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Definition: Orthodox Judaism from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1904) : Judaism that adheres to the Torah and Talmud as interpreted in an authoritative rabbinic law code and applies their principles and regulations to modern living compare conservative judaism reform judaism

Summary Article: Orthodox Judaism
from Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices

Through the 19th century, the European and American Jewish communities experienced the challenges of post-emancipation modern life and an emerging, majority, secular culture that persistently sought to integrate and absorb the Jewish community into itself. In partial response to this new situation, a new form of Judaism that consciously tried to adapt to modern culture developed. Reform Judaism made a number of changes to traditional Jewish life, replacing traditional practices that were deemed nonessential to Jewish identity and inappropriate for the contemporary context. Included in the reforms were the cessation of kosher food standards, the introduction of the vernacular to and abbreviation of the worship services, and the ending of separate seating between men and women at synagogue services.

An Orthodox Jew prays at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Wailing Wall is the only wall that remained after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple and it is viewed as one of the holiest places on Earth by many Jews. (Corel)

As Reform Judaism emerged, especially in Germany and also among German Jewish immigrants and their children in the United States, traditional rabbis sought to reinvigorate commitment to traditional standards, even as some allowed for accommodations to the wider culture. Orthodox Judaism is the name now given to all elements of the religious Jewish community that demand strict observance of Jewish law and praxis.

Orthodox Judaism is distinguished by its attachment to the written Torah (the Jewish Bible or Tanakh) and the Oral Torah, a tradition explaining what the written Scriptures mean. Orthodox Jews believe that God gave the scriptures to Moses and then taught him the oral tradition, which has been passed down from generation to generation. Around the second century CE, the oral tradition was committed for the first time to writing in the Mishnah. In the centuries after the Mishnah was produced, additional commentaries elaborating on it, called the Gemara, were written down. The Mishnah and the Gemara together constitute the Talmud. Through succeeding centuries, rabbis continued to apply the Halakic process (a system of legal reasoning and interpretation) to the Torah and to these later sacred texts to determine how best to answer new questions as they arose. The Halakic process has given to the Orthodox community the means of dealing with changing situations, and serves as the basis for Orthodox observance.

Among the earliest champions of Orthodoxy in the face of reform were Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) in Germany and Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) in the United States. For a quarter of a century, Leeser published The Occident and American Jewish Advocate. In the pages of this periodical, he opposed American Reform leader Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) and the spread of Reform Judaism and advocated the unity of the American Jewish community around traditional Jewish practice. Hirsch is known for championing a fully Orthodox belief and practice while living in the modern world; the religious movement he spearheaded in Germany was called neo-Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox in German-speaking communities were the first to feel the full impact of modernity, and they developed an approach that has allowed Orthodox Jewry not only to survive, but, apart from the devastation of the Holocaust, to thrive. Through the 20th century, many flocked to an engaged Orthodoxy as they began to encounter the modern West. As modern Orthodoxy developed, it was distinguished on the one hand from the Reform and Conservative movements, and on the other hand from ultra-Orthodox organizations such as Neturei Karta and Gush Emunim.

Jewish Orthodoxy is split into a number of distinguishable communities. Some of the major divisions are ethnic. The Jews of Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Iberian peninsula (Sephardic Judaism) form the major divisions, all of which now appear in strength in North America. Over the centuries, these and other Jewish communities developed a variety of differences that do not affect their status as Orthodox but nevertheless are perpetuated.

Approximately half of the world’s 13 million Jews reside in the United States. In the United States the majority of Orthodox Jews are represented by a congregational association and two rabbinical associations. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of the United States and Canada emerged in the 1880s, soon after the Reform congregations had organized. Rabbis are served by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States and Canada, uniting originally rabbis of primarily eastern European origin, whose influence has waned in recent decades, and the Rabbinical Council of America, which includes the rabbis who graduate from New York’s Yeshiva University. Other Orthodox congregations are associated with the Young Israel movement. Jews of Iberian heritage are associated with the American Sephardi Federation (15 W. 16th St., New York, NY 10010). Hasidism represents a mystical form of Orthodox Jewry.

In most countries of the world, the Orthodox community is organized nationally. The Conference of European Rabbis represents Orthodox Jews in Europe. Some Jewish communities, though by no means all, have selected a chief rabbi. Such an organization is reflected in modern Israel, where there are two chief rabbis for the state, one for Ashkenazic Jews and one for Sephardic Jews. Agudath Israel is an Orthodox Jewish organization that operates a variety of social service programs in the Jewish community worldwide and represents the interests of Orthodox Jewry to local, regional, and federal governments. Founded in 1912, it seeks to place the Torah in a lead position in the Jewish community as it faces the modern world. The organization has spread globally through the Agudath Israel World Organization.

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America 11 Broadway New York, NY 10004

Rabbinical Council of America 305 7th Ave., 12th floor New York, NY 10001

Conference of European Rabbis 87 Hodford Rd. London NW11 8NH United Kingdom

Israel Chief Rabbinate Heikhal Shelomo 58 King George St. Jerusalem Israel

Agudath Israel World Organization 84 William St. New York, NY 10038

See also:

Conservative Judaism; Gush Emunim; Hasidism; Neturei Karta; Reform Judaism; World Sephardic Federation; Young Israel.

  • Davidman, Lynn. Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Donin, Hayim Halevy. To Be a Jew. New York: Basic Books, 1972, 2001.
  • Gurock, Jeffrey. Orthodox Jews in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
  • Heilman, Samuel. Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Orthodoxy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Katz, Jacob. A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press and University Press of New England, 1998.
  • Sclossberg, Eli W. The World of Orthodox Judaism. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997.
  • Nadell, Pamela S.
    Melton, J. Gordon
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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