What is Orthodox Judaism?

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Some of the consternation regarding Modern Orthodox Rabbi Asher Lopatin stems in no small part from a lack of familiarity with the history and development of Orthodox Judaism itself.

The term “orthodox,” derived from the Greek words orthos (correct) and doxa (belief or path), means “the correct belief” or “correct path.” Orthodox Judaism insists there is only one right way to believe and observe as a Jew. As such, the mentality of Orthodox Judaism is a relatively recent phenomenon in Jewish history, barely two centuries old.

Before that, Jews did not identify themselves as Orthodox Jews. At that time, Jews commonly associated orthodox with some form of Orthodox Christianity. Traditional Jewish observance and belief prior to the 19th century was more fluid and diverse than orthodox in its outlook.

Orthodoxy in Judaism began in Central Europe around 1820 as a response to Reform Judaism. In Eastern Europe two generations later, it was principally a response to secular Jewish movements such as Zionism. The original Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Moses Sofer (known as Hatam Sofer), the rabbi of Pressburg/Pozsony in Hungary (today Bratislava, Slovakia), coined what became the slogan of this new Orthodox mentality: Kol davar hadash asur me-hatorah hi (That which is new is forbidden by the Torah). Paradoxically, the notion that any innovation was forbidden by the Torah was itself an innovation.

But approaches to Orthodox Judaism began to change within a decade or two. The first was the brainchild of Samson Raphael Hirsch, the rabbi of Frankfurt, called Neo-Orthodoxy, known also as Modern Orthodoxy. While embracing the mainstream Orthodox notion of Judaism as an eternally unchanging set of beliefs and practices, Hirsch differentiated what he regarded as the immutable essentials of Judaism — notably kashrut, prayer, Shabbat, holidays — from external aspects of Jewish life (language, dress, secular education, participation in civic life) that he believed Jews needed to adapt to the demands of citizenship and modern society.

Hirsch’s synthesis of Orthodoxy and Modern prompted a reactionary backlash by disciples of Moses Sofer in Hungary beginning in the 1860s; this came to be known as Ultra-Orthodoxy. While Orthodoxy emerged as a response to Reform, Ultra-Orthodoxy was primarily a response to the Modern Orthodoxy of Hirsch and his disciple, Ezriel Hildesheimer. Ultra-Orthodox Jews regarded Modern Orthodox Jews as far more menacing even than Reform Jews, in so far as observant Jews were more likely to be led astray by modern Jews like Hirsch who claimed to be authentic, observant Jews than by Reform or other non-Orthodox Jews whom they could easily dismiss as assimilated heretics.

Since then, the Orthodox world has been divided predominantly into Modern Orthodoxy, mainstream Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy.

In the context of this complex story, Modern Orthodoxy marks an attempt to recapture the fluidity and diversity that defined Judaism for centuries, from the time of the Talmud through the end of the 18th century.

Howard Lupovitch
Howard Lupovitch

Howard Lupovitch, Ph.D., is director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies and associate professor of history at Wayne State University. For more on the topic, go to yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Orthodoxy.

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