Orthodox Judaism Around the Modern World

Orthodox Judaism

Historical Context

The historical context in which Orthodox Judaism originated is quite fascinating. The term “orthodox” is often seen as an unwanted or unwarranted term (Blutinger, 2007) in many Jewish circles since it commonly represents the idea that there exists both a more correct and less correct way to practice Judaism. Orthodox Jews do not see themselves as set apart from other Jews except in the depth of Judaism that they practice. The term “orthodox” grew out of the arguments hat came between the German-Jewish reformers and traditionalists as a way of describing those Jews that were “right-believing” as the term “orthodox” suggests (Blutinger, 2007). The delineation between those Jews considered to be more traditional and those who were not, occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century (Blutinger, 2007). Orthodox Jews saw themselves as the true Jews, and the more modern progressive Jews sought to label the traditionalists as “orthodox” as a way of showcasing their own assertions that progressive Jews are just as right-believing as their orthodox brethren, and, perhaps even more so.

During the defining moment of this division, the very outspoken Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argued one the side of the traditionalists, saying, “it is not ‘orthodox’ Jews who first introduced the term ‘orthodoxy’ into Judaism,” but, in fact, “it was the modern ‘progressive’ Jews who first applied the epithet to their ‘old-style’ backward brethren to distinguish them in a derogatory fashion (Blutinger, 2007 p. 314). Another religious revival of the mid 19th century was occurring in Europe as well as America. There was a real, cultural push toward absolutism, and traditional values, as the more conservative voices began to divide many popular religions and sects into “orthodox” and progressive groups. The spread of Orthodox Judaism, or the particular brand of Judaism that was labeled as so, can be traced back to the Hasidic movement of 18th century Eastern-Europe (Erlich, 2009). These Hasidic Jews were the first to encourage a movement toward Jewish spiritual renewal (Erlich, 2009). In doing so, they unwittingly created the existence of the progressive Jew. This modern version of the Orthodox Jew was less concerned with living life in a traditional manner, as their ancestors may have, but instead was focused on spiritual enlightenment and satisfaction. The rift between this spiritual movement and the orthodox movement officially occurred in the middle of the 19th century, but it has its roots in nearly 100 years before Hirsch and his followers.

Orthodox Judaism Around the Modern World

According to Angel (2005), the ancestry of many modern peoples has its roots in Judaism. For example, he states that,

Others have discovered Jewish ancestry and have decided to reconnect with the religious traditions of their Jewish forebears. One of the amazing phenomena of our time is the re-emergence of Judaism among people of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry whose research and family traditions have led them to reclaim the Jewish religion of their ancestors. They are descended from ancestors who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in medieval Iberia and were subjected to the cruel oppression of the Inquisition. Many fled to the New World, seeking a freer religious climate so that they might at least maintain Jewish traditions secretly. When the Inquisition also came to the New World, these crypto-Jews were compelled to keep their Jewish identities well hidden. Remarkably, Jewishness survived for centuries under these trying conditions — and descendants of crypto-Jews are returning to Judaism (Angel, 2005 p. 1).

The connection to the modern world through other historical realms fascinates many people. There are several other examples of a group of people having Jewish roots where many would think it to be highly unlikely. The social pressures of other religions and ways of life, and of conversion away from Orthodox Judaism are apparent in the history of the Spanish and Portuguese people. Not all of them have Jewish roots, but many, as Angel (2005) mentions, were forced out of their religion and pushed toward Catholicism. This represents a significant example of how external social and political pressures have changed the religious environment in many areas of the world.

Another major motivator of the orthodox rediscovery worldwide is religious Zionism. The idea that a religion or culture has a homeland, or a direct purpose of existence contributes to the cultural strains of many countries. Orthodox Jews are certainly one of the groups of people who attract and create Zionist attitudes. To many people worldwide, the idea that they must settle a land (Israel) that historically once belonged to their ancestors is nothing short of an intrinsic motivation to lean the orthodox ways and reconnect with their past. As Erlich (2009) points out, cultural Zionism comes and goes in waves, and depending on which century a person examines, Zionism will appear to fall in and out of favor. The religious Zionism of the mid and late 19th century that helped drive the division between Orthodox Jews and their progressive counterparts has reappeared in modern times, as Orthodox Jews try to re-ignite traditional passions and values within their own circles.

