Orthodox Judaism

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The trend in Jewish life and thought which accepts without reservation and in its literal sense the doctrine: ‘The Torah is from Heaven.’ The actual term Orthodox is derived from Christian theology and was, at first, a term of reproach hurled against the traditionalists by the early Reformers at the beginning of the nineteenth century to imply that those who failed to respond to the modernist challenge were hidebound. Eventually, however, the term was used by the traditionalists themselves as a convenient shorthand for the attitude of complete loyalty to the Jewish past, although some traditionalists prefer the term ‘Torah-true’ to describe their religious position. In any event, Orthodoxy came to mean for Jews faithfulness to the practices of Judaism, to the Halakhah in its traditional formulation. Orthodoxy is none the less much more than Orthopraxy. It is far removed from the attitude: believe what you like as long you keep the laws. For all that, though the dogmatic assumptions are never ignored, the emphasis is on practice. A popular definition of the Orthodox Jew is a Jew who obeys the rules laid down in the standard Code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh. The Orthodox Jew is a Shulhan Arukh Jew, which is not to say that all innovations introduced after the Shulhan Arukh are never countenanced. These are allowed, and even encouraged, provided that the Halakhic process by which the Shulhan Arukh itself was produced is faithfully observed.

Orthodox Judaism rejects the notion introduced by Reform that, in the light of modern thought and life in Western society, Judaism requires to be ‘reformed’. Granted that the Torah is of divine origin, as the Orthodox affirm, to attempt to reform it is to imply that God can change His mind, to put it somewhat crudely. Orthodoxy also takes issue with Conservative Judaism which, unlike Reform, does accept the Halakhah but perceives it in a more dynamic fashion, according to which changes are legitimate if they are in the spirit of the Halakhah. Naturally, the Orthodox disagree with the notion that there is a Halakhic spirit in obedience to which the letter of the law can be set aside where it is considered necessary. Ultimately, the difference between the Orthodox and the Conservative approach depends on whether or not there is a human element in the Torah.

There are, in fact, a variety of Orthodox approaches from the ultra-Orthodox to neo-Orthodoxy and it by no means follows that every Jew who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue is fully Orthodox in theory and practice. Yet all who subscribe, at least nominally, to Orthodoxy, have it in common that they believe the Torah is unchanging, so that while, here and there, minor changes do take place in the wake of new social and economic conditions, for the Orthodox these are not really ‘changes’ at all, but simply the application of the traditional law in new situations. On the dogmatic side, Orthodoxy rejects totally the view of biblical criticism that the Pentateuch is a composite work and was not ‘dictated by’ God to Moses, although some Orthodox Jews are prepared to use the scholarly methodology in determining the dates of the other books of the Bible. For Orthodoxy, too, the Talmud, as the depository of the Oral Torah, is the infallible source for Jewish practice and, to a large extent, for what Jews are expected to believe.


Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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