What is Orthodox Judaism?

Image: Haredi men pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (MoneyforCoffee / Pixabay)

A comment on Twitter brought it to my attention that some people were referring to the community that suffered the anti-Semitic terror attack in Monsey, NY on Dec. 28, 2019 as “Habad.” That is incorrect.

You may be asking, “The who? What?”

This seems like a good opportunity to talk a bit about the diversity within the Orthodox Jewish world. I offer the very sketchiest of primers here – entire books could be written on this subject. First I shall point you to Orthodox Judaism and Reyna Weiss’s excellent article, Haredim (Charedim,) or Ultra-Orthodox Jews on MyJewishLearning.com. These treatments do more than skim the surface, which is what I am about to do.

Now, for Rabbi Adar’s 500-word approach to the subject:

  1. There is no such thing as “the Orthodox.” Orthodox Judaism is wildly diverse and includes both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The word Orthodox means that that the particular group of Jews seeks to be fully and strictly observant of halakhah (Jewish law.) The diversity comes in when they start getting specific about what “fully and strictly observant” means for their particular community, or when minhag (custom) of a community comes into play.
  2. Modern Orthodoxy, which made its appearance in 19th century Germany, seeks to be fully compliant with the details of halakhah (Jewish law) while engaging positively with the modern secular world. Within Modern Orthodoxy you will still find a wide spectrum of practice.
  3. There are many other traditions of Judaism that strive for strict observance. They differ about all sorts of things: the importance and legitimacy of mysticism, ethnic styles, the State of Israel, Zionism, models of leadership, attitudes towards contact with Jews outside their particular group, or with liberal Jews, etc. Most of them call themselves “Orthodox.”
  4. A sub-group within Orthodoxy that is itself quite diverse are the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox. (Some feel that “ultra-Orthodox” is a slur, and so the term Haredi or Charedi or Hasidim is preferred.) In general, Haredim wear distinctive and extremely modest clothing and separate their communities from outsiders.
  5. Hasidim are a sub-group within the Haredi world, but their roots go back to the 18th century. It arose as a spiritual revival movement and is strongly identified with its founder, Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov [Master of the Good Name.] (There are also liberal Jews with deep interest in hasidoot, the mystical teachings of Hasidic rabbis.)
  6. Chabad is a well-known Hasidic movement. It was founded in 1775 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe. The name “Chabad” is an acronym of three emanations of God: Chochmah, Binah, Da’at. They are also sometimes referred to as Lubavitch because from 1813 until 1915 their leadership resided in the town of Lyubavichi in Russia. For more about Chabad, I recommend this article from the Jewish Virtual Library.
  7. There are many, many smaller groups that identify as Orthodox, as Haredi, or as Hasidic. The congregation in Monsey, NY are members of such a group, and honestly I don’t know much about them. As I am able to learn more, I will add the information to this article.

Most important to me is to underline before I finish this that while I do not see Orthodox expressions of Judaism as “more authentic” than other expressions of Judaism, I respect Orthodox Jews as cousins with whom I have more in common than not. We differ on many things but I stand with them against the tide of the dark forces of anti-Semitism that have been particularly cruel to them in the past month.

We are all Jews.

Ask the Rabbi: What about the Messiah?

Frank asked: “In the messianic era when mashiakh is here will all the sacrifice be… thanksgiving offerings?”

Before I can answer that, I need to write little bit about Jews and “the Messiah,” or in Hebrew, mashiakh.

There is no explicit mention in the Torah (Five Books of Moses) of a mashiakh. The term appears first in the books of the Prophets as mashiakh ben David, anointed son of David, referring to a king of Israel. Kings of Israel were not “crowned,” instead they had oil poured on their heads (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).

Later in the prophets, we have more detailed descriptions of a future mashiakh and what this person will be and do:

  1. He will be a descendant of King David.
  2. He will be a political and military ruler over the land of Israel, rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
  3. He will gather the Jews in Israel (the ingathering of the exiles.)
  4. He will lead them to full observance of Torah.
  5. He will bring peace to the whole world.

Exactly how those things will be accomplished, or when this person will arrive, is a matter of considerable disagreement. Several individuals have been declared, or declared themselves, mashiakh. Two of the most famous led the Jewish nation to disaster: Simon bar Kokhba and Shabbatai Zvi, Such “false messiahs” have been attractive to the Jewish people during periods when our situation was particularly difficult.

“What about Jesus?” Christians might ask. He met only the first of the five criteria above. He was a member of the tribe of Judah, but did not have a political/military rule over Israel, did not bring Diaspora Jews back to the land, did not restore full observance of Torah, and while the world was under the so-called Pax Romana at the time, subjugation of the world under the fist of Rome is not “the lion and the lamb” lying down peacefully together. For Jews, Jesus simply did not fit the description of mashiakh.

Sometimes people confuse the word mashiakh with a similar-sounding Hebrew word, moshiah, meaning “savior.” While the words may sound alike to the ear of an English speaker, they are not even related: mashiakh is from a root mem-shin-chet, which means “to smear or anoint.” Moshiah is derived from the root yud-shin-ayin, which means “to save.” The word mashiakh denotes an anointed king, not a savior.

As scholar Stanley Rosenbaum wrote in 1982, not all Jews, in the past or present, are waiting for a mashiakh. For some of us, it is enough to live a life of Torah in the present and leave the future in God’s hands.

Today, Reform Jews do not expect the coming of a literal mashiakh. Some look forward to a messianic age in which the world will be perfected; the concept is still evolving in Reform circles.

However, in some circles of Orthodoxy, notably the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and Israeli religious Zionists, the concept of mashiakh has seen increasing interest in recent years. One teaching that circulates is that once the mashiakh reigns the only sacrifices that will be offered in the Temple will be sacrifices of thanksgiving, since there will be no more sin (Zephaniah 3:13.) For more information about Chabad concepts on this matter, check out this article.

Personally, I am guided by the words of the great rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who said:  “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.” In other words, there are important mitzvot (sacred duties) to do in this world, some of them rather ordinary and possibly boring. While the thought of mashiakh is very exciting, it is important not to allow it to distract us from the ordinary business of living Torah to the fullest.