Cultural Differences

The idea that Orthodox Judaism is not a European or American religion is widely accepted. There are some easily discernable clues as well as some that are not so easy to identify to the origins of the religion. Since there are a little over 5,000,000 (Erlich, 2009) in Israel alone, and about half that number living in the U.S., the likelihood that everyone in the western world will, at one time or another, encounter an Orthodox Jew is nearly 100%. Understanding where these cultural and ideological differences stem from is key in helping to better grasp the historical and social roots of the religion. It is easy to tell someone apart who has a different religion, but Orthodox Jews tend to dress and act differently as well. These social differences make them easy targets for xenophobia and cultural intolerance. Their worship of other religious texts (though some are common to Christianity as well) also sets them apart in a very visible way.

Another often-divisive cultural trait belonging to Orthodox Jews, the Hebrew language is of extreme importance and utility. They are not required to speak it exclusively, but their studies of the Torah and ensuing discussions and religious traditions are all carried out in Hebrew. Orthodox Jews have the responsibility of learning the Hebrew language, and, as Erlich (2009) emphasizes, they are encouraged to explore the Torah and other religious writings from the exclusive perspective of the Hebrew language. The Bible would certainly look very different than it does now if it were written in its traditional language, Aramaic; and thus is the argument of Orthodox Jews. They believe that the Torah cannot be fully understood or even properly studied in any language other then Hebrew (Singer, 2008).

Orthodox Judaism Today

The orthodox movement today is very much alive. For many, choosing to follow the orthodox path is a way to reconnect with the traditions and belief systems of their ancestors (Angel, 2005). For others it is a way to challenge their own morality and ultimate sense of purpose and meaning. The religion has spread, like any other religion to the far corners of the world. The largest population of younger Jews, especially Orthodox Jews exists in Israel (Erlich, 2009). This fact, coupled with the notion that Orthodox Jews do not tend to marry non-Jews, specifically non-Orthodox Jews, suggests that the population of Orthodox Jews is declining worldwide and will continue to do so. There are approximately 12,000,000 Jews worldwide, and less than half of them consider themselves to be “orthodox” (Erlich, 2009). Culturally, Orthodox Judaism has had many influences in many places. In the United States, there has been a revival of orthodoxy among the younger Jewish generations. This revival has created a religious atmosphere where orthodox values and traditions are related and intertwined with modern views of reality. A young Orthodox Jew may consider him or herself “orthodox,” but no longer feels the need to read and write exclusively in Hebrew (Singer 2008). The demands of modern U.S. society have put a strain on many Orthodox Jews, but others see these demands and cultural or social responsibilities as opportunities to continue to redefine what it means to be a young Orthodox Jew in American society.

A major motivator behind the rethinking of the Jewish religion, as happened in the mid 19th century, was the fact that as the Jewish religion grew and more and more Jews found themselves in incongruous cultural living situations, there was a need to reinvent what it means to be Jewish (Erlich, 2009). The very same thing is going on today, in America and Israel especially, among those youth who consider themselves to be “orthodox.” Certainly the very idea that an Orthodox Jew needs to reinvent themselves is an oxymoron, but this group of people has realized that they need to rejuvenate the orthodox ways and the cultural and social events taking place inside their circles confirm this. Erlich (2009) points out that in the mid 19th century, just as Ahad Ha’am, the founder of spiritual or cultural Zionism realized that, “Jewish renewal could only be secured by recasting Judaism as a secular culture” (Erlich, 2009, p. 404) there exists a need for Orthodox Jews to recast their own beliefs in an image that more non-Jews can understand and will be attracted to. This is not to say that Orthodox Judaism has to go away entirely so it can be reinvented, but it needs to be refreshed if the orthodoxy that so many believe in is to survive into the next century.


Angel, Marc D. (2005) Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion. (1st ed.) Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House Inc.

Blutinger, Jeffrey C. (2007) “So-called Orthodoxy”: The History of an Unwanted Label.

Modern Judaism, 27, 310-328.

Erlich, M. Avrum. (2009) Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, Volume 2. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Singer, Arnold. (2008). The Outsider’s Guide to Orthodox Judaism (1st ed.) New York, NY: Arnold Singer.

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