suitable for individuals and hermits, was not suitable to the bulk of the Jews.

Hasidism gave a ready response to the burning desire of the common people in its simple, stimulating, and comforting faith. In contradistinction to other sectarian teaching, early Hasidism aimed not at dogmatic or ritual reform, but at a deeper psychological one. Its aim was to change not the belief, but the believer. By means of psychological suggestion it created a new type of religious man, a type that placed emotion above reason and rites, and religious exaltation above knowledge.

Israel ben Eliezer

The founder of Hasidism was Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba'al Shem Tov, also known as the Besht. His fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. He was said to at times successfully predict the future.

To the common people, Besht was admirable. Characterized by an extraordinary sincerity and simplicity, he knew how to gain an insight into the spiritual needs of the masses. He taught them that true religion was not religious scholarship, but a sincere love of God combined with warm faith and belief in the efficacy of prayer; that the ordinary man filled with a sincere belief in God, and whose prayers come from the heart, is more acceptable to God than a person versed in and fully observant of Jewish law. This democratization of Judaism attracted to the teachings of Besht not only the common people, but also the scholars whom the rabbinical scholasticism and ascetic Kabbalah failed to satisfy.

About 1740 Besht established himself in the Podolian town of Miedzyboz. He gathered about him numerous disciples and followers, whom he initiated into the secrets of his teachings not by systematic exposition, but by means of sayings and parables. These sayings were transmitted orally, and were later written down by his disciples, who developed the disjointed thoughts of their master into a system. Besht himself did not write anything. Being a mystic by nature, he regarded his teachings as a prophetic revelation.

Fundamental conceptions

The teachings of Hasidism are founded on two theoretical conceptions: (1) religious panentheism, or the omnipresence of God, and (2) the idea of Devekut, communion between God and man. "Man," says Besht, "must always bear in mind that God is omnipresent and is always with him; that God is, so to speak, the most subtle matter everywhere diffused....Let man realize that when he is looking at material things he is in reality gazing at the image of the Deity which is present in all things. With this in mind man will always serve God even in small matters."

Devekut (communion) refers to the belief that between the world of God and the world of humanity there is an unbroken intercourse. It is true not only that the Deity influences the acts of man, but also that man exerts an influence on the will of the Deity. Every act and word of man produces a corresponding vibration in the upper spheres. From this conception is derived the chief practical principle of Hasidism — communion with God for the purpose of uniting with the source of life and of influencing it. This communion is achieved through the concentration of all thoughts on God, and consulting Him in all the affairs of life.

The righteous man is in constant communion with God, even in his worldly affairs, since here also he feels His presence. An especial form of communion with God is prayer. In order to render this communion complete the prayer must be full of fervor, ecstatic; and the soul of him who prays must during his devotions detach itself, so to speak, from its material dwelling. For the attainment of ecstasy recourse may be had to mechanical means, to violent bodily motions, to shouting and singing. According to Besht, the essence of religion is in sentiment and not in reason. Theological learning and halakic lore are of secondary importance, and are useful only when they serve as a means of producing an exalted religious mood. It is better to read books of moral instruction than to engage in the study of the casuistic Talmud and the rabbinical literature. In the performance of rites the mood of the believer is of more importance than the externals; for this reason formalism and superfluous ceremonial details are injurious.

The spread of Hasidism

Israel ben Eliezer's disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. After the Besht's death, his cause was carried on by his followers, especially Dov Ber of Mezeritch. From his court students went forth; they in turn attracted many Jews to Hasidism, and many of them came to study in Mezhirech with Dov Ber personally. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life of the majority of Jews in the Ukraine, Galicia, and central Poland; the movement also had sizable groups of followers in Belorussia-Lithuania and Hungary. Hasidic Judaism came to Western Europe and then to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.

Hasidism gradually branched out into two main divisions: (1) in the Ukraine and in Galicia and (2) in Lithuania. The first of these divisions was directed by three disciples of Dov Ber of Mezeritch: Elimelech of Lezhinsk, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, and Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, besides the grandson of Besht, Baruch of Tulchin. Elimelech of Lezhinsk affirmed that belief in Tzaddikism is a fundamental doctrine of Hasidism. In his book "No'am Elimelekh" he conveys the idea that the Tzaddik ("saint") is the mediator between God and the common people, and that through him God sends to the faithful three earthly blessings, life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Hasidim support the Tzaddik by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonim"), in order to enable the holy man to become completely absorbed in the contemplation of God. Lithuanian Hasidim followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

This teaching practically led to the contribution by the people of their last pennies toward the support of their tzaddik ("rebbe"), and the tzaddik untiringly "poured forth blessings on the earth, healed the sick, cured women of sterility," etc. The vocation of tzaddik was made hereditary. There was a multiplication of Hasidic dynasties contesting for supremacy.

Hasidim versus non-Hasidim

Early on, a serious schism evolved between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed by the Hasidim as "mitnagdim", (lit. opponents). Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism was a novel emphasis on different aspects of Jewish laws; even more problematic was the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship; their untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and Miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messianic sect, which in fact had occurred among the followers of both Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank.

