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Orthodox Judaism

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Orthodox Judaism is a loosely affiliated set of Jewish movements characterized by:

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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 permited secular study and 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. This topic has its own entry.


Orthodox Judaism is not unified; it 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.

Chief Rabbinate of Israel (http://www.israel-mfa.gov.il/gov/relaffs)

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

Edah (http://www.edah.org)

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.

Agudath Yisrael (http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/Orthodoxy/Aguddah)

More on Agudath Yisrael (http://www.shemayisrael.com/chareidi/archives5761/behar/adinner.htm)

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.

May one disagree with the Talmud?

All Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and most Modern Orthodox Jews, 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.

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 actas if there was no change.

See also: Judaism, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Modern Orthodox Judaism

Compare with: Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism

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