The State of Orthodox Judaism Today
by Michael Kress
When Connecticut senator Joseph
Lieberman became the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000,
the public suddenly turned its attention on Orthodox
Judaism, with pundits and journalists explaining the dos and don'ts
of Shabbat and dietary
laws. But Lieberman himself eschewed the label "Orthodox"
in favor of the less denominational "observant," and many
within the Orthodox community disliked the fact that Lieberman became,
in the world's eyes, the example of the Orthodox life.
Lieberman, in many ways, represents an Orthodox Judaism
of decades past, one which integrated more seamlessly than today's Orthodoxy
with mainstream, secular society. Orthodox Jews since the 1970s have
grown greatly in numbers, self-confidence, and public profile; at the
same time, they have shifted to the right socially and religiously,
refusing to make what they see as the compromises that their parents'
and grandparents' generations made to fit into American society.
The outward signs might be subtle but they are not
insignificant — the fact that Lieberman doesn't wear a yarmulke and that he sometimes votes in the Senate on Shabbat, even if he does
walk home afterward. It is less likely that tomorrow's Orthodox politician
will do likewise, a tension that came to the fore when Lieberman was
criticized by some Jews during the campaign for drinking water during
the Tisha B'Av fast.
The Orthodox world often divides into two major categories,
generally referred to as haredi (or sometimes, ultra-Orthodox) and centrist,
or modern, Orthodox. But in recent years, the line between haredi and
Orthodox has blurred. Many Modern Orthodox Jews are increasingly stringent
in their adherence to Jewish law and express a growing sense of alienation
from the larger, secular culture. Some scholars have even referred to
the trend as the "haredization" of Orthodoxy, and some believe
that Modern Orthodoxy is essentially dead.
Orthodoxy today is more strictly observant and better
educated than at any point since before the destruction of Eastern European
Jewry during the Holocaust. Children
in Orthodox families are maintaining and increasing their allegiance
to traditional Judaism and increasing
numbers of non-Orthodox Jews are finding themselves attracted to Orthodoxy.
Reasons for the Shift
The fact that Orthodox Judaism is, in the words of
historian Jonathan Sarna, the "great success story of late 20th-century
American Judaism" may seem surprising; a religion that believes
in strict adherence to rules and rituals thrives at a time when personal
choice seems to reign as the cultural norm. But traditional religious
values can be said to be the great success story of many major religious
groups since the 1970s; witness the phenomenal rise of evangelical Christianity
and Mormonism as examples. In Judaism, the Reform movement, long so averse to tradition that the wearing of yarmulkes
was officially barred from some synagogues, has itself embraced a more
traditional path of observance.
The shift to the right is a product of many factors.
Traditional religious groups tend to be more aggressive — and successful — in
proselytizing for new members. While Orthodox Judaism rejects proselytizing
non-Jews, it does embrace kiruv, the concept of working to convince
non-observant Jews to adopt a more traditional lifestyle. Through organizations
like the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Chabad
Lubavitch, Aish HaTorah, and others, many non-Orthodox Jews have
been brought into the Orthodox fold in recent decades.
In addition, the rise of conservative religion is likely
a reaction against the increased permissiveness and anything-goes attitude
of secular culture. Boundaries and rules attracted many people today
just as the removal of such behavioral limits attrracted the youth of
the '60s and '70s.
Orthodoxy also has higher birthrates than other Jewish
communities; sends a much-higher percentage of its children to Jewish
day schools; has a much lower intermarriage rate (and children of intermarriages
have a higher likelihood of being uninvolved in Jewish life); and generally
have a much higher rate of participation in Jewish life — all
factors that help to strengthen Orthodox communities and make it attractive
for non-Orthodox Jews to join.
And the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is easier than ever
before. The affluence most Jews have achieved — together with
changing societal norms — makes working on Shabbat less of a necessity.
The plethora of kosher food
in supermarkets worldwide eases observance of the dietary laws, and
the growth of kosher restaurants in many cities reduces the inclination
among many Orthodox Jews to eat in non-kosher establishments. Religious
book and CD publishing is thriving and an industry of Jewish-items producers
seems to make observance ever-simpler, with innovations such as a snap-together
sukkah, Shabbat-friendly kitchen appliances, and Passover-kosher
food from pizza to granola bars to hamburger buns.