On a more prosaic level, other Mitnagdim argued that Jews should follow a more scholarly approach to Judaism. At one point Hasidic Jews were put in cherem (a Jewish form of communal excommunication); after years of bitter acrimony, there was a rapprochement between Hasidic Jews and those who would soon become known as Orthodox Jews. Since then all the sects of Hasidic Judaismhave been subsumed into Orthodox Judaism, particularly Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

During the Holocaust the Hasidic centers of Eastern Europe were destroyed. Survivors moved to Israel or America, notably Brooklyn, and established new centers of Hasidic Judaism. Some of the larger and more well-known Hasidic sects still extant include Breslov, Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Ger, and Bobov Hasidim. For years, the two "superpowers" of the Brooklyn Hasidic world were Satmar and Chabad, based on Williamsburg and Crown Heights, respectively. Despite being so similar in the eyes of other Jews, the two groups had a hostile relationship. Satmar was militantly anti-Zionist, while Chabad was supportive of Israel, though the Lubavitcher rebbe never visited Israel. Satmar also disdained Chabad's tendency to do outreach among non-observant Jews. Satmars were especially offended by Chabad's sending of mitzvah tanks into their neighborhood, as if they needed prodding to be observant. In recent years the tension has cooled.

There has been significant revival of interest in Hasidic Judaism on the part of non-Orthodox Jews due to the writings of non-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish authors like Martin Buber, Arthur Green and Abraham Joshua Heschel. As such, one now finds some minor Hasidic influences in the siddurim (prayer books) of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.


Orthodox Judaism is composed of different groups with intersecting beliefs, practices and theologies. In their broad patterns, the Orthodox movements are very similar in their observance and beliefs. However, they maintain significant social differences, and differences in understanding halakha due to their varying attitudes concerning (a) the role of women in Judaism, (b) relations with non-Orthodox Jews, (c) attitudes toward modern culture and modern scholarship, and (d) how to relate to the State of Israel and Zionism.

Orthodoxy, collectively, considers itself the only true heir to the Jewish tradition; most of it considers all other Jewish movements to be unacceptable deviations from tradition. Most Orthodox groups characterize non-Orthodox forms of Judaism as heresy.

Orthodox Judaism affirms theism, the belief in one God. Its members have varied beliefs about the nature of God, and no one understanding of the Deity is mandated. Among the beliefs affirmed are: Maimonidean rationalism; Kabbalistic mysticism; Hasidic panentheism. A few affirm limited theism (the theology elucidated by Gersonides in "The Wars of the Lord".) Religious naturalism (Reconstructionist theology) is regarded as heretical.

Since there is no one unifying Orthodox body, there is no one official statement of principles of faith. Rather, each Orthodox group claims to be a non-exclusive heir to the received tradition of Jewish theology, usually affirming a literal acceptance of Maimonides's 13 principles as the only acceptable position. Some within Modern Orthodoxy take the more liberal position that these principles only represent one particular formulation of Jewish principles of faith, and that others are possible.

Orthodox organizations and groups

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU), and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). This group represents Modern Orthodoxy, which is a large segment of Orthodoxy in America, Canada and England. These groups should not be confused with the similarly named "The Union of Orthodox Rabbis" (described below) which is a small right-wing Orthodox group.

The National Council of Young Israel, and the Council of Young Israel Rabbis. This is a smaller group that was originally founded a Modern Orthodox organization, but has since become much more right-wing. Its current leadership disavows the use of the term "Modern Orthodoxy" altogether, and most will not attend official meetings of the RCA or OU.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel was originally founded with the intention of representing all of Judaism within the State of Israel, and has two chief rabbis: One is Ashkenazic (of the East European and Russian Jewish tradition) and one is Sephardic (of the Spanish, North African and middle-eastern Jewish tradition.) The rabbinate has never been accepted by many smaller ultra-Orthodox groups. Since the 1960s the Chief rabbinate of Israel has moved somewhat to the theological right-wing.

Edah is a new Modern Orthodox advocacy group, consisting of American Modern Orthodox rabbis. Most of its membership comes from synagogues affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Congregations and RCA (above). Their motto is "The courage to be Modern and Orthodox".

Agudath Israel of America (also: Agudat Yisrael or Agudas Yisroel) is a large and influential ultra-Orthodox group in America . Its roots go back to the establishment of the original founding of the Agudath Israel movement in 1912 in Kattowitz (Katowice) Poland . The American Agudath Israel was founded in 1939. There is an Agudath Israel of Israel in Israel, split off into what is called Degel HaTorah, as well as an Agudath Israel of Europe in Europe. These groups are loosely affiliated through the "World Agudah Movement", which from time to time holds a major gathering in Israel called a knessiah. Agudah unites many rabbinic leaders from the Hasidic Judaism with those of the non-Hasidic "Yeshiva" world. In Israel it shares a similar agenda with the Sephardic Shas political party.