Orthodox Jews are today reviving customs and laws that
had been virtually forgotten for decades except among haredim. Increasing
numbers of married women in Orthodox communities are covering their
hair — either with hats or wigs — a Jewish law that was
hardly observed among most Modern Orthodox women since the days of the
shtetl in Europe. Kosher restaurants and caterers often need to pay
for multiple kosher-certification certificates, each from an agency
or rabbi with somewhat different
standards, to convince all customers of their acceptability.
The shift is in culture and not just halakhic (Jewish
law) observance. After high school, many Orthodox teens spend a year
studying in yeshiva in Israel, and increasingly, one year is turning
into two, three, or even more. When they return, these are expressing
ever-deeper discomfort with secular college life — socially because of
the culture of sexual permissiveness and intellectually because of their
discomfort with academic teachings on subjects like the Bible and the
nature and history of religion.
Politically, too, the Orthodox world increasingly supports
conservative policies on such issues as school-choice (vouchers) and
public funding of faith-based charities. When it comes to Israel, the
trend is perhaps more pronounced, with American Orthodox Jews overwhelmingly
advocating right-wing Israeli policies and candidates, some of them
far to the right of what mainstream Israelis, even conservative ones,
would themselves support.
The mantra of Modern Orthodoxy was for generations
expressed in the motto of Yeshiva University — Torah u'Madda. The phrase
literally means "Torah and science," but is used to convey
the parallel values of Jewish observance alongside engagement with the
secular world. Today, though, Orthodox Jews live in world where the
balance has tipped heavily in favor of Torah over madda — and in which
many people have redefined "madda" as support for making one's
livelihood in the secular world, not culturally or intellectually engaging
The Challenge of
As the world has changed since the 1970s — the success
of feminism, the rise of the gay rights movement, laxer sexual norms — Orthodoxy
has, with mixed success, tried by and large to insulate itself from
such evolutions. The greatest controversies, though, have taken place
over questions of women's roles in Orthodox religious life.
In Orthodox prayer services, men and women are separated
by a curtain or low wall, with only men allowed to lead services and
read or bless the Torah. Women are exempt from many mitzvot (commandments) and cannot become rabbis. In some Orthodox communities,
women do not study Talmud.
But feminism — combined with stronger Jewish
education for Orthodox girls — has left many Orthodox women (and
men) dissatisfied with traditional gender roles and restrictions. Being
Orthodox, they retain their adherence to halakhah but have sought change within the limits of Jewish law — sometimes
via creative re-interpretations — and also seek shifts in Jewish
culture and attitude. This has resulted in bitter disputes over women's
The debate threatens to split Jewish communities while
at the same time creating new opportunities for female religious participation.
More synagogues are holding women-only prayer groups, allowing the Torah
processional to pass through the women's section, or taking other steps
to increase women's religious participation. And as these synagogues
take these steps, they inevitably face bitter condemnation from within
and without, driving a wedge between them and the mainstream Orthodox
For conservatives in Orthodoxy, allowing changes in
women's religious role is an unacceptable surrender to the broader secular
culture; halakhah and Orthodox culture are seen by them as a bulwark
against the outside world and its seemingly ever-shifting values. In
the eyes of Orthodox feminists, though, Jewish tradition has always
engaged and been influenced by prevailing intellectual and cultural
norms, strong enough to incorporate them without compromising its core
values or laws. To feminists, the change in women's status in the secular
world is a monumental and permanent shift that must be reflected in
Jewish life and observance; to conservatives, Jewish life and observance
must be unchanging and unaffected by the cultural winds around it. Bridging
that gap is difficult — possibly impossible — and reflects a profound
difference in how the two sides view Judaism and its place in the world.
In the near future, Orthodoxy can expect to see continued
growth and vibrancy. As more Jews become attracted to it, and as Orthodox
communities retain their higher-than-average birth rates, Orthodoxy
can also expect to become an increasingly large percentage of the total
number of Jews. And it can also expect to continue the debates over
Orthodox Jews' place in the modern world and the place of modern notions
such as feminism in Orthodox Judaism.
Michael Kress is the editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.com
and writes frequently in the media about religion and spirituality.