The Agudath HaRabonim (Agudas HaRabbinim), also known as The Union of Orthodox Rabbis Of The United States and Canada, is a small ultra-Orthodox organization that was founded in 1902. It should not be confused with "The Union of Orthodox Congregations" (see above) which is a separate organization. While at one time influential within Orthodox Judaism, the Agudath HaRabonim has become progressively further to the right wing of mainstream Judaism; its membership has been dropping and it has been relatively inactive in the last several decades. Some of its members are rabbis from Chabad (Lubavitch) Judaism; some are also members of the RCA (see above).

The Igud HoRabbonim (also: Igud HaRabbanim), the Rabbinical Alliance of America, is a very small anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox organization. Founded in 1944, it claims over 650 rabbis; recent estimates indicate that less than 100 of its members worldwide actually work as rabbis. It is widely considered a fringe group. Most American Jews are unaware of the existence of this group.

The Hisachdus HoRabbonim (also: Hisachduth HaRabbonim), Central Rabbinical Congress (CRC) of the U.S.A. & Canada, was established in 1952. It is a relatively small anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox organization, consisting only of Satmar Hasidic Jews. It is widely considered a fringe group. Most American Jews are unaware of the existence of this group.

Beliefs about Jewish law and tradition

Orthodox Jews view halakha (Jewish law) as a set of rules, and principles designed to create new rules, that were literally spoken to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. These rules are held to be transmitted with an incredibly high degree of accuracy. Creativity and development in Jewish law is held to have been limited; Orthodox Jews hold that when Jewish law has developed, it almost never took into account changing political, social or economic conditions.

Sephardic Orthodox Jews base their practices on the Shulkhan Arukh, the 16th century legal index written by Rabbi Joseph Karo; Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews base their practices on the Mappah, a commentary to the Shulkhan Arukh written by Rabbi Moses Isserles.

Orthodox Judaism maintains the traditional understanding of Jewish identity. A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Orthodoxy thus rejects patrilineal descent. Similarly, Orthodoxy does not allow intermarriage. Intermarriage is seen as a deliberate rejection of Judaism, and an intermarried person is effectively cut off from most of the Orthodox community. However, some Chabad Lubavitch and Modern Orthodox Jews do reach out to intermarried Jews.

Views of the Talmud

Orthodox Jews generally hold that a rabbi may never disagree with a ruling from the Talmud. It is held virtually as a principle of belief among many Orthodox Jews that halakha (Jewish law) never changes. Almost every page of Talmud is replete with these arguements between the Talmudic rabbis (Amoraim). These arguements often focus on clarifying the words of the earlier rabbis of the Mishnaic period (Tannaim.) Generally, the rabbis of the Talmud do no argue with their counterparts from earlier generations. For example, for an Amoraic opinion to be accepted as authoritative it must be in accordance with the teachings of at least one of the scholars of the previous generation, or Tannaim.

However, historians of Judaism note that the current text of the Talmud is artificially smooth; the text covers up many disagreements that occurred between the Tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnah) and the Amoraim (rabbis of the Talmud). The main portion of the Babylonian Talmud was redacted around 550 CE. However, it was further edited and smoothed over by the Savoraim (post-Talmudic rabbis), between 550 CE and 700 CE. The present text of the Talmud thus shows little disagreement. Most Orthodox Yeshivas and Kollels do not teach most students about this subject; many ultra-Orthodox Jews view higher criticism of the Talmud as inappropriate, and perhaps heretical. Many within Modern Orthodox Judaism (and all non-Orthodox Jews) do not have a problem with historical scholarship in this area.

There is much classical and Modern Orthodox literature on this subject. A good summary of this field may be found in "Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations" Edited by Shalmom Carmy. (Jason Aronson, Inc.)

In the essay "Rabbinic Authority", Modern Orthodox Jewish scholar Eli Turkel writes:

What is the reason that later generations never disagree with a halacha in the Talmud? In the introduction to Mishne Torah, Maimonides declares that the sages after the generation of Rav Ashi and Ravina accepted on themselves not to disagree with any halacha in the Gemara. Thus, even if individual portions of the Gemara were ADDED BY LATER GENERATIONS they did not change the halacha. This viewpoint is reiterated by Rav Yosef Karo in his commentary on Mishne Torah (*). It is interesting to note that Rav Yosef Karo mentions this only with regard to the Mishna and Gemara. There is no such ruling with regard to Gaonim and Rishonim. Rav Yosef Karo, among the early generations of Acharonim, recognized no formal barrier to disagree with a Rishon or a Gaon.

Kesef Mishne on Maimonides' Hilchot Mamrim 2:1, also Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in Two Kinds of Tradition in Yahrzeit lectures vol. 1.

Thus, some Orthodox scholars are comfortable with admitting that when someone writes "later generations never disagree with a halacha in the Talmud", this is in effect only a legal fiction. In practice, legal authorities did disagree with what was in the Talmud, and in some cases actually changed the Talmud itself! This new Talmudic text then becomes legally binding, and we thus act as if there was no change. ? 2004